Column: Ambition divided disciples, as it does us

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

What is the best way to ask your boss for a promotion or for an increase in salary? Do you begin by reminding him or her of your good qualities, how your work has benefited the company? Or, do you blurt out the request and take it from there?

James and John take the second approach in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 10:35- 45. They tell Jesus that they are asking him for a favor: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And then they make their request for a privileged position when Jesus comes into power: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”

In making their request, James and John refer to Jesus’ future glory. Do they mean the glory of an earthly king who has succeeded in overthrowing Roman rule to establish his own? Are they projecting their own ambitions in imagining what Jesus might accomplish? Or, do they mean the glory that will surround Jesus when he returns at the end of the world as the Son of Man, seated on the clouds and accompanied by God’s angels? Which kind of glory do James and John mean?

I would guess that they have in mind earthly glory, while Jesus might think instead of heavenly glory. But it is not clear.

What is clear is that Jesus is thinking along very different lines than James and John, and he realizes it. That is why he tells them: “You do not know what you are asking.”

The request of James and John sparks a violent reaction from the other apostles: “When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.” Because Jesus rebukes those ten apostles, along with James and John, we can conclude that they similarly were guilty of ambition. They were angry at James and John — not because they judged that what James and John had done was wrong, but because they had not thought of making such a request themselves.

They were all guilty of ambition, the remaining 10 apostles as well as James and John. And that ambition led to division and quarreling. Had Jesus granted the request of James and John that “we may sit one at your right and the other at your left,” James and John would have undoubtedly ended up arguing about which of the two would occupy the more privileged right-hand seat. Their selfish ambition would inevitably lead to more disunity. Jesus’ teaching on service and humility aims to protect the integrity of the group.

Later on, other writings in the New Testament will echo that goal: “Live in the manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3).

The goal that Jesus desires for his small group of disciples is also the goal he wishes for us.

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