“When the ten heard this,
they became indignant at James and John.
Jesus summoned them and said to them,
‘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 shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you
will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve
and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
The seminary was an environment filled with evaluation. It was not bad practice for what it means to be a public person as a priest, but each day carried with it the observation of fellow seminarians and faculty about how you were (or rather, how I was) living an outward life of holiness in personal interactions, liturgical ministry, academic courses, prayer, service, and leisure. This was most significant in the annual seminarian evaluation for moving forward to the next year of human, intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral formation. A bad evaluation and lack of faculty approval could lead to dismissal from or “discernment out of” seminary. A tongue in cheek joke in response to this environment was a play on Jesus’s words above, “...did not come to be served, but to serve.” We would say, “It’s not so much to serve, but to be seen serving.” It wasn’t really that funny back then, either.
This touches on a deep human motivation that many of us feel: ambition. James and John had it, so did the rest of the apostles. Why else would they be indignant? Jesus addresses this ambition, but not by saying it’s bad to be ambitious. In fact, he taps directly into that motivation, “whoever wishes to be great among you...” Most of us have this motivation to be great, recognized, or accomplished. Jesus, himself, had great ambition: ushering in the Kingdom of God, transforming every human heart, fully revealing the unlimited and unconditional love of God, saving the whole world, giving his life as a ransom for many. It’s not that ambition is bad, Jesus just turns the meaning of that desire on its head. We need to be ambitious, just not for ourselves. It is for service to others and the glory of God.
Many in Jesus’s day, especially those who saw him as a threat, misinterpreted his ambition. They thought he wanted political power to establish an earthly kingdom. They were afraid of his ambition, even as they misunderstood. In some way, his true ambition was both greater than they could imagine and a secret. It almost had to be, so that his crucifixion wouldn’t be the end of his ambition, as his enemies had hoped, but the beginning. You see, it is not about being seen serving, for which the reward is evident, but the possibility of serving without earthly reward. As with Jesus, it is our secret ambition to give our lives away. Michael W. Smith had a song about this secret ambition. The chorus follows:
Nobody knew His secret ambition
Nobody knew His claim to fame
He broke the old rules steeped in tradition
He tore the holy veil away
Questioning those in powerful position
Running to those who called His name
But nobody knew His secret ambition
Was to give His life away