“Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”
Mark 10:44, 45 (Common English Bible)
Ambition—that restless impulse that continually sets our eyes on more opportunity, more status, and more position—has been common from generation to generation. The love of self and the desire that others notice us is deep-seated in human nature. It may be one of the most elemental and voracious of all human appetites. Even among Jesus’ disciples we see the tightening grip of ambition upon the human psyche, James and John asking Jesus that he grant that they be allowed to sit, one on his right hand and the other on his left. It is careful choreography, competing for prestige and honor as though someone silently request another for a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. It would be difficult to find a man or woman who hasn’t given yield to the desire for more.
The impulse itself is neither good nor bad. The question is one of intention; is personal ambition driven by the desire for greater contribution or self-elevation? The young woman who works hard on a law degree so she may be useful to under-resourced people in the community has channeled her heart, energy, and intellect for the sake of others. Doctors Without Boarders is staffed with medical doctors who are driven to respond quickly to medical humanitarian emergencies without any thought of personal enrichment. Jesus speaks to a wider and deeper motive of positive contribution in the parable of the talents: those who sought to increase the value of what they have for the sake of someone else pleases God. Those who are handicapped by concern for their own welfare will lose everything.
The disciples James and John were ambitious for the wrong reason. They were caught in the primitive craving to be seen, respected, and revered regardless of their fitness for the role they requested. They sought to look around and ask, “Who is bigger?” “Who is honored?” “Who has more?” Contribution seems to be absent in their desire to sit on either side of Jesus in God’s Kingdom. There is a convulsive struggle that their personal hunger for importance be satisfied. The problem is a moral one. The pursuit of it corrupts character. The Bible grapples with it on nearly every page. And Jesus had a great deal to say about it.
Observe Jesus’ reply to the disciples, “Whoever wants to be first among you will be slave of all.” What a reversal of how ambition is understood! Here is a philosophy of life that has personal stature built upon the foundation of humility and contribution. For Jesus, nobody can be great until his or her life is driven by service to another. The highest ambition is not in jockeying for position in the social sphere; the highest ambition is achieved through saying “no” to self for the sake of someone else. Jesus wants the disciples to understand that what ultimately redeems life and provides the deepest meaning is not located in being recognized, served, and honored but contributing to the common good. It is a way of life that redeems from pettiness and offers something more enduring than selfish power.