As I have recently been in mourning over yet another year of my life gone by, many of my friends lent me some support in the form of nice gifts, cards and good wishes on my birthday. Among the latter there was an inevitable one which surfaces every now and again: a wish that one day I will be made a bishop. Such a wish is certainly well-intended, but it is the one that I dread actually happening. Thank God, the chance of it occurring is a big fat zero – but why tempt fate? I personally reckon that I reached the pinnacle of my ambitions regarding my position when I was appointed to the parishes of Buckie and Fochabers as parish priest.
The request made by the two brothers James and John in today’s gospel is rather brash and ambitious. They aim high: ‘Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.’ It’s a visual reference to the court customs of the day, where those sitting beside the sovereign were his closest advisors and therefore the most powerful and influential of people. This bold demand showed the brothers’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission and fate. This misconception was shared by the rest of the Apostles, who were highly agitated and indignant when they learnt that James and John had tried to outmanoeuvre them.
After the request had been made, Jesus tried to hint to the two brothers about what was really required in order to achieve their ambitions: ‘Can you drink the cup I must drink, or be baptised with the baptism I must be baptised?’ Their quick off-the-cuff reply ‘we can’ only deepened the sense that they continued to be fixated on their original goal, and were taking into consideration neither the requirements nor the implications of Jesus’ hint. Jesus accepted their willingness to walk alongside him, but he refused to give them any assurances. I’m pretty certain that when James and John were watching Jesus being crucified with two criminals either side of him, they were rather grateful that their wish hadn’t been granted.
It seems that the message of today’s gospel is at odds with modern culture, where having strong ambitions and aiming high are perceived as essential in order to achieve a successful career. It’s actually hard to imagine any achievements, be it in sport or in business, outwith this sort of mental framework. We try to instil this kind of attitude in children from the very beginning, believing that this will help them to get on in life. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. In itself, being ambitious, bold, daring and aiming high is not a problem. In the gospel Jesus didn’t rebuke James and John for their audacious request, but he did try to change their reasons for it. He made it very clear when the quarrel broke out between the two brothers and the rest of the company: ‘Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave of all.’ Following your ambitions and achieving your goals must not be done at the expense of others, trampling them and squashing them underfoot on your way to success. At the end of the day, any success is worthless when there’s nobody with whom to share it; nothing is more satisfactory than genuine love and true friendship.