Blind Ambition

by Michael Usey

Philippians 2.3; Mark 9.30-37

I can remember a story that my father told me once about a man whose great ambition was to become an admiral in the Navy. He imagined all the attention he would get, everybody saluting him, somebody to drive him around, all the perquisites of that high rank. One day he reached his goal. He was promoted to Rear Admiral.

The next day he moved into his new office, sat behind his new, big desk. He could just feel the power emanating from that office. His aide walked in, said, “There’s a man here to see you.” The admiral said, “Send him right in.”  He thought, “Whoever it is, I’m going to impress him with how important I am, how powerful I am.” He turned around, picked up the phone, and pretended that he was talking to the President of the United States. He said, “Mr. President, I understand what you are saying to me. I think your idea is a good one, and I will share it with the Secretary of Defense when I see him tomorrow. Thank you for calling. Goodbye sir.”

He hung up the phone, turned around, and saw this ordinary sailor standing there. The admiral barked at him, “What can I do for you young man?” The sailor said, “Nothing sir. I’m just here to hook up your phone.” 

I love that story. We like to see people’s pretenses punctured like that. Actually, there are a lot of phone calls made from the White House nowadays. Some phone calls are coming in, but I guess most of them are going out. They all have to do with power, privilege and prestige. The White House is a magnet for ambition. I suppose it has always been that way, because the White House is the symbol of power in our society. Remember John Dean, one of the several aides in the Nixon administration, who after the Watergate crisis, had a conversion of sorts, and then wrote a book about the experience. John Dean’s book was entitled, Blind Ambition. And that is what our text for this morning is about.

Our lenten theme is “One another,” which is two words in English, but it’s only one word in Greek: ἀλλήλων (ah-LAY-loan). Our allalon passage for this week is Philippians 2.3: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard one another as better than yourselves.  Because I’m always looking for a narrative, I chose this Jesus story that illustrates this truth perfectly.

Jesus is on his way with his disciples to Jerusalem. Walking along the road he is talking about what lies ahead, what they can expect when they get there. He says, “The Human One will be delivered into the people’s hands, be killed, and will rise again.”

The journey to Jerusalem takes up three chapters in the Gospel of Mark. It is a major part of the story. Throughout these three chapters there are predictions of the passion, and this is one of them. “The Human One will be delivered into people’s hands, be killed, and will rise again.” Mark says of the disciples, “They did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask.”

I’ve translated the more traditional phrase, “the son of man” as the Human One (in which both nouns are capitalized), which I think is a better version of the Greek uios anthropos, which is literally “the human son,” but I prefer the non-gendered, the Human One.

That evening they came to Capernaum. They found a place to spend the night. It was at supper, sitting around the table, that Jesus asked, “What were you discussing along the way?” They were silent because what they were discussing was, which one of them would be the greatest in the Kingdom.

Blind ambition. He was talking to them about how the Human One was going to have to die. They knew what he was talking about. I believe that. We may not understand what is meant by “the Human One” but they understood what was meant by it. It was the common title for the Messiah in that century. There were several titles for the Messiah, and each title represented a certain way of thinking about the Messiah: who he will be, what he will do when he comes. So when Jesus said, back there on the road, “The Human One will be delivered into people’s hands, be killed, and will rise again,” they understood what he was saying, but they did not ask, because they didn’t want to hear about it.

They heard what they wanted to hear. “The Human One is about to appear.” That meant to them that the showdown is about to happen. The Kingdom is about to come. When the Kingdom comes, then those who are with the Messiah will have special places in the Kingdom. Especially the Messiah’s disciples. That is what they were talking about back there. When the Messiah sits at the banquet table in his Kingdom, which one of them will be at his right hand and which one at his left hand?

I tell you, it must have been quiet at the table for the longest time after Jesus asked, “What were you talking about?” Nobody said anything. Then Jesus broke the silence. He said, “Whoever wants to be first, must be last and the servant of all.”

That is our text. I learned a long time ago that not everybody is going to hear this text the same way.  In 1981, I was on a student panel discussing Liberation Theology.  As you probably know, Latin American Liberation theology proposes to fight poverty by addressing its source, the sin of greed. In doing so, it explores the relationship between Christian theology and political activism, especially in relation to economic justice, poverty, and human rights. I had just returned from a summer in Panama, where I read Latin American Liberation theology. (In my first year in seminary I had read both feminist and black liberation theologies, the other two major liberation vectors at the time.) 

