Fr. Roger J. Landry
Catholic Online Homily Series for the Year of Faith
May 21, 2013
In this Year of Faith, we have to examine where our real ambitions are with respect to our faith and whether our ambitions are also the Lord’s ambitions for us. The readings the Church gives us today at daily Mass help us to do so.
The Gospel scene is, frankly, shocking. Imagine if a friend or family member of yours gave you the news that he was about to die. What would your first reaction be? All of us would hope that we would listen, express our compassion and compassion and see what we might do to help. We hope that we would never in that circumstance immediately say, “Can I get have your house?,” or begin greedily asking about the details of the will.
Yet, that’s what Jesus’ friends did in today’s Gospel.
Jesus today is telling the apostles for the second time about his upcoming suffering. He was about to be betrayed into the hands of those who would mock, scourge, crucify and kill him.
We would have expected, when Jesus was talking about this to his twelve closest companions, they would have been concerned about him. But they weren’t. They immediately began to discuss not how they would help him, but how they would help themselves, arguing which one of them was the greatest.
It was a familiar pattern. Besides today’s scene, there are a few other occasions when Jesus foretold his sufferings, and in every one, the apostles behaved in a truly startling way.
When Jesus described his sufferings for the first time, Peter, the newly named rock, took him aside to “rebuke” him, assuring him that no such thing would ever be allowed to happen to him. That tongue-lashing earned Peter in response the worst rebuke in Biblical history, being called by Jesus Satan, for trying to lead rather than to follow Jesus. Peter himself was thinking not as God thinks, Jesus told him, but as human beings do.
Later, when Jesus would announce a third time that the chief priests and the scribes would condemn him to death, deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked, spat upon scourged and crucified, James and John, two of the three closest of the disciples, came up to him and asked him to give them a blank check and do whatever they asked of him. What they wanted was to sit one on his right and the other on his left as he entered his kingdom — oblivious to the fact that those spots were already pre-ordained by the Father for a good and bad thief.
And immediately after that, when the other apostles recognized what the sons of Zebedee had done, they got indignant at James and John, not because of the way they were trying to use Jesus, but because they were gutsy enough to ask for what the others didn’t have the chutzpah but openly desired.
Perhaps the worst example of this type of unholy behavior occurred during the Last Supper. After Jesus indicated to them, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me,” the apostles got into a dispute over which of them was the greatest. Rather than thinking about who would be the despicable betrayer, they were thinking about who would be the greatest, not recognizing at the time that all of them would end up betraying him.
These were all examples of what St. James describes as “selfish ambition.” They were seeking their own interests, not those of the Lord. They were using him, not truly loving him.
What happened with them is a perennial warning to the Church, to the disciples of the Lord.
We might believe that we would never treat a friend like that, but the reality is that no matter how often we hear about Jesus’ sufferings, crucifixion and death, no matter how frequently we stare at the Crucifix, rather than seek to console the Lord out of love, we, like the apostles, often just divert our attention to what we really love, our own plans, careers, worldly hopes and hungers.
It’s perhaps even easier for us to do so than it was for the apostles to get spiritually distracted in this way with our own crude ambitions. We know the end of the story, and so we can relativize Jesus’ sufferings on account of his Resurrection — at least outside of Lent.
On this second day of the return to Ordinary Time, however, the Church wisely doesn’t allow us to do so.
Jesus tells us about his ambition and wants us to recalibrate our ambitions based on his. He would say elsewhere, referring to his baptism in blood, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” He wanted us to share in his ambition for souls to the point of sacrificing ourselves together with him for their salvation.
At a practical level, we can look at Jesus’ six of Jesus’ ambitions for us and ask if we are seeking them and living by them.
First, in this Year of Faith, we need to remember that Jesus wants us to be great in faith.
He praised the Syro-Phoenician woman and the Roman Centurion for their great faith and longed that all in Israel would emulate it. All the more, he would want us, his followers, to have great faith. And we should aspire to it with passion, begging him as he first disciples, “Lord, increase my faith!”
Second, Jesus wants to have an ambition to live by his truths and to pass them on to others.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” He wants us all to be great in that way.
Third, he wants us to have an ambition to be truly humble. That’s not a contradiction in terms. “If anyone wishes to be first,” he says, “he shall be the last of all.”
That passion for humility leads to the fourth point: Jesus wants us to have an ambition to imitate him in total self-sacrificial service.
After one of the apostles’ attempts at human ambition, Jesus said to them: “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
He reinforced this point at the Last Supper, when he washed their feet. After doing this, he told them and us: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
Jesus pointed out a child in today’s Gospel not because a child was considered “innocent” but because a little child was insignificant. A child has many needs that parents and adults need to take of, and most often will not even say thanks in return, not to mention return the favor. Young kids almost never are able to engage in a mutually-beneficial quid-pro-quo. To serve them is almost by definition selfless.
Fifth, he wants us to seek to be great in love.
Moved by the Holy Spirit, St. Paul said to the Corinthians that they shouldn’t be ambitious for the ability to speak in or interpret tongues, for the power to work miracles, for various positions in the Church, but that they should “strive eagerly” — be ambitious! — for the “greatest spiritual gifts” — faith, hope and love, of which love was the greatest.
St. Paul said in that famous passage it didn’t suffice to have the faith to move mountains. It wasn’t enough to give the body over as a martyr. One needed to do this with love. And someone who loves has a lot to work on. Out of love, he needs to learn how to be patient, kind, not jealous or boastful, insistent at his own way, arrogant or rude, irritable or resentful, rejoicing at the wrong of others. He needs to believe, hope and endure all things and rejoice in the truth. This is something to which Jesus definitely wants us all to inspire.
Lastly, Jesus wants us to be ambitious to be saints. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus said, echoing the prophets’ call for us to be holy as the Lord, our God, is holy, so that we might fully become the image and likeness of the God who created us.
The question for us is not whether we have ambitions — we all have ambitions — but what our ambitions are. Are they for self-aggrandizement, for our getting ahead at the expense of others, or are they for the Lord?
The history of the Church is populated by both types of ambition. To the extent that the first is accentuated, great damage has been done. To the extent that the second happens, Christ’s kingdom comes.
It’s enlightening to look at the ambitions of many of the saints. St. Ignatius of Loyola had an ambition to do everything for God’s glory. St. Francis Xavier had the ambition to bring whole nations to the Lord. St. Teresa of Avila had the ambition to reform the Carmelites so that it might sing forever of God’s glory. Blessed Mother Teresa had the ambition to satiate Jesus’ infinite thirst for souls.
Those who are striving to serve the Lord are striving for the Lord’s glory, not their own. They trust the Lord to figure out where they’re most needed, whether it’s in a very prominent position in the eyes of the world or an insignificant one. Their ambition is to do the Lord’s will, knowing that, if the Lord wants, he can take that humble service and multiply it to serve the world.
Today, Jesus reminds us that he is to be handed over to men who will kill him, but then he will rise. He told us that we, too, if we are truly his followers, will deny ourselves, pick up our Cross each day, and follow him with love on the path to Calvary. And today he wants to strengthen us to have a similar holy ambition.
As we go from prayer to the other things on our agenda today, let’s ask God’s help to think about these things rather than foment our desire for the greatest spiritual gifts and deeds. Let’s ask for the holy ambition to follow Jesus up close along this path and to aspire to help to bring everyone else we know and we’ll serve today in our work to join us on that road to heaven.