25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 23, 2018
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
“Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,there is disorder and every foul practice.”
Phrases like this in scripture can be very troubling.
Not so much the thing about jealousy and selfishness,
but that apparent condemnation of “ambition.”
Is ambition wrong, or only “selfish ambition”?
What’s the difference between the two anyway, is there a difference?
Isn’t all ambition, at its root, selfish?
Actually, ambition in and of itself, is a good thing,
if we understand it as
“the will or desire to succeed or achieve a particular goal or end.”
You want to be all your talents and gifts allow you to be
—to be all you can be, to live up to your fullest potential.
You want your gifts not to be wasted, but to be used to their fullest extent.
You want to give your children the best things you can give them,
especially the best education and spiritual formation.
You want your children to be the very best they can be.
And you want to love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.
What’s wrong with that?
In fact, isn’t it actually wrong when we don’t want to do those things
—when we don’t want to be the best we can be?
Related to this is a humble but an honest assessment of our talents.
The fact is all of us have certain gifts and talents,
and some of you more than the rest of us,
and it’s important we recognize those gifts
—not to feel good about ourselves, or to be prideful,
but how can you use a gift, or be thankful for it,
if you don’t admit you have it?
Remember, God is the giver of all gifts, He doesn’t want us to waste them.
Think of the parable of the talents:
the master going on a trip gave his servants different amounts of money,
and to those who invested and grew that money
he rewarded them by giving them more,
but of the one who simply buried the little he’d been given
the master said:
“cast this worthless servant into the outer darkness.”
So, in this sense ambition is good and necessary.
But like all good things, it can be corrupted, especially by the passions
—our own selfish desires.
As St. James says today:
“where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? ”
The key problem is selfishness
—placing yourself and your desires first,
thinking not so much of being the best,
but how to best meet your own self-interest,
whether that self-interest is oriented to
your personal pleasure, or to being famous,
or rich, or respected by society, .
“What do I want?…“How do I want to use my gifts.”
This is “selfish ambition,” and it’s directly related to jealousy:
“I want the best for me, and I want the best you have, for me.”
I’ve said it a million times, now a million-and-one:
God is love, and God created man in his own image, created us to love:
first to love God, and then to love his neighbor,
beginning with spouses, children and parents,
and then, ultimately every single human being.
God created us with a plan, at the pinnacle of a well-ordered world,
to be and live a certain way,
in a world of peace and serenity founded in God’s love and man’s love.
And all the gifts He gives us,
taken together as a whole, or individually as unique persons,
are all ordered to love as well.
So that when we use those gifts in ways contrary to love,
when we are driven by inordinate self-love, “jealousy and selfish ambition,”
everything gets confused, and messed up, as St. James says:
“there is disorder and every foul practice.”
But when love of God and our neighbor is our starting point and our goal,
and then we try our very best to use all our gifts to their fullest extent,
in keeping with self-less love
—when ambition becomes not selfish but self-gift—
then life becomes more as it should be,
as it was created to be.
So that even in the middle of the disorder all around us,
our lives, and lives we touch, become, as St. James continues:
“peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits,
without inconstancy or insincerity.”
In today’s gospel we read:
“They had been discussing among themselves on the way
who was the greatest.”
Jealousy and selfish ambition, right there among the apostles.
They argued about who was the greatest, but the greatest what?
the greatest martyr? the greatest example of charity?
I don’t think so.
They still hadn’t come to understand what being a disciple was all about.
“No servant is greater than his Master,” Jesus said.
Yet, they all apparently wanted to be masters, not servants,
even though their master had said:
“the Son of man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
And so He would tell them, as we read today:
“The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him,
and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”
This was his plan, and His Father’s plan for the salvation of the world,
God’s plan to return things to their proper order,
where one man’s perfect life, and death, in love
–in humble service to the Father and to man–
could bring peace to those who would accept it.
This, my friends, was true and perfect ambition:
Not selfish ambition, as Jesus constantly ran away
from those who wanted to make him a worldly king,
so that, as we read today, when he
“began a journey through Galilee,
but he did not wish anyone to know about it.”
His ambition was not even simply to reign in heaven as God, as is just and right.
No, His ambition was to love and serve His Father and us, no matter what it took.
So, as St. Paul’s writes elsewhere:
“…though he was in the form of God,
[Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,
…he humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross.”
And it is in that servanthood that He achieves His ambition,
reconciling man to the love of God.
But, as we read today, even after he tried to explain all this to his disciples:
“they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.”
What were they afraid of?
Maybe they remembered what he had told them only days before,
as we read last week:
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.”
Of course, eventually, his apostles came to understand and accept this teaching.
With the exception of Judas,
all of them became true servants of God and their neighbor,
and all but John followed their Master to a martyr’s death.
Making their own the loving and selfless ambition of Christ.
All of us should be ambitious to be the best we can be,
to use the gifts God has given us,
whether they are small and humble, or prodigious and phenomenal,
in love for God and neighbor.
Because this is what we were made for
and this is what these gifts were given to us for.
And if this is not our ambition, we will always fall short of our true potential,
never truly be the best we could be.
And our lives will always be marked by “disorder” and “foul practice,”
and never know fully the “purity” and “peace,” the “mercy and good fruits”
God has planned for us.
Some say, but I pray every day,
asking God to help me be the best I can be, and yet I keep falling short.
But what do we pray to be the best at?
The best lawyer, or scientist, or doctor, or teacher or homemaker
or student or mother or father, or priest?
And how do we keep falling short:
in having fun or pleasure, or making lots of money or being famous
or well thought of by your peers or the public?
It’s fine to pray to be the best lawyer, doctor, teacher, homemaker or priest,
but only if we pray to do that as
the best servant of God and neighbor we can possibly be,
To be whatever God in his wisdom has planned and wants us to be,
what He created us to be and do?
Do we even care that we fall short of that constantly.
As St. James tells us today:
“You ask but do not receive,
because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
Today the Lord Jesus Christ has spoken to us in Sacred Scripture,
just as surely as he spoke to his disciples that day 2000 years ago.
And He comes to us, humbly under the sign of what looks like a piece of bread,
but truly the eternal glorious Word made flesh,
really present here in his crucified and risen body.
His greatest ambition now is to use all His gifts to save all mankind
—to save you and me from sin—
to pour the grace of his Cross into our hearts
and transform our selfish-ambition into selfless-ambition,
to lift us up to be the great men and women he created us to be.
But He cannot do this alone—this must be our ambition too.
Will we understand this?
Will we ask Him not for the wrong things, but rather:
“Lord, what is it that you, in your divine and perfect wisdom,
want me to do with these gifts you’ve given me
to serve you and your people?”
Will we ask Him, or will we, like those first disciples, be “afraid to question him”?
Friends, hear Him today,
and open your heart to His will and His grace, to His plan for you.
And let there be no more “jealousy and selfish-ambition”
no more “disorder and …foul practice” among us.
But rather open your hearts, and become selflessly ambitious,
to be the best you can be,
to love, and be “the last of all, and the servant of all.”