A Call to put aside jealousy and selfish ambition
I want to take a look at today’s readings from the point of view of ambition: when is ambition a good thing, and when is it bad? Let’s begin with a story…
The story is told of a baseball player back in 1945 who played for the St. Louis Browns, perhaps the worst team to take the field with a win-loss record that was pathetic. They had a player who lasted only one year. He was an outfielder. He was not even a regular and he never got a homerun. Yet this guy has to qualify as a legitimate candidate for the Hall of Fame. The young man’s name was Pete Gray.
As a young man, Gray had a burning desire, an absolutely overwhelming ambition, and that ambition was to play major league baseball. And he did it, despite the fact that he had only one arm. However, that one arm, coupled with a tremendous desire, enabled Pete Gray to get all the way to the major leagues. So many times, ambition is the thing that makes a positive difference.
Let me give you another example of an ambitious man, and one I happen to admire. He was a politician, but it’s not his politics I want to focus on. Rather, he had ambition that was tempered by integrity. His name was John McCain.
McCain returned to the Senate floor about a week after his office had announced that he had brain cancer. He gave a speech about the great need for a more bipartisan approach in Congress. Then breaking with most members of his party, he voted against the repeal of what was commonly called “Obamacare”. The Affordable Care Act was not something McCain supported, but the vote was about repealing some of its measures without offering anything to replace it. Later, when a reporter asked him why he had voted as he did, he replied, “I thought it was the right thing to do.”
The point I want to make is that McCain had a healthy kind of ambition, moderated by common sense and the desire to be of genuine service to his constituents. In a world that has increasingly separated into hostile camps, McCain was, at least in this instance, a voice of reason who put the common good and bipartisan compromise above selfishly thinking only about wielding power. He called for working together to find solutions to the problems faced by the American people.
By contrast, St. James speaks in our second reading about “jealousy and selfish ambition” which leads to “disorder and every foul practice.” It’s the kind of ambition experienced by the Apostles in today’s gospel. Jesus had been telling them about his destiny in Jerusalem, where he would be “handed over to men and they would kill him.” Later, when the Apostles admitted to arguing over who was the most important, Jesus rather dramatically reprimanded them for their selfish ambition, focusing on a child, and teaching, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Jesus modeled and called for servant leadership, not blind and ruthless ambition, clawing one’s way to the top without much regard to whom you hurt along the way.
I recently came across an anonymous article that began “the world needs men and women who…” I’m not sure who wrote it or when, but it certainly seems to fit today’s need. See what you think…
The world needs men and women…
who cannot be bought;
whose word is their bond;
who put character above wealth…
who will not lose their individuality in a
who will be as honest in small affairs as in
who will make no compromise with wrong;
whose ambitions are not confined to their
own selfish desires;
who will not say they do it “because
everybody else does it”…
who are not afraid to stand for the truth
when it is unpopular;
who can say “no” with emphasis, although
all the rest of the world says “yes.”
I’m not suggesting that all politicians will have to act like members of the choir, and it’s not really politics that concerns me. What I am deeply concerned about is that selfish ambition is poisoning our ethics, our integrity, and our ability to get along. It’s difficult to have a pleasant conversation, to have honest differences, to express opinions, to debate important issues. Our life in common has suffered.
But I believe that we as Christians are being called, now more than ever, to live up to a better standard. I’m not suggesting that we’re better than anyone else; it’s just that Jesus expects more of us because we are his disciples, trying as best we can to follow his way—the way of humility, service and, above all and always, love.