HOW DO WE HANDLE PERSONAL AMBITION AS A FOLLOWER OF JESUS?
Words get lost in translation, as you know. But even when we speak the same language, words can mean different things to a room full of people. Take ‘ambition’. How do you understand ambition? The chances are that you will think of it as a characteristic of someone who wants to get to the top in their chosen line of work. Our media see it in binary, linear terms. To get to the top in as straight a line as possible before anyone else does.
There are attractions for some in getting to the top: their income goes up, sometimes astronomically; they aren’t pushed around; their serotonin levels are boosted, and their ego fuelled. More positively, they get the chance to do things; to shape the world around. Yet many who arrive in top positions say how difficult it is to make a difference. Modern studies of power show how the Davids of this world are often stronger than the Goliaths, using their fleet-footedness to beat lumbering giants. And the top can be a lonely place from which to view the world. Despite this, many still try to climb the pole to the summit, risking impossibly greasy hands on the way.
There is nothing new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes says. Mark chapter 10 shows this. James and John, two of the twelve disciples, sidle up to Jesus during a coffee break to ask if they can sit either side of him in the world to come. For ever. In case anyone thinks it’s only a time share. This must be the most spectacular pitch at self-advancement in history: like grabbing a sunbed by putting a towel down before everyone gets up, only you get to sit next to Jesus for eternity. It is a toe-curling story and Mark’s Gospel does not spare the blushes of these men. But we must have some sympathy for them. Imagine the stupidest thing you’ve ever said to another person and then think of it being written down in the best-selling book of all time. It’s not a pretty thought.
And it presents Jesus with a chance to talk to his closest friends about ambition. He contrasts the tyrants with which the ancient world was depressingly littered and turns the whole thing about ambition upside down: whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. It is said of life that if you want to know what someone believes, look at what they do, not at what they say. And Jesus was his own walking visual aid.
Leaders often try to worm their way out of the mistakes they make, even when they cause suffering for others. But the innocent Jesus bears responsibility for all that has gone wrong with the human race, so those in his care can be freed to start over. This is what we respond to: a love so wonderful that words can scarcely do it justice. God becomes human and dies for me, so I might live again. What does that say about the moral character of the one who made the universe?
As we try to figure out what it all means to follow Jesus, we should use this story as a spiritual compass to guide us. VVIPs (very, very important persons) have everything taken care of in life. They are surrounded by an entourage who look after their belongings, their shopping, their cooking and cleaning and ironing, their gardening and DIY, their fitness, their diet, their diary, their health. They only have to speak the word, and the dressing room will be filled with blossoms and chocolates. There may be ways in which they can serve others and which they are intentionally freed to do by such support, but the ease with which people can get used to being pampered is striking. And it carries a health warning for the soul.
Jesus had none of this. And this wasn’t a function of the era he lived in. There were plenty of outrageously rich and spoilt people in his time. But he chose a life of deprivation and sacrifice, where the instinct, every day, was to give his life away until the day came when he truly did. It lays down a way to approach life and work which has inspired millions. Even today, in a less Christian UK, it informs what it means to offer public service.
When James and John got Jesus to themselves to ask the question they daren’t in front of the others, they said: ‘We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ No pressure there, then. In his inaugural speech as President of the United States, John F Kennedy famously said: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.’ To follow Jesus is to re-phrase James and John to say: ‘We want to do for you whatever you ask of us.’
This brings us back to the initial question about ambition. If we take a simplistic view, this means we must all scramble madly to get to the top before anyone beats us to it. But only a handful of people get to the summit because, by definition, summits aren’t very wide. What does that mean for the rest of us? That we failed, in some way? We need a much more generous, spiritual view of ambition. Ambition lies within all of us, but in Christ it can be re-shaped. The right focus is to take the gifts we have been given by God and the skills we hone each year to bless others. To do things for them that they cannot do themselves. To do what we do best with every fibre, inspired by the Holy Spirit who works ceaselessly within us. To do it for others, because when we do it for others, we do it for him.
For some of us, this focus will lead us into public leadership of one kind or another. It may even make us rich. But this is not the goal. The aim, as Jesus said, is ‘not to be served, but to serve’. God will look after the rest. There is always suffering along the way when we make sacrifices, but he gives great joy and pleasure also to those who give their lives away.
And we need to celebrate the service that others offer us. You get the measure of a person by how they treat those who are not on equal terms with them. Perhaps it’s the waitress in a restaurant, the shop assistant in the local store or the cleaner at the office. Some people look down on those who serve them and mess with them simply because they can. A follower of Jesus never should. Because looking back at us in those who offer us service is Christ himself. The Son of God who gave it all up to set others free and show a status-mad world the dignity and the holiness there is in looking after number two.
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