Vaulting Ambition

(Homily for Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B)

Bottom line: Vaulting ambition, the attempt to leap over the other person, can destroy a community. In place of false ambition, Jesus offers the cup of self-sacrifice - and servanthood.

Shakespeare speaks about "Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself And falls on the other side." In today's Gospel we see an example of vaulting ambition. Two brothers, James and John, try to vault over the other apostles, to grab the positions of superiority. They fall flat. Instead of top positions, Jesus offers them the cup - not a trophy, but the chalice which contains his blood. To drink from that cup implies a willingness to serve others, even to shed one's blood for Christ.

We have to drink from that cup to prevent the desire to serve from degenerating into false ambition. I am not speaking about ambition in the sense of hard work to achieve some good purpose. Vaulting ambition has as its goal not service, but prestige, self-importance. Vaulting ambition does not want to serve other people, but to leap over them.* We see it in political life, especially today when raising money has become central to the whole process. Something similar can happen in the Church.** Jesus shows us the way out.

I would like to tell you about a man who fell into false ambition and how Jesus rescued him. I read about him in a book called Saints Behaving Badly which tells about some unlikely characters who became canonized saints. The man's name was St. Hippolytus and he lived in Rome at the beginning of the third century. Hippolytus was a brilliant man, but he suffered from a defect common to intellectuals. He was proud to the point of arrogance and he resented anyone having authority over him - especially those he considered his intellectual inferiors. As far as Hippolytus was concerned, his intellectual inferiors included everyone in Rome, whether they were Christian or pagan. He particularly resented Pope Zephyrinus. In his writings he harshly attacked the pope. But the man he hated the most was the pope's chief advisor, Callixtus.*** Callixtus was a former slave, who by his virtue and hard work, rose to prominence in the Church. Hippolytus felt he should be the top advisor, not some freed slave.

Things came to a head when Zephyrinus died in 217 A.D. Hippolytus considered himself the logical candidate for pope, but you can probably guess who was elected instead of him. That's right: Callixtus, the former slave. That was too much for Hippolytus. He allowed his followers to proclaim him antipope. Five years later a violent mob murdered Pope Callixtus. Even that did not soften the heart of Hippolytus. He continued as antipope for another thirteen years when he was arrested together with the true pope. The emperor condemned Hippolytus and Pope St. Pontian to hard labor in the mines of Sardinia. In that terrible place Hippolytus repented of his schism and asked to be reconciled with the Catholic Church. Together with Pope Pontian he died of the inhuman conditions in the mines.

St. Hippolytus, a man whose vaulting ambition separated him from the Church, in the end drank the cup of martyrdom. His life illustrates today's Gospel. Like the brothers James and John, Hippolytus wanted the first rank in the Church. And like them, what Jesus offered instead was the cup of suffering. It took a long time for Hippolytus to accept that cup. It practically had to be forced on him. But he did drink it - and it cured him. He sought unity instead of division.

You and I might not be gripped by the same vaulting ambition as James and John - or St. Hippolytus. Perhaps we are more like the other ten apostles. When they heard about the brothers' bid for power, they reacted indignantly. On one level you can understand their reaction, but you have to wonder if they did not harbor similar ambitions. Jesus warns the whole college about false ambition. He tells them they must rather aspire to the role of servants. Even though we talk about elected official being "public servants," we really don't have much notion of what the word means. In Jesus' day the word servant was someone on duty twenty-four hours a day and who did whatever the boss told him. Not a role to which one would normally aspire. But if we are going to avoid false ambition, that must be our highest aspiration. The famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, said, "When ambition ends, happiness begins." Only by embracing the role of servant can we overcome the ambition which eats at a person's heart. As Jesus states:

"Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many."


*Hitler illustrates the paradox of this type of ambition, how it can combine frenetic activity with profound laziness. He campaigned to the point of exhaustion, but when he achieved power his Bohemian side re-emerged. Observing how Hitler and his associates would stay up all night watching movies and then sleep in until noon, Albert Speer wondered when the top Nazis ever worked.

**Not that fund raising is evil in itself, but it can divert us from our central job: preaching Good News to the poor. Still, it can also be a necessary part of the cup Jesus asks us to drink.

***In Against the Heresies Hippolytus calls pope Zephyrinus "an uninformed and shamefully corrupt man." But he places most of the blame on the pope's advisor, Callixtus, "a man cunning in wickedness" who "moulded to his purpose Zephyrinus, an ignorant and illiterate individual..." Notwithstanding the colorful (and unfair) invective, Hippolytus is worth reading to get a picture of the Church in the early third century. To St. Hippolytus we owe the Eucharistic Prayer II. The essential elements can be found in his Apostolic Traditions, ch 4. According to Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, it is "the oldest extant text of a developed Eucharistic prayer."

Spanish Version

From Archives (Homilies for 29th Sunday, Year B):

2012: St. Kateri, Pray For Us
2009: Whoever Wishes to be Great
2006: Vaulting Ambition
2003: Victims of Envy
2000: The Problem of Envy - And Jesus' Solution
Also: Serious Concerns (Terri Schiavo)

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (Dead Sea Scroll Exhibit at Pacific Science Center: A Word of Appreciation and a Complaint)


Diogenes on Boston Globe's Farewell to Congressman Gerry Studds

Dawn Eden: He's a Rebel

The Gift: A Married Priest Looks at Celibacy By Rev. Ray Ryland

"his partner, Jason; and his mother-in-law, Marilyn" - Condoleezza Rice dutifully does her part to whiten the sepulcher (my thoughts here)

The First Fourteen Days of Human Life

St. Mary of the Valley Album

(September 2009)

Pictures from Peru

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Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

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