FINDING FOCUS AND INTEGRATION IN LIFE
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ GEN 11:1-9; PS 33; MK 8:34–9:1 ]
It is generally accepted that everyone must have an ambition in life. The question is whether having an ambition is really the way to life and therefore a good thing. Today, the liturgy tells us that ambition is a way to death rather than to life. Why is that so? The story of the Tower of Babel tells us that the people wanted to build a town and a tower so that they could make a name for themselves. They were ambitious. They wanted to be better than others.
The stark truth is that ambition makes a person competitive, unscrupulous and hostile towards others. We can be very sure that the real cause of division of the people was not because God confused their language. Rather, because of their ambition, they could no longer speak the common language of love and unity. For anyone who wants to climb to the top must necessarily step on others. When we are ambitious, we want to compete with others because we want to be the winner, often at the expense of others. When we are ambitious, we are more concerned about achieving our objective than about the feelings and well-being of others. So ambition is the cause of division and disunity among human beings because ambition is basically inward-looking and seeking for self-fulfillment without others.
Secondly, not only does ambition destroy love and unity, it also takes away life. Indeed, Jesus asks us, “What gain, then, is it for a man to win the whole world and ruin his life? And indeed what can man offer in exchange for his life?” The question we need to examine honestly is, whether ambition and the achievement of our intended goal can truly bring us real happiness and give us that fullness of life. Clearly, the answer is negative.
Ambition pretends to offer true happiness in life because it presupposes the attainment of a goal. Thus, a person would have to spend years of his life working towards this goal. And even then, only for some momentary happiness and satisfaction! After that, he will have to seek anther goal. So his life is but a series of endless ambitions and momentary fulfillment. Consequently we live fragmented lives. There are simply too many demands placed on us. We are torn apart as individuals, as a nation and in the world.
That is why people are always in pursuit of happiness in life. They are seeking for something outside of themselves. They spend their whole life making a living but never begin to live. They live in hope that one day when they retire they can find happiness. They live in delayed gratification. But when the time arrives, it is too late to enjoy, either because they are too sick or they are too old.
Being ambitious is to be engaged in activism. We are restless the moment something is accomplished. Hence, the need to look for another project to do! What is frustrating is that we cannot find happiness until the goal is reached and even when realized, the happiness does not last very long.
From the outset, we must say that it is not wrong to take part in these mundane pursuits. We are called to be co-operators of God’s creation. The crux of the problem is that we must not lose our soul in the process of involving ourselves in the world. This is what Jesus is warning us, “What gain, then, is it for a man to win the whole world and ruin his life?” What does it mean to lose our soul? To lose our soul is to lose our perspective of life. It means that we have failed to distinguish between the means and the end. What is the finality or purpose of life?
There is always the danger of repeating the same mistake of Babel. We get so caught up with success and achievements that we lose our purpose in life, like those people at Babel. They were arrogant. They wanted to transcend themselves without God. They wanted to reach God without God. We have many people who are so caught up with success and achievements that they would sacrifice family and friends and loved ones for their ambition. Hence, we must distinguish between the essentials and non-essentials. What is it we are looking for if not life? As the Chinese saying goes, it is a question of whether one wants money or life. At times we cannot have both.
Today’s readings remind us of how easy it is to respond to the urgent but not the important. The psalm highlights that the Lord will disregard the plans of nations and designs of peoples. The Lord’s plan alone stands forever. Following the Lord’s plan is a response to what is truly important although not urgent. Following our own plans without regard to the Lord’s plan will result in failure. The Lord will foil those plans.
Jesus reminds us that it doesn’t do much good to gain the whole world and forfeit one’s life. To do so would be to follow the urgent at the expense of the important matters. Jesus isn’t telling us to avoid wealth, power, nice things, comfort and the other gifts of modern life. He is telling us to keep them in perspective – God’s perspective. He is telling us not to make them an end and to give up our attachment to them. Jesus is telling us that if we respond to the cares and attractions of this world we are responding to the urgent. He calls us to respond to what is truly important. And so we must keep our focus, to discern the important from the urgent, and to have the wisdom and courage to choose the important.
Jesus poses some probing questions to challenge our assumptions about what is most profitable and worthwhile. In every decision that we take in life, we are making ourselves into a certain kind of person. The kind of person we are, our character, determines to a large extent the kind of future we will face and live. It is possible that some can gain all the things they set their heart on, only to wake up suddenly to discover that they missed out on the most important things. Of what value are material things if they don’t help you gain what truly lasts in eternity? Neither money nor possessions can buy heaven, mend a broken heart, or cheer a lonely person.
So what are the essentials of life? Jesus challenges us to reflect, “what can man offer in exchange for his life?”
If ambition is not the key to happiness, then what can bring us real happiness and real life? The answer is vocation. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word, “voce”, that is, a voice that comes from without and heard from within. In other words, if we want to find life, we cannot serve ourselves and be concerned only about our own needs. Rather, true happiness in life is when we choose to serve God and serve our fellowmen. Only a life of self-denial in humble service to God and to our fellow human beings can give us life.
Vocation therefore is the call to serve God and others; not ourselves. What is tragic today is that many people not only do not have any ambition but they have no sense of vocation either. Without ambition, there is no sense of direction, focus or motivation. Without a focus, we cannot motivate ourselves. Only a vocation can add colour to life, give us zeal, enthusiasm and life. In living out our vocation, which is to build the people of God, the living out itself is already a participation in the life of God. In this sense, we do not need to fulfill any objective or goal in life, for our whole life is our goal. Jesus said, “For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Only the man who is able to give himself to others, can find life.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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