John Hougen, Elkins Park, PA
What are your ambitions? Name three: one ambition you have for this week, one ambition you have for this year, and one ambition you dream of fulfilling in your lifetime.
All of us have ambitions: goals we are working toward, hopes for the future, dreams of success. Our ambitions can be good or evil, noble or crass. Ambition can lead to addressing the root causes of violence and building a better community. And, ambition can lead predators to boast of how many victims they’ve lured into bed. Ambitions can express our best selves or something less. They can contribute to the common good or fulfill our most shameful selfish desires. I knew two families who seemed to be in competition for which would adopt the most children with special needs. I admired them greatly.
In American culture today, competition is everywhere. Ambition is defined as wanting to win, to come out on top, to be the best. Children vie for their parents’ attention. Families plan everything else around youth sports schedules. Network television seems dominated by series that start with auditions and end with a winner. We each have our teams, our candidates, our favorite competitors. When we aren’t competing ourselves, we are cheering for those with whom we identify. When our side wins, we feel like we have won too. They are in the limelight and we bask in their glory.
It is a challenge for those of us who are spiritual to align our ambitions with the values of our faith. It may be harmless to indulge in the competitive games people play, but if we are true to our faith, our focus will be elsewhere. As Christians, our ambition should be to imitate Christ who revealed the God-given potential of life in this world. This does not mean we should aspire to wearing robes and performing miracles. It means we should open our minds and hearts to becoming aware of God’s presence with and within us. It means we should use our brains, muscles, and empathy to help others. It means our ambitions will include seeking and speaking the truth, offering and accepting forgiveness, peace-making, befriending the marginalized, binding up what is broken, and mending creation.
- Why do you think there are so many television shows which feature competition (such as American Idol, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent)? If you watch any of these, what is their attraction to you? What attributes do these shows reward?
- Would you like to be famous? If so, what do you dream of doing that would command attention and earn the admiration of others?
- Name people with ambition whom you admire, and tell why you admire them. Include some examples from your family and friends.
- Will any of your ambitions lead you toward being more like Jesus? If so, which ones? If not, why not?
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings
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James and John were ambitious. Their ambition was to be like Jesus: to be close to God and able to pray, to speak God’s truth, heal, forgive, inspire, and lead. They knew they would never be exactly like Jesus, so the next best thing was to stay as close to him as possible. They believed that one day God would establish a great kingdom with Jesus seated on its glorious throne. In both the present and future, they wanted to be by Jesus’ side, one on his right and one on his left. So, they asked Jesus to grant them their wish. James and John hoped that when glory came to Jesus, they would be nearby, soaking up the glory that comes to a winner.
Jesus responded to their request with a question. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” We can know what Jesus meant in that moment by turning a few pages ahead in the Gospel of Mark. Mark 14 reports that on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, kneeling in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36. NRSV) When Jesus asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus was asking whether they understood glory was not going to happen just yet. He was asking them whether, on the way to glory, they were willing to suffer and die as he would. Would they be willing to be tortured and killed for being like Jesus, eliminated when those in power would no longer put up with truth and love?
The other disciples, surely as deserving of glory as James and John, objected to their trying to claim the honor for themselves, “cutting in line” to get the best seats. Jesus then told all his disciples they were acting like politicians whose ambition for power and fame is motivated by the desire to enrich themselves and bolster their own egos. The politicians of their day (and some in our day) wanted power so they could force others to abide by their selfish whims rather than using their power for good.
Jesus teaches his disciples (and us) that those who are his most faithful followers will lose what their culture considers essential for a successful life: the ambition to gain fame, riches, power, and glory. Jesus teaches his disciples (and us) that his most faithful followers will be like him–ambitious for greatness in service, gaining the success that comes from giving away all they are and all they have to make life better for others.
- Do you think Jesus was too hard on James and John for wanting to be with him in glory?
- Is it possible to have ambition for fame or wealth and still be most focused on serving others?
- If you were to sacrifice time, energy, and money to help others, what would you gain? What would make your sacrifices worthwhile?
There are many passages in the Bible that encourage Christians to use the gifts God has given them for the sake of others. (Read one of the following: Matthew 5: 14-16, Romans 12: 3-8, 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11) If you are meeting in a group, let each person have a turn while others in the group identify the gifts God has given her or him and how those gifts are being used or could be used to serve others. If you are by yourself, list your gifts and how they might be used to help others.
I wrote the following text to be sung at a gathering of Lutheran college and university students. Some of the lines are inspired by Scripture passages such as today’s Gospel reading which invites us to follow Jesus, and to become his presence in the world today. Other lines are inspired by passages such as Matthew 25: 34-40 which teach us that when we serve others, we are serving Jesus who is present with them in their need.
Meditate on these words in silence or by finding a simple melody to which they can be sung.
- We are free to be – like Jesus.
We are free to be: Jesus in the world.
- We are free to see – like Jesus.
We are free to see: Jesus in the world.
- We are free to serve – like Jesus.
We are free to serve: Jesus in the world.
- We are free to love – like Jesus.
We are free to love: Jesus in the world.
- We are free to heal – like Jesus.
We are free to heal: Jesus in the world.
- God has set us free – like Jesus.
God calls us to be: Jesus in the world.