THE CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE OF AMBITION
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16 – 4:3; Mark 9:30-37 ]
From young, we are encouraged to have an ambition in life. One of the first essays we wrote when we were young was ‘My Ambition’. Indeed, without ambition we will lack the drive and motivation to work hard or even to live. That is why those who are without ambition just drift through life, living from day to day, aimlessly and meaninglessly. They are bored, and instead of doing meaningful activities, they get involved in all kinds of mischief, getting themselves into trouble and making life difficult for others because they want to seek some fun or purpose. Some are misled into a life of sin and pleasure.
Without a goal and a purpose, we can never do anything well. This explains why many of our young people are lazy when it comes to study. This is because many of them do not have a clear goal in life, in what they want to do and how they want to live. They are just studying because that is what their parents want them to do. They are not motivated to study hard. The motives given to them are to achieve better results than their friends so that they can have a good life ahead of them. But why should they be bothered, especially when their parents are well off? They already have a good life, a comfortable life, and good food. This is true also for those at the workplace. Some staff are just going through the motions. They are just fulfilling their tasks but they do not see their work as contributing to the greater goal, not just of the office or the corporation, but for the good of society.
Consequently, one of the first thoughts planted in our minds from young by our parents, elders and teachers is our ambition in life. Yet, this good intention unfortunately can turn awry. Underscoring ambition as an attempt to drive a person to do something worthwhile is useful. But it is a double-edged sword because ambition tends to focus on self. It is about making a success in life for oneself. It is about self-fulfillment. When our ambition is directed at exalting ourselves, then such ambition can become ruthless, competitive and manipulative. We find this in every area of life, whether in school, in the sports field, in business, in the office and even in Church. In order to be successful and be better than others, we will use every means, even unscrupulous, dishonest and harmful means, to get what we want. This is what St James warns us in the second reading.
Ambition leads to restlessness in our hearts and this will be manifested in our unhappiness with others. “Where do these wars and battles between yourselves first start? Isn’t it precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves? You want something and you haven’t got it; so you are prepared to kill. You have an ambition that you cannot satisfy; so you fight to get your way by force.” The consequence of ambition is disharmony and division. “Wherever you find jealousy and ambition, you find disharmony, and wicked things of every kind being done.” Isn’t this the case of those who are ambitious? They have no peace, no joy, no rest but they are always chasing after their goals and often neglect their loved ones and God. They see everyone else as their competitors and enemies. They have no time for real relationship and they have no true friends either.
This was the case of the apostles in today’s gospel. They were squabbling over position, power and glory. They were arguing on the road about which of them was the greatest. They were motived to follow Jesus, but their motives were not pure. They were following Jesus for their sake, but not for the sake of Jesus and for the good of their people. They were so absorbed by what they would get when Jesus came into His kingdom, so much so they could not even feel with Jesus in His anxiety about the passion ahead of Him. Jesus was thinking through the implications of His imminent passion, but they were imagining what positions they would get.
That is why, instead of just having an ambition that is focused on self, we should speak of a vocation. The latter speaks of a calling from God to serve humanity. Having a vocation perfects our ambition. The only ambition that is truly self-fulfilling is service to God and humanity. This was what the Lord said to His apostles. “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” Service must be the motivation of all that we do. Fulfilment in a job is more than just securing a good job with a good remuneration but it is something that we feel is meaningful in our contribution to society. This explains why successful companies are those with a sense of mission for the good of society. When they explain their mission to their staff, they get buy-in, and the staff no longer regard themselves as workers but as collaborators in the mission of the organization.
Vocation is always a service to charity and to the truth. We are called to serve everyone, especially the weakest of society, symbolized in the children in today’s gospel. Jesus took a little child, set him in front of them, put His arms round him, and said to them, “Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Children in those days were regarded as insignificant persons. But Jesus made it clear that the greatest form of service is towards those who are poor, helpless, weak and vulnerable. To serve them is to serve the Lord. In whatever work or business we undertake, we should not just be making profits for the company but the whole intent should be to serve society. The task of the entrepreneur is to make society better, take care of his workers and their families, and to use the profits to generate better services and to help the rest of society. It is interesting that the concept of social engagement today is considered a value in most corporations because the profits that they make must not stay just within the company and their shareholders but they must show that they are contributing back to the development of society.
But the most difficult form of vocation is at the service of truth. Many things in society require prophets to speak out. We are called to be the voice of the voiceless, the weak and the vulnerable. Those who hold positions in society and those who are influential are called to stand up for what is right and true. However, doing so may make them unpopular and they may lose the support of the people. They may be persecuted, vehemently opposed and ridiculed by godless men who make money from immoral living. This is what the first reading is warning us about, “The godless say to themselves, ‘Let us lie in wait for the virtuous men, since he annoys us and opposes our way of life, reproaches us for our breaches of the law and accuses us of playing false to our upbringing.'”
Having made a distinction between ambition and vocation, things are never that clear. Many who are working for a cause, in the name of God, the poor and truth, can become ambitious. There is the danger that we might fall into spiritual worldliness when we transfer the worldly motives to so-called Christian service and ministry. That is why those who are working in the Church, in charitable organizations and NGOs are also bickering among themselves for position and honour. They are ambitious and encourage politicking. As a result, service for charity and for truth can also bring about much division and frustration.
So even in this area of service we must be purified in our intentions and motives. Jesus was certainly a man who was focused on His mission. He gave Himself wholeheartedly to the mission of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom. But He met with much opposition. He could still struggle on and fight with His enemies. He submitted to His Father’s will that His mission ends in failure on the cross. He prophesied, “The Son of Man will be delivered into the hand of men; they will put him to death; and three days after he has been put to death, he will rise again.” It must have been something difficult for Jesus to accept. But because He was seeking to do the Father’s will and not His own, He was willing to be led by the Lord in doing good. We too, unless we are willing to give up our dream if demanded by the Lord, we can be sure that we are fulfilling our ambition and not our vocation.
To have a dream, to have a vocation, is not the same as having an ambition. A dream is for humanity, a vocation is in response to God’s will. With or without the success of this dream, a person should be happy so long as he knows that he is giving himself to God and society the way God desires. When we can surrender our plans to the Lord, then we will find true peace and joy in humble service. St James says, “the wisdom that comes down from above is essentially something pure; it also makes for peace, and is kindly and considerate; it is full of compassion and shows itself by doing good; nor is there any trace of partiality or hypocrisy in it. Peacemakers, when they work for peace, sow the seeds which will bear fruit in holiness.”
So let us in all things discern our vocation in life and His will for us. St James exhorts us to pray. “Why you don’t have what you want is because you don’t pray for it; when you do pray and don’t get it, it is because you have not prayed properly, you have prayed for something to indulge your own desires.” Prayer helps us to move from fulfilling our will to seeking God’s will. It is to choose what He wants us to do for Him. Instead of getting God to do our will, we will do His instead.
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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