The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Homily: Feast of St.James the Greater, Apostle - July 25

Readings: 2 Cor 4:7-15; Ps 126; Mt 20:20-28

Ambition can be a funny thing. It's not always a bad thing, since it's a necessary trait when it comes to setting and achieving goals for oneself or for an organization. But when it becomes an end in itself, when it loses any sense of balance and ceases to consider its effect on others...well, then it can corrupt. 

Yes, the overly ambitious, those obsessed with achieving their own ends regardless of the consequences, can become very ruthless people. Most of us have probably known a few. I even worked for one for about a year, and it was not a pleasant experience. He ended up letting his overreaching ambition cloud his sense of morality and one day he was suddenly escorted from the building by security guards.

We get a little taste of runaway ambition in today's Gospel passage from Matthew. James and his brother, John, who with Peter are the favored three Apostles, approach Jesus accompanied by their mother. According to Matthew, mom is the one who asks Jesus to promise her sons the highest places in His Kingdom. Now, whether Mrs. Zebedee did this on her own or the boys put her up to it, we don't know.

Jesus, of course, isn't fooled and responds not to their mother, but directly to James and John. Recognizing the potential for corruption in their ambition, He nips it in the bud by asking them, "Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?" Without fully understanding what they are agreeing to, they say they can. Jesus concurs with their agreement because he knows what awaits them.

Jesus with the mother of James and John
Like a parent counseling an adolescent by offering a realistic view of the adult challenges that lie before him, Jesus reveals they will have much to suffer. And indeed it was James, whose feast we celebrate today, who became the first martyr among the apostles. Jesus also knows that ambition, when properly ordered, isn’t a bad thing, and He doesn’t want to totally extinguish His disciples’ enthusiasm. After all, it’s an enthusiasm focused on eternal life, a goal we should all have. Indeed, great things are rarely achieved without enthusiasm, or without pain. Jesus just wants to refocus their ambition, to ensure they understand not only the goal, but also the true nature of the path required to achieve it.
Of course, in this small group, the other apostles overheard the exchange and got all upset at James and John. But in their petulance they demonstrate that they too can succumb to the temptations of personal ambition. And so Jesus gives all twelve a little lecture about power and authority – reminding them that authority in the Kingdom must not imitate the authoritarianism so prevalent in the world.
Their job as apostles, as the first shepherds of His Church, is not to rule but to serve…and to serve all equally. And He doesn’t just tell them to serve each other and the lowly, but He offers Himself as an example –revealing that He will even go so far as to sacrifice His very life for humanity.
“…the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
He must increase...
The apostles could also look to another as a model, someone they all knew. For when it comes to controlling ambition, is there a better example than John the Baptist? Like all the great prophets, John pursued his goal with remarkable single-mindedness. He announced the Lord’s coming, preparing a path for Him, a path of repentance among God’s chosen people. And in doing so he stated clearly that “He must increase, I must decrease.” This was John’s ambition: to give greater glory to the Lord in all that he did.
This is really what Jesus is telling the James, John and the others: that the ambitious are certainly blessed, but their ambition must be driven not by self-assertion, but by self-extinction.
And so the message for us is the same: that we always act in thanks and praise: In thanks, because all we have, all we are, all we achieve – all of this is due solely to the grace of God. And in praise, because all we do must be done for God’s glory, not for ours.
As the psalmist said: “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory.”

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