I support what liberation theology represents. I find strong biblical evidence for it. Especially for that phrase that comes out of  liberation theology, that “God has a preferential option for the poor.” I just don’t see how you can read the Bible and not reach the conclusion that God has a preferential option for the poor, the outcast, the weak, those whom we deem worthless. But there are other passages in the Bible that suggest that liberation is not the only thing God proclaims to us. We are also called to be humble, and to be the servant of all. I pointed that out, as a member of this student panel. Afterwards a theologian came up to me and she said, “Do you realize what many women feel when they hear those passages about being humble and being last?” I confessed that I thought they read them the same way that I read them, the right way. It is the only way you could possibly read them, or so I thought.

She pointed out that there are many factors that determine how one will hear a text. She said, if you have been taught all your life that your role in this life is to be the servant, in the sense of being subservient to other people, or taught that you have been given a certain place in this life by destiny, or even by God, and you are to stay in that place, then when you read these passages about humility and about being last, you will hear them differently than someone who has been raised with the wisdom that says you can be anything you want to be in this life, and there is nothing standing in your way except yourself to become who you want to be. We hear these passages differently depending on the context from which we come.  I wasn’t yet familiar with post-modern understandings of text, reader, and where meaning resides, but here was my first inkling.

That was my first awakening, and there have been many since, to reveal that there are certain texts that probably ought to have asterisks next to them to mean, maybe this text isn’t for you, at least right now. In this case, Jesus is addressing twelve men who thought they were going to be number one, who were going to have all this power and lord it over other people. He told them, “If you would be first, you must become last. If you would be leaders of other people, you must become their servants.”

Those are called hard sayings in the gospel. He uttered the hard sayings to the strong. To the weak and the oppressed he offered comforting sayings, words of promise and hope about the future, words of liberation, saying, you do not have to live this way. You can be free and reach the fulfillment of your life. Those are the comforting words.

The greatest distortion of scripture is for those who are strong and privileged to assume that the hard saying are not addressed to them, but to those people who are already oppressed, or already last in this world, in order to keep them in their place, and the comforting words are addressed to those who are already comfortable, to give them an easy conscience about their condition. That that kind of textual abuse goes on all the time. And that is why I sometimes tell people, this passage may be a good word, but it is not necessarily one that God wants you to hear right now. Maybe later, but not now. I know people who have been raised to believe that they are not worth very much, and who act out that image of themselves in their lives. I can’t believe that God wants them to humble themselves and to be last. God wants them to stand tall, and to be proud, and to be free to seize the life that God has given to them.

The God-given life was taken away for 8 people by a 21yo white baptist terrorist. Here is how local law enforcement on Tuesday bafflingly explained its thinking about the Atlanta-area shooting suspect who had confessed to killing eight people, including six Asian women, at three local spas: “He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction,” a captain from Cherokee County said at a Wednesday news conference. It was too early to tell, officers said, if the incident was a “hate crime.”

Here is what Christine Liwag Dixon, a Filipino American writer, thought about after she heard that clip. She thought about how she was once offered money for a “happy ending massage,” even though she is not a massage therapist and never has been. She thought about all the men who have told her they’re “into Asian women,” and expected her to take it as a compliment. She thought about the time she went outside to call an Uber while her husband paid a restaurant bill, and a group of men cornered her, one of them chanting, “Me love you long time” while standing so close she could feel his breath on her neck. She thought about how most Asian American women likely had a similar library of terrifying experiences. “To be hypersexualized,” she said in an interview. “To be treated as an object of sexual desire.”

Of course the shootings were racially motivated, she thought. Of course they were motivated by gender. They were both. “Imagine — a world in which it could be both,” sighs Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. “I’m frankly floored by how difficult this is for people to understand.

Of course the Atlanta shootings represented gender-based violence. Asian Americans of all genders reported an increase in harassment in 2020 — racist responses to coronavirus misinformation, which was amplified by the previous White House. But in new research from Stop AAPI Hate, Asian American women reported harassment incidents 2.3 times more often than their male counterparts. And as for race-based violence: a law enforcement official said the shooter was attempting to remove the “temptation” that “these places” presented him — a victim-blaming notion on its face.  

The murderer chose businesses where the employees were not just women, but Asian women, not just Asian women, but lower-wage Asian women in a fetishized profession. “Even the explanation of a sex addition — that is already racially layered,” says Rachel Kuo, co-founder of the Asian American Feminist Collective. “The ‘temptation’ is tied to the assumption of Asian woman being docile and submissive, and at the same time being exoticized.” Kuo says. “The law and the media demand a singular narrative: Is it this or that? When really it’s all of those things. It’s race, gender and class, together.” Or, as law student, Nina Lea Oishi, encapsulated it on Twitter: “It’s not ‘sex addiction.’ It’s the entirety of American culture that says it’s okay to treat Asian women as objects to be disposed of.” 

