Deadly Ambition in the Church

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.

If we want to see just how human the apostles were, all we have to do is study today’s Gospel. It recounts for us how two apostles, James and John, later to be recognized as pillars of the church, seemed to be all too humanly seeking the coveted places in the kingdom: “grant that in your glory we may set one at your right and the other at your left.”

Now, anyone who’s worked in academia, business or politics can easily recognize this behavior of someone trying to climb over others to get appointed to positions of power and glory. Note how blunt the two apostles are, stating that when Jesus comes into His glory (“in your glory“) they would like to hold the top two positions next to him.

How unsavory all this is! How truly shocking that such behavior is found even among the 12 apostles themselves. Indeed, we are also told that the other 10 apostles become indignant when they witness the ambition of the two brothers, but one has the suspicion they may have been angry because the brothers beat them to it; we just don’t know. It’s all so tawdry.

However, this incident gives Jesus the occasion to present a couple of teachings that are absolutely critical for the whole Church, and especially for her leaders who share his authority.

First, he warns these first Church leaders that those who will be closest to him will also share his fate in this world. He says, “You do not know what you are asking,” in seeking to be seated at his right and left hand. Those who are closest to Jesus will be baptized with the baptism which he is about to undergo, the baptism of his passion and death. How likely was it that these men had this in mind when they asked for the top positions? So Jesus used their impertinence to warn them that all who follow him, and especially those who were closer to him, must expect to share his fate in this world, that is, rejection, suffering and death. In fact, we are told that all the apostles suffered martyrdom because of their closeness to Christ. Only in the next world, would they share his glory; in this world they must share his cross.

Secondly, Jesus used this occasion, which revealed the Apostle’s ambition, to teach them the true nature of their mission and the kind of authority it would carry with it. Their authority will be a trap for them unless they truly come to understand Jesus and his own way of exercising authority. Human ambition is a deadly poison especially in the life of the Church, for ambition inevitably leads men to desire the first place for the sake of glory and honor, no matter how much they may kid themselves, rationalizing that they are simply desiring to work for the good of the Church. Ambition will inevitably abuse authority to promote one’s own ambition under the guise of serving, or even of saving the Church.

Note what Jesus says: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it must not be so among you.” Leaders who are ambitious, whether they be working in the world or in the Church, will sooner or later abuse their authority to advance their own “career”, their own glory. Like the rulers over the Gentiles, they will end up lording it over their subjects.

But,” warns Jesus, “it must not be like that among you.” And then he explains that they must imitate their master. Jesus was certainly the highest authority, yet he teaches us that the first or highest must be the slave of all, “for the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” The apostles and their successors, the bishops, as well as the pastor priests who serve under them and share in the governing role of the church, must understand that their authority is to be exercised as a form of pastoral service. The proof that their authority is service will be their readiness to surrender their lives in that service, for the ransom of their flock, as Jesus did.

Even a cursory knowledge of Church history teaches us that ambition has always been a deadly cancer in the life of the Church. Both St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great wrote about this cancer in their great pastoral treatises. Ambition and the desire for honors will lead pastors, from the highest office of Pope to the lowest office of the parish priest, to modify their conduct in the preaching of the gospel and in the shepherding of his flock.

St. Augustine speaks of the desire for honors causing silence when the flock is being devoured: “the two things which the men are seeking to feed themselves and not the sheep: the benefit of having needs supplied, and the favor of honor and glory.” And again he calls false shepherds, “those who seek their own advantage, not what is Christ’s.

St. Gregory says much the same thing, “negligent religious leaders are often afraid to speak freely and say what needs to be said — for fear of losing favor with the people.” And in another place he says, “We are called bishops but enjoy this honor in name only and not in practice. For the people entrusted to our care are abandoning God and we remain silent. They have fallen into wicked ways and we did not utter a word of reproach.” (Homily 17 on John’s Gospel)

Is this ecclesial ambition not apparent again today in many places in the western world where the faithful are being led away from God into an anti-life culture and life style with little effective resistance on the part of their Shepherds? Catholics are being misled morally by politicians and academicians, who claim to be Catholic, and yet these wolves are rarely reproached or disciplined by their Shepherds in order to ransom the flock. Indeed, they are often honored by Church leaders and the return the favor in their turn.

The apostles of Jesus have been given authority solely in order to preach the gospel and safeguard the flock from such ravenous wolves. But the desire to be popular, to be loved, and to be honored can easily silence Shepherds, especially where such authority is accompanied by personal ambition. Is that a shocking thing to say, especially when we see that even the Apostles had such ambition?

Jesus never hesitated to safeguard his flock. He never hesitated to call hypocrisy by its name, to call evil by its name, or to confront his enemies for their self-serving distortion of the Jewish Law of Moses. He did not hesitate to declare divorce and remarriage as adultery. Indeed, He never hesitated to rebuke his own disciples, including Peter, and in today’s Gospel James and John, the other two pillars of the church, who put their own unsavory ambition on display that day.

Christ is always the model of all shepherds because Christ Himself is the one true Shepherd of the Church who simply operates through the shepherds he chooses through Holy Orders. To be his instrument is an awesome responsibility, and it is not false humility when shepherds honestly asked their people for prayers.

Finally, St. Augustine understood well this awesome responsibility and the great danger involved in his own role as a bishop, “but I, besides being a Christian, and for this having to a render an account of my life, am also a leader, and for this shall also render to God an account of my ministry.” That is why Augustine begged his people constantly to pray for him. He understood his awesome responsibility and feared its reckoning.

Would that every high churchman understood so well the great responsibility that comes with the authority of the office of shepherd bestowed by Christ! Let us too, then, pray constantly for our shepherds, that they will have the courage and clarity of the heart of Christ. How blessed will we be to have such Shepherds, and how safe will be His holy people.

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Categories: Homilies

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