On being ambitious for the higher gifts

Be ambitious for the higher gifts.” These words of St Paul were addressed originally to the Christians in Corinth who were obsessed with spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and prophecy. However, these gifts were dividing the community rather than building it up, as members were in competition over who was the most spiritual.

So Paul, in the 13th Chapter of his First Letter, lets them know that the highest gift is that of love, which is patient and kind, never boastful, alongside other important moral qualities or virtues.

I wonder if in speaking thus, Paul had in mind today’s Gospel account of the Mother of James and John coming before Jesus and asking for special places in the Kingdom for her sons? Surely her ambition is misplaced, and indeed Our Lord corrects her, gently but firmly, telling her that she is asking for the wrong thing, for rewards without effort.

Her sons must be willing to share in the cup of Jesus, that is, His cross, after which the reward is to be left to the Father’s discretion.

Then, in response to the indignation of the other apostles, Jesus speaks of the true ambition, what they all should be asking for, including the mother of the Sons of Zebedee! This is the higher gift of service, sharing in the ministry of Jesus who came to serve, not to be served.

Ironically here, Jesus is pointing out to his followers that what the trio are asking for is too little, not too much! The greatest honour and privilege we can have is not to sit on thrones in heaven, but to be co-workers and fellow servants of Jesus on earth. No wonder the Pope is called “the Servant of the Servants of God.

This Gospel text – which falls on International Women’s Day – is not exactly complimentary to women in the guise of the ambitious Jewish mother. I felt sorry for the Mother of the Sons of Zebedee that she appears in this negative light until I read in Barclay’s commentary on Matthew’s Gospel a salient fact about the later career of this woman.

For she appears once more in the crucifixion scene in Chapter 27 in a list of women who are said to have followed Jesus and ministered to Him from Galilee. They are depicted as watching the death of their beloved friend and master from a distance, presumably not able to get to Him through the hostile crowd.

The conclusion is important. The message of Jesus to be ambitious for the higher gift of loving service was not directed to the brother apostles alone, but to their mother as well. And that explicit reference to her by Matthew tells us the esteem in which he held her as a disciple of the Lord, expressed in those key words “follow” and “minister.”

This wonderful lady teaches us in practice what it means to be ambitious for the higher gifts, a message that comes from the place of the cross.

And recall the words of the Second Eucharistic Prayer in which we thank God that he has held us worthy to be in his presence and minister to Him. Who needs seats at his right hand or left when we have this?

Kieran ofm