Fr. Roger J. Landry
Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupensis, Rome
Monday of the 26th Week of Ordinary Time, Year I
September 27, 1999
Zech 8:1-8; Ps 102; Lk 9:46-50
We see in today’s Gospel Jesus’ response to the ambition of his followers, a theme that comes up repeatedly in the New Testament. Jesus’ approach with them — and with us — is curiously not the type of thing you’ll find in many formation programs and works on spirituality today. That’s why it is so important for us to tackle it straight on, to learn from Jesus the true characteristics of his disciples.
In today’s Gospel, we see the apostles ambitiously jostling for position in the kingdom Jesus was instituting, trying to determine who among them was the greatest. Jesus knew their hearts, knew what they were thinking, and knew why. His response, it is important to note, was not to castigate them by the corrective “Don’t be ambitious!” No, in fact, he wants them to be ambitious. He corrects them because they’re ambitious for the wrong things. In the same way, he does not tell them, “Don’t care about who is the greatest,” because he wants them to strive lovingly to become the greatest in the eyes of God. Jesus wants them to strive to advance not in a hierarchy of “power,” but in a hierarchy of true Christian loving service, not on the worldly or ecclesiastical ladder of status, but on the ladder of holiness. He wants us to be ambitious, to be ambitious for souls, to be ambitious to do his will, to be ambitious to spread his name and his love, to be ambitious to die for him so as to live with Him. He wants us to strive not that we be exalted, but that he be exalted.
How much we in the Church today need to hear this and experience it! There is a two-fold problem in the Church today surrounding ambition. On the one hand, there are still far too many “climbers” in the Church, who seek the status of monsignorial purple, or the supposed exaltation of a superior’s authority, or notoriety. These seek to be exalted, to become powerful in the Church or in the world. When you look at the movement of religious women seeking to be priests, I think this is at the heart of it, that they look at the hierarchy Christ established as a hierarchy of power and they want that power. This is also seen in the second part of the Gospel, when John — whose human desire was to sit on Christ’s right or left with his brother James — complains about those healing in Jesus’ name without being part of their number, as if it were more important for the others to be “connected,” than to have demons expelled. The disciples’ desire was not really for God’s kingdom, but for their status in it, and Jesus reproves them for this. On the other side of the problem — and often as a response — there are the legions of Catholics who consider all ambitions bad, who bury their own and others’ talents, gifts, and truly-inspired desires out of a false sense of humility, who temper their and others’ zeal lest they appear to be ambitious. These equate mediocrity with holiness, and by their lack of ambition perhaps do even more damage to the Church out of omission than the outright worldly ambitious do out of commission. Neither group, however, is truly carrying out the mission of the Church.
Jesus ultimately wants us to be ambitious, to be ambitious for the right things. He wants us to be ambitious for Him. He wants us to become great investors of the talents he gives us, so that we may return five or ten talents for the five or ten he gives us; he wants us to be faithful stewards in little things so that he might entrust to us greater things; he wants us to become the greatest servants of all, servants who welcome and treat all others as Jesus himself, out of love.
This is why he shows the apostles a little child and tells them that the greatest among them would be the one who welcomes such a child in his name. Why a child? Because a child, particularly a very young one, is completely dependent. You really cannot get into a quid-pro-quo relationship with a little child. It’s all giving and very little receiving. The only adequate response to such a person is love. Too often the worldly ambitious treat others well so that they can get something from them later to advance in the eyes of the world. But this can never really be done with a child. Your only reason for treating the child well is love and respect for the child, for the gift of life, and for the person’s being in God’s image. Jesus calls us to treat all people in this way, not using them for our own advantage — as the worldly do and as climbers do — but loving them and serving them, expecting nothing in return other than the love and gratitude of Jesus.
St. Vincent de Paul understood these lessons very well. He was one of the humblest saints ever — and one of the most ambitious at the same time. But he needed to learn how the two came together. At first, his ambition was for a priestly life of comfort, as chaplain to Queen Margaret of Valois, which brought with it a huge salary, and as tutor to the rich and famous children of his day. But then God showed him how needy the poor peasants of France were, spiritually and materially, how they were like dependent children, and, through God’s grace, Vincent turned his ambition to them, using his great training and talents to welcome them, serve and love them as Christ Himself. He founded a permanent mission to serve them and enlisted the help of other priests — which eventually became the Vincentian Order. He established confraternities of charity to help out the poor throughout France; one of these eventually became the Order of the Sisters of Charity, which he founded with the help of St. Louise de Marillac. He once said to two postulants that the high ambition of these foundations was to “instruct the ignorant, to bring sinners to repentance, and to plant the gospel spirit of charity, humility and meekness in the hearts of Christians.” And that was an ambition he strived to fulfill, so that God might be served and loved more and more each day. The Lord had filled him with that ambition, and because he said yes to the Lord’s invitation, the Lord was able to do such great things through him.
The Lord likewise can and wants to do great things through us and invites us to make our ambitions his ambitions, to humbly give ourselves over to him so that he might fill us with himself and make us living ciboria taking him to others, so that, as St. Teresa said, our hands might become his hands, our feet his feet, our lips and ears his lips and ears, our heart, his most sacred heart. He wants us to become more and more like him, who is the greatest in the kingdom of God, the Suffering Servant, who laid down his life out of love for all. At this holy Eucharist, let us rejoice that in taking his flesh and blood within us, we will literally become more and more like him — even become part of his body! — and he will be able to transform whatever worldly ambitions we have into holy ambitions, for his greater honor and glory and for our salvation. This is the Gospel, the Good News, of the Lord!