In our society, we see that becoming a success in life requires some kind of ambition. And as a society, we respect people who have ambition. On the other hand, we know the truth of the words we find in our second reading from James: "Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice."
Can we make a distinction between "good" and "bad" ambition? I think we have some answers in our Scripture readings for today. As James says, "jealousy and selfish ambition" lead to evil. In our Gospel reading from Mark, the apostles show us how easy it is to fall into that "jealousy and selfish ambition." After Jesus has told them that He is going to suffer and die and then rise from the dead, they get into an argument about who is the greatest. And so, Jesus teaches them that if they aspire to greatness, they must be willing to be the least and the servant of all. It’s not about having more than others. It’s not about being considered more important than others.
Perhaps our ambition is not to have more, or be thought of as more, but to be more. The U.S. Army had a famous advertising slogan not too long ago: "Be All You Can Be." I think the Gospel asks us to go a bit further and ask ourselves, "Be all we can be, for what?" Our ambition is not to be more than others, but to be more than who we are, in God and for God. What was Jesus’ ambition? To save us!
If the realization of our dreams leads to success, fame and fortune, then perhaps we need to take the time and discern what God wants us to do with our success. Is it just for us, or is there another purpose for it? If we are not all that famous or wealthy, do we become jealous of others, or do we recognize what God has given us? This does not mean that we accept injustice or poverty. It may mean that we all have the ambition to help bring about a world in which no one is starving and creation is not abused, and people live to their full potential.
To discern an authentic Gospel path through what some of us might call the American Dream is not easy. But we are not alone. The One who chose something different from worldly ambition is still with us, and has given us the Spirit. May we follow Him, with an ambition for the building up of the kingdom.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P. is on staff at St. Paul of the Cross Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.