St Bride's: Sermons

Ambition

Matthew 21: 23-32

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23 And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?

24 And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things.

25 The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him?

26 But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet.

27 And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.

28 But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard.

29 He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.

30 And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not.

31 Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.

32 For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.

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 In Ancient Rome, the orator and statesman Cicero was famous for a great many things.  But perhaps his most unfortunate claim to fame was that he was responsible for what was arguably the worst poem ever written in the Latin language.  It was truly legendary in its awfulness - move over William McGonagal!

Part of the problem was the subject matter: Cicero had been very keen for one of the great poets of the Roman Republic to immortalise his own achievements in verse, but he was unable to persuade any of them to take on the job.  So instead he decided to have a crack at it himself.  And the resulting poem was so dreadful that you don't actually have to understand a word of Latin to recognise quite what appalling doggerel it is.  The opening line went:  O fortunatam natam, me fortune Romam.  Or, as someone once rendered it: 'O fortunate Roman state, blessed by my great consulate.'

It was all a very bad mistake.  But it does beg a very interesting question: given that he was already the most famous statesman and orator of his day, why wasn't that enough?  Why was it so important to him to have his achievements recognised and honoured in this particular way?

Human ambition is an interesting, and complex phenomenon.  In the secular world, of course, it is generally deemed to be a very positive quality: a person who is ambitious is regarded as having drive and focus; someone who will want to achieve and to 'go places'.  But when you dig below the surface and explore with a particular individual where the roots of that ambition really lie, it is not uncommon to discover that somewhere, deep down, there is insecurity.  Hence the craving for visible signs of success, or achievement, or promotion, or public recognition (a la Cicero).  Because if we are able to command the respect of others, we may well hope to be able to feel better about ourselves.

Which is why ambition is a quality that does not sit very comfortably within the world of Christian discipleship and Christian ministry.  Indeed, our first reading from Paul's letter to the Philippians, presents us with a model that is the exact opposite: Christ, we are told, 'though in the form of God, did not cling to equality with God - but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and was born in human likeness.'  And Paul charges his hearers explicitly to live like that: 'Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ.'

The point is inescapable: Christian discipleship can never be about striving for success or achievement.  Indeed, we are charged to empty ourselves of all such things, so that we can, instead, be filled with something else; with something that is of God; with something that does not feed our need for recognition and affirmation in the eyes of the world, because in the great scheme of things, such things are ultimately of no consequence whatsoever.

Earlier this year, I was invited to take part in the consultation process that will eventually lead to the appointment of a new Bishop of London.  During that meeting we were asked what kinds of qualities we would like to see in the person appointed - and at the very end we were asked to suggest names of any individuals whom we thought should be considered.  At which point, I became acutely aware of a very strange paradox: that the people I would want to see in that position almost certainly wouldn't want the job.  And those individuals who most certainly do have their eye on this particular senior post, are in general precisely the kinds of people I would not wish to see appointed, for the very reason that makes them want it.

Last month I met up with a clergy friend of mine whom I have known for many years.  He is a parish priest, who loves his work, and loves his people, and spends his days trying to live the gospel, in a very quiet and understated way.  There is a particular quality in him that is very apparent, but quite hard to pin down - but I think it is something to do with integrity.  Because who he is, and what he says, and what he does are all of a piece.  They are woven together seamlessly.  He is a man in whom there is no guile.  And he is a person who commands authority, not by virtue of his office, or his qualifications, or his title, or by any form of coercion - but simply because he has a very quiet and understated authority within him.  He is a person who has known times of great struggle and personal challenge during the course of his ministry; but during the course of those struggles - or perhaps because of them - his roots have grown so deeply into God, that somewhere along the line, all that vulnerability has been transformed into gift. 

That is the kind of person I would want to see in a position of senior leadership in the Church - but he is also precisely the sort of person who would have no interest or desire whatsoever to take on that kind of role.

In our Gospel reading this morning, the chief priests and the elders challenge Jesus about his authority: by what authority he is doing the things he is doing?  They are demanding to know what status or position he holds that gives him the right to act like that - and their question characterises the kind of world that they themselves inhabit.

And Jesus responds by telling them a parable.  A man has two sons.  He tells the first son to go and work in his vineyard, and the son refuses - although he later changes his mind, and does so.  The man then asks his second son, who agrees to go and work in the vineyard but in the end doesn't do so.  So, in both cases, we are presented with individuals who say one thing, but do another. And Jesus then asks which of the two sons actually did the will of his father?  Answer: the son who actually went and did the work, even though he had said that he wouldn't.

The point that Jesus is making here is that the religious leaders are purporting to be the guardians of the religious law, and spend their time correcting others in its observance - yet they fail to live it out in the fabric of their lives; whereas in fact some of the lowest of the low in society are managing to do what they are failing to do.  Hence his assertion which must have caused those religious leaders both outrage and offence: 'Truly the tax-collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.'  He didn't half like winding up the authorities!

It goes without saying, of course, that clergy like myself find ourselves particualrly vulnerable when confronted by a parable like that one.  After all, as Lord Macaulay once famously observed: 'The profession of clergyman imposes on those who are not saints the necessity of being hypocrites.'  But then I am comforted by a story that is told of Michael Ramsey when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, which gives one hope that some clergy - even some senior clergy - do manage to keep their priorities in order.

At a press lunch in London, a journalist asked the Archbishop: 'Your Grace, with all the vast problems which you face as head of the whole Anglican Communion throughout the world, what concerns you most?'  After a marked silence in which, we are told Michael Ramsey's legendary eyebrows went up and down, Ramsey replied: 'I sometimes lie awake at night and wonder if I am acceptable to God?'

Today we have had the privilege of welcoming Oliver into the family of our church through his baptism.  And throughout the journey of life and faith that lies ahead of him, may he always know that he is loved and accepted; may he grow fully into the person God has created him to be, blessed with that integrity of life of which I have spoken.

Because when all is said and done, holiness is simply about becoming fully human.

Amen.

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