So this biblical passage may not be for everyone. But it’s probably for many of us, so I want you to listen to it. I think it is saying this. Ambition can mislead you in this life. In fact, ambition can blind you to what is crucial in this life.

North American culture preaches that success is everything and, so, everything else can be sacrificed to achieve that goal. So dominant has this cult of success become, that people even interpret Christianity as a part of it. I have heard people testify that their discipleship to Jesus has meant that they have received all these wonderful material blessings. But Jesus didn’t come to show us how to be successful. Jesus came to show us that there are some things that are more vital than success.

This passage makes that abundantly clear. It tells us that the needs of other people around us are more important than our success. Jesus poured out his heart to his friends. These twelve men lived with him for years. They are his closest friends. He has just told them, “I’m going to die,” and they paid no attention. “They didn’t understand, and they were afraid to ask.”

Somebody says, “I lost my job,” or, “I lost my marriage,” or, “I got word from the lab yesterday.” That is when you need friends to put aside everything else and come and be with you, stay with you, sacrifice something for you. Like all ministers, we at CP preside over a lot of funerals. So often we hear a member of the family say, “He came. He was on the west coast for a meeting, but he dropped everything when he heard, got an early plane, and he came.” He didn’t do anything else. He just came. And nothing else that day meant more than that gesture.

Jesus told them, “I think I’m going to die.” The Human One, he said, is not going to come on a cloud as you anticipate, be a warrior and beat everybody up, and establish the Kingdom here on earth. That’s not going to happen. Rather, this is the way it is going to happen. I’m going to give my life for you. Mark says, “They didn’t understand, and they were afraid to ask.”

Yeah, maybe, but actually I think they understood. I think they understood, but their hubris wouldn’t let them hear it. It didn’t fit into the world that their ambition had structured, so they had no place for it. It didn’t fit, so they didn’t ask.

We live in a society that says, there is nothing more important than getting to the top and having power and riches, and it condones almost anything to get you there, including ignoring the needs of those people around you. Even ignoring the needs of those people who are the closest to you. Christian faith stands over against such thinking, and it says, if your ambition blinds you to the needs of other people, then it is wrong. It’s just wrong. Jesus offers us an alternative way of living, and it is right here in this text. He says, “Those who would be first among you, let them be last and the servants of all.”

Sports have always been foundational in American life. Sports are an excellent venue to teach character. I can remember coaches I had in school and how significant they were in my life, because how most (but not all) saw their role as coaches as to change us into adults with character, principles, and courage. They saw sports as a means of teaching young people what life was about: hard work, perseverance, team work, sportsmanship, winning humbly and losing graciously. Coaches like Rusty, Tammy, Caryanne, Lin, & Kim did exactly that.

Sports are still crucial in American life, as you can tell here in March Madness (Go Baylor Bears against UNC, oh I guess it’s Wisconsin now, hmmm?)  In fact, TV has made sports even more influential than ever before. And sports are still teaching us lessons, but sometimes the lessons taught are the worst three: the ultimate value of winning, making a mountain of money, and the insignificance of everything else.

The famous baseball hero Hammerin’ Hank Aaron died this past January.  In articles about his life, I read something Aaron wrote in honor of Jackie Robinson, for the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s coming into the major leagues. Hank Aaron wrote a wonderful tribute to him. And get this. In that article he said what made Jackie Robinson great was that he was willing to humble himself.

Jackie Robinson was a proud man. He had a quick temper. But he and Branch Rickey determined that the strategy for changing things in the world of baseball was for Robinson to humble himself. Robinson’s restraint during those days in the face of prejudice was heroic on his part. But Aaron wrote that there was another dimension to Robinson’s humility. He pointed out that Robinson did not do what he did for himself alone. He did what he did primarily for other people. He knew that if he were successful, that other people would be able to follow him.

Hank Aaron said that he could remember in 1947, as a teenager, his father took him to an exhibition baseball game when the Dodgers were playing in Alabama, and Jackie Robinson was in a Dodgers uniform. It was something they thought they would never ever see. Hank Aaron said, “That day I knew that I could do that too.”  Jackie and Hank, two of the greatest to ever play the game.

Around that table at Capernaum, Jesus asked his disciples, “What were you talking about on the road?” They were silent, because they were talking about which one of them was going to be the greatest. Jesus said, “If you would be first, then be last and the servant of all.”