Can You be Ambitious and a Christian at the Same Time?

3 March 2010 Wednesday of the 2nd Week of Lent
Jeremiah 18, 18-20; Psalm 31; Matthew 20, 17-28

Is it bad to be ambitious? Are we at a disadvantage when we want more than what we can chew? As Christians, are we prevented from having ambition?

Ben Dattner, PhD is a Manhattan based psychologist who specializes in workplace issues. He said many employers recruit people who reached high and flopped. “If a person is too safe and conservative, he’s not likely to come up with great ideas.” In other words, employers seek those with ambition, even if the person has failed. They said that someone who has the drive to progress has the possibility to succeed and therefore is a great asset to a company.

How do we put a Christian perspective to this? The Gospel tells us what ambition entails. In Matthew’s Gospel, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, requested Jesus that her sons be distinguished. She wants that both of them to sit beside Jesus in His Kingdom. The people who sit at the right and left side of the king are the most trusted of all, and therefore they hold the highest position possible. In Mark, the ones who requested it are both James and John, not their mother. But it doesn’t matter: the point is that we often think about our personal rewards and recognition in the things that we do. We ask, “What can I get if I do this job?” And when we are not able to receive anything, even some recognition for our contribution, it is but natural to be hurt and to feel unimportant.

But the Gospel tells us that if we are to be ambitious, we are to carry the cross as well. We are to feel the daily struggles that our dreams entail: the stress and tension that are part and parcel of our jobs, the emotional investment needed in working with other people, the sacrifice demanded on our personal relationships, and its impact on our health.

And if we look at the “ambitious” family of Zebedee, we get to see them with Jesus on the cross. William Barclay gives a detail that is interesting. In the list of those who were at the cross, we find these lists in different Gospels:

Matthew: a) Mary Magdalene, b) Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the c) mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27, 56).
Mark: a) Mary Magdalene, b) Mary the mother of James the Younger and Joses, and c) Salome (Mark 15, 40).
John: d) Jesus’ mother, c) his mother’s sister, b) Mary, the wife of Clopas, and a) Mary Magdalene.

Thus, at the foot of the cross, the mother of James and John (c) named Salome, followed Jesus to the cross. And we all know that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, became faithful disciples of Jesus.

Thus, it is good to be ambitious. We are to dream big for ourselves and the people we love. St. Stanislaus Kostka SJ said that we are meant for greater things. And thus to pursue our dreams is very very Christian. God created all of us to be a bundle of possibilities. But with it we have to willingly accept the demands our dreams will entail: to carry the cross as well. In other words, our ambition has to be tempered by the cross.

What I think is unChristian is when we are distinguished for the things we have not done. Think of the politicians who would put their names on large tarpaulins to be recognized. We all know they never contributed anything on the infrastructure, except to approve and finance it. But to approve a project is a job people elected them to perform. And to finance it is to spend what the people payed for by their taxes.

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