Tempering Ambition

Monday, Oct 22nd, 2012

        The Sons of Thunder put a “gotcha” question to Jesus: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” (Mark 10:36).  Playing along, at least momentarily, Jesus inquired as to the nature of their request.  They wanted nothing less than to sit in places of highest honor, at his right and left hand.  (At least in Mark’s rendering of this encounter they did not put their momma up to making the request!)

        The issue of personal ambition among the disciples must have been a burning one, for Jesus had already addressed it squarely in chapter 9.  Mark is stressing the character of discipleship and relating it to the servant identity of Jesus.  This pericope ends with the great verse that has shaped subsequent understanding of Christology and atonement theology.

The Promised One has come not to be served, but to serve—to give one life in Ransom for the many.  (Mark 10:45, The Inclusive New Testament)

        Followers of Jesus have always struggled to follow One whose primary identity is as servant.  He cooked, welcomed children, washed feet, visited the sick—all acts of self-giving.  To become his follower entailed the expectation that one should emulate his actions; it was hard then and is no less so today.

        Competition and ambition are inscribed into the human DNA.  Pretending it is not there is self-deluding.  The first steps toward faithful discipleship require discernment of the truth of the human condition and the conviction that we are not utterly controlled by the impulses of our biological inheritance.  Determinism should be left behind in our study of humans, for the formation of our identity is richly complex.

        Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown tackle the challenge of moral responsibility and free will in their groundbreaking book, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?  Their conclusion, after many dense chapters, argues that intentionality and belief move persons from animal behavior to human reasoning.  Thus the development of character, according to Christian ethics, makes possible “unreckoned generosity . . . [and] uncalculating love,” in the words of James Wm. McClendon in Ethics.            

        As I have observed Doctor of Ministry students from MIT this week, the leaders among them are the servants.  They are always finding ways to assist each other—as well as those who are hosting them.  Ambition is tempered by the desire to outdo one another in showing love and honor.

MIT Students at Chapel

        We will send these sisters and brothers in Christ back home today.  They have taught us through their humility, gratitude, and service about the ways that Christ is being formed in them.

Molly T. Marshall

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