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Bible Readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=220

 


 

Proper 25 Year B (September 20, 2015)                        St James', Peace River

That first reading, from Proverbs 31, is one which I am sure hits different people in different ways. On the surface it's an ode to a great mom – maybe not much different from what you would see on a Hallmark Mother's Day card! It's neat to see it in the Bible though, because, let's be honest, most of the Bible stories focus in on the menfolk. If you probe beneath the surface a little, though, you might form a different perception. The woman in the reading is defined as a “capable wife”, so that reminds us how women of that era were seen as an extension of their husbands or fathers – and some of the details of the picture reinforce that image, as the perfect woman is praised for looking after the home and making her husband look good.

On the other hand, there are some non-stereotypical elements to the Proverbs picture of the ideal woman. She's an astute business person – not something that would amaze us today, but it's unexpected in a text more than two millennia old. She works out, too! (“She girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong.”[31.17]) And the final verse suggests that she has a chance to build up her own reputation, not just her man's: “Let her works praise her in the city gates.” Modern people, both women and men, might appreciate and applaud some of those qualities. Except perhaps that, when you add it all up, you run into what we thought was a uniquely modern problem – because through modern eyes what we have here is pretty good description of supermom, an ideal that leaves most real people, men as well as women, with a sense of inadequacy.

Whatever your reaction, though – whether you feel inspired or overwhelmed, or something else – it might be important to remember that this passage wasn't written as a comment on gender roles in the 21st century. And while it takes for granted the way women and men related in its own time (perhaps 6th century BC), I don't think it's just an attempt to reinforce or justify those cultural norms. Within the framework of the time, it's offering an insight into how someone in the particular role of a wealthy woman could apply the teachings of wisdom which the rest of the book of Proverbs put forward. She doesn't just sit back and enjoy – she works hard and learns all she can – her own ambitions work in harmony with her “fear of the Lord” and her concern for other people – and that particular combination enables her to go beyond at least some of the limitations of her culture, which is what always happens when someone brings together wisdom, faithfulness, and love.

In a unique way, then, I think the Proverbs passage illustrates something the rest of the Bible, including today's other readings, is trying to teach us, regarding the very human quality of ambition. The first time I heard a sermon about ambition, my reaction was, “Well, that's really messed up.” The preacher was trying to show how ambition can serve the purpose of building the kingdom of God. But in my head, the concept of ambition was a completely negative one. It was captured in the verse from today's gospel, where Jesus asks his disciples what they were arguing about, and they are too ashamed even to admit what it was - “they had argued with one another who was the greatest”. Ambition, for me, was wanting to be the greatest, and when you got there, wanting everyone else to know. That doesn't sound like something which can be combined with faithfulness, humility, love, or any other Christian virtue.

The woman in Proverbs, though, has ambitions which are commendable. She's not trying to tear anyone down. And her aim isn't simply to “be the greatest” at any cost, but to achieve something – to make something out of what has been given to her. To make the best something that she can. Knowing that, when she does that, everyone benefits – her husband and children, her employees, the poor and needy, her community, and yes even herself. It really is an attitude of faithfulness, because it is predicated on knowing that what you have is given “through you, not to you” - that God invites and expects you to use what you're given in serving God and neighbour, making something good, and building the kingdom.

In a perfect world, that would be how we understood ambition and how we would act on it. Here's the thing, though: we don't live in a perfect world. And what makes the world less than perfect is, more often than not, us. The letter of James explains how ambition is part of that problem: “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.... you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” Notice that the issue here isn't with the right kind of ambition – the energizing, outward-focused kind. But the right kind and the wrong kind of ambition aren't very far apart in our hearts and in our experience. We identify ourselves, and each other, so much by our achievements that it's difficult to keep success and identity separate. So the ambition to make something, always ends up tinged with the ambition to be somebody.

James is also really blunt about the damage that can do. “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” That seems a little extreme, but there certainly have been cases – and the extreme cases stand in for the everyday reality that we are prepared to hurt each other, and even ourselves, to get what we think we want. As we think about healing today, these might be some important questions to ask ourselves: Who has been hurt, whether we intended it or not, by our grabbing what we want, or by our frustration when we can't get it? What relationships with other people have we broken or damaged like that, and where do we need God's help to repair them? And, where are we broken inside ourselves, after too long spent focused on our own goals, hurt by our own carelessness for others or by our own bitterness at not getting what we feel we're owed?

At first glance those seem to be questions of repentance – and on one level, they are. We need to take a close look at our own ambitions and how they go wrong. We need to acknowledge how we've been the cause of hurt instead of help to others. We need to do that in order to take a new path – the path of ambition which Jesus walked, the ambition to be the one who would use everything he had, even his own being, to save the world. He was so careful to back off on the ways that might have gone to his head – did you notice in today's gospel how he once again “didn't want anyone to know he was there”, in case his mission got diverted and he himself might be swayed from his purpose?

But even if we find our way back to that path as followers of Jesus, there is still the hurt to deal with. In this less than perfect world, every one of us has probably been on both ends of that – being hurt by someone else's push to fulfill their own ambition, and also dealing some of it out ourselves. If you think about how you've been hurt like that, you'll know that it doesn't make it all better when the other person repents and chooses a different way! Self-ambition breeds habits of suspicion and mistrust, bitterness and mean-spiritedness, which affect us in so many ways. And then there is still the actual damage to deal with – what you have lost because someone else took it from you; the person you might have been if that opportunity hadn't been taken away; the blow to your own confidence or self-image. As we pray to be made whole from all those things, we can also pray for people who need exactly the same healing because of what we have done ourselves.

It's fascinating that Jesus addresses his disciples' issues with ambition by bringing a child into their midst. That child would have reminded them how vulnerable people are to each other's power plays. The child would have also reminded them what it was OK to be ambitious for – not your own status or recognition, but the things you want to achieve for the sake of others, whether in this generation or the next. Most of all, though, I think that child stood there as someone whose ambitions weren't in the shape of plots and schemes, but instead took the form of hopes and dreams. Ask a child, then or now, what they want to achieve, and they will often tell you something beyond imagining. Something that would be unattainable if you thought you could build it by your own power and for your own glory.

But our best ambitions are exactly like that. Not the small aims of security and self-protection in this life; but the inspired, audacious goals that take us beyond ourselves. They are the building blocks of God's kingdom, which we achieve when we draw near to God and allow God to draw near to us; when we build for others and put ourselves as the servant of all; when we know that all we have comes from God and we use it accordingly. So don't let supermom put you off! But in your own space, with your own gifts, work wisely and bravely to achieve some ambition that will be bigger than you realize, and know that God will work with you to make great things happen.