The Audacity of Misplaced Ambition

by Bruce Gilberd

(Based on Matt 20:20-28)

I invite you to cast your mind back to your childhood, or adolescence, even your early adult years.  Were there hints of what you would do for a living?  What you would aim for?  Your vocation?  And, were there the beginnings of the path of faith?
James and John – who feature in today’s Gospel reading – faced both these questions.  Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion they would join their father Zebedee’s fishing business.  And they seem to have been young men of Jewish faith.

Then, while they are working, along comes Jesus … as he still does!
“Follow me,” is the call, and that is what we are to do, to follow, even before we believe, and come to know how significant Jesus is.  We are to hear and to follow!  And all of us are called.
Further, there is an art in being an increasingly committed disciple as we fulfil our daily work and societal obligations.

Some of you will be aware of Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ – how we move up from the need for food and a roof over our heads, to social relations, to meaningful work and living … right up to “self-actualisation” – fulfilling all of our potential …
But Maslow stopped too soon.  What about a further step up, to a spiritual maturity that leads to living for others?  Placing all our lives at God’s disposal (as Jesus did).

When Jesus called the fishermen brothers James and John while they were in their boat, perhaps mending their nets, they followed him.
What a tumultuous three years they had!  James and John, along with fellow fisherman Peter, formed an inner threesome – often with Jesus at pivotal moments.  They were there for

  • the raising of Jairus’s daughter;
  • the transfiguration;
  • in the Garden of Gethsemane (asleep!); and
  • beside the lake, post-resurrection.

Yet James and John – later in the early church significant leaders – still, in those three years with Jesus, often missed the main point: you are called to serve and live for others (Maslow’s omitted top step).
Not status; but humility.

  • They wanted to call down fire on the Samaritan village that declined to receive them (status ignored?);
  • and, notably in today’s Gospel episode, status sought!

Here we have, in Matthew 20, James and John’s mother, as the dark clouds of the last days and the cross gather, asking for privileged positions for her two sons in Jesus’s kingdom.  She – and they – want power, prestige and position.
I know mothers can have great hopes for their sons, but what was she thinking?
[Mark records the same incident, but has John and James themselves asking for this privilege.]

Hadn’t they been listening the last three years?

  • What about laying down your life for others?
  • What about becoming as a child?
  • What about taking lower seats at dinner?
  • What about serving others and going the third mile?
  • What about humility?
  • What about really listening and really seeing what Jesus was really on about?
  • What about the sermon on the Mount?

No.  Personal and misplaced ambition triggered this self-serving request to be beside Jesus at the top table.

Our call – still – is to follow, believe, and live for others – love is the test of our obedience.  We may be retired from a working life, but we don’t retire from discipleship as we engage in the life of the village here, and life beyond it – and amongst family, friends and acquaintances.

And we continue to offer our lives, not for what we might get out of it (top table) but in glad obedience to Christ’s call

  • to follow
  • to believe
  • to love – live for others

Growing into fully alive Christ-centred human beings.
Not misplaced ambition, but the greatness of humble living for others: costly discipleship.

Till we die.

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