This is a great time of year to think about this, as a new school year begins. In so many ways, this is a season of ambition and competition. Our children are finding their place in classrooms, on sports teams, in groups of friends, or on the playground. These are not always nice and friendly environments. Motivations can turn selfish, leading to conflicts and fighting. Ten-year-olds tormenting each other doesn’t seem so serious until we recognize those same competitive or ambitious behavior or thoughts in ourselves as adults, reassuring ourselves of our own place in a worldly hierarchy. It’s not always harmful to compare our achievements or material possessions to others, but it can easily lead to jealousy and resentment and prevent us from having satisfying and healthy relationships and a real community.
Don’t miss the fact that Jesus doesn’t condemn or reprimand his friends for their discussion of who was the greatest. He knows their weaknesses (and ours) all too well. Instead he offers advice about the path to real greatness. “If anyone wishes to be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of all.” His advice is the complete opposite of the values displayed by the behavior of the disciples. It’s ours to take or leave. And unfortunately, for a million reasons, we prefer the old patterns instead of the potential greatness the advice of Jesus empowers. Competition and selfish ambition wreak havoc among us. Last Christmas, Pope Francis still found it necessary to warn church leaders against “spiritual diseases,” urging them to reject gossip, division, and the building of personal empires. He described “the disease of worldly profit and exhibitionism: when the apostle transforms his service into power, and his power into goods to obtain worldly profits or more power. This is the disease of those who seek insatiably to multiply their power and are therefore capable of slandering, defaming and discrediting others.”
Every one of us has such potential and amazing gifts that could be used in service of our family members, teammates, colleagues, or our faith community. We have the power to have a transforming effect when we heed the advice of Jesus and see the vulnerability of others and enter into real relationship with them instead of a meaningless competition.
Take your next step: Ask God to help you see where ambition or competition has affected a relationship with someone. Find an opportunity this week to offer some act of love and service for that person without letting them know what you are doing. Pray that it leads to the grace of a deeper connection.