Ambition, Baby

Matthew 20:20-28

I’d like to begin today with a bit of poetry:

“He’s got that ambition, baby – look at his eyes.
This week he’s moppin’ floors, next week it’s the fries.”

You might recognize those as belonging to a contemporary American poet: Kanye West.

It’s possible that not every one of you knows that Kanye West is a hip hop artist. Better said, he’s a hip hop icon. And if we’re going to talk about ambition, Kanye West is a pretty good place to start. Craig Hill explains ambition as having a strong inner drive for a kind of abstract goal, like success or status.* In that case, Kanye doesn’t just write lyrics about ambition – he’s got it. He started rapping in the third grade and dropped out of art school to give everything to pursuing a career in music. And he succeeded; literally every album he’s released has gone platinum – over 1 million copies sold – at least once, if not thrice.

“He’s got that ambition, baby.”

And there’s a good chance that you’ve got it, too – because ambition is part of our cultural DNA as Americans. We love to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and do better for ourselves than our parents did. We have ambition for jobs and social status and income levels.

But if we’ve got that ambition, we don’t always talk about it. Particularly for those of us who follow Christ, ambition can sound a lot like arrogance. If a teenager is working hard because he believes he’ll be president one day, is that ambition… or arrogance? If a college student is double timing his studies because he’s preparing to be the next CEO of Coca-Cola – ambition, or arrogance?

So we have our ambitions, but we don’t always say them out loud because if we did, well, we might sound like this:

“When you’re the absolute best, you get hated on the most.”
“I am the number one human being in music. That means that any person that’s living or breathing is number two.”
“My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live.”
“You may be talented, but you’re not Kanye West.” **

Those quotes are all from, you guessed it, Kanye West.

Mr. West, I don’t mean to hate on you. Your music is amazing. I think you actually are a genius. But do you hear how ridiculous these lines sound? They’re a bit arrogant, don’t you think?

None of us wants to sound like Kanye West. So although we might have our ambitions, we keep them to ourselves and admit them only to the people closest to us.

Like our moms.

That’s where today’s story starts, with the mother of the brothers Zebedee. She makes a request to Jesus about who gets to sit right beside him once his kingdom comes. Not James or John themselves, but their mommy.

Sounds like a textbook example of helicopter parenting, right? Mrs. Zebedee is sweeping in like a modern-day mother asking special favors from her kid’s teacher. If that’s the case, we can imagine James and John responding with a synchronized and embarrassed, “Aw, mom!”

But they’re not recorded as reacting that way. I think James and John wanted this. In Mark’s version of this story they ask the question themselves (see Mark 10:35-45) – no parental intermediary. That suggests to me that the ambition started with the brothers and not the mother. If it happened like Matthew says, maybe they confessed their career goals to mama and mama took them to Jesus.

Jesus answers them by talking about a cup: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matthew 20:22). “Cup” was often used to imply suffering in the Old Testament scriptures and Judaism in general.*** So in today’s language, Jesus’ answer could be something like:

“Are you sure that’s what you want? Because my career path is like climbing a ladder that leads to suffering.”

James and John are undeterred by their rabbi’s response. It’s almost as though they don’t even hear it. They’ve got that ambition, baby – and sometimes ambition gives us a kind of blind focus where we don’t care what it costs (or who it hurts), we just want to get where we aim to go.

“We are able!” they say (20:22).

Jesus gives them what they ask for – not the special seats, but that cup of suffering.

The other disciples respond with jealousy. Turns out they’ve got that ambition, too. “What? James and John got something? No fair! Give it to us, Jesus! We want it too!”

Do any of them have any idea what they’re fighting for?

(Do any of us?)

Jesus sits them down and says something like this: “Look. The whole world works in a certain way, a hierarchical way, where the ones up top hold it over the heads of the ones down below. For you, my disciples, it’s going to be different.

“So you want a special seat? You want to be at the ‘top’? Well here’s how it’ll work for you, my followers: Serve others. You heard me – serve, just like a waiter at a nice restaurant who does everything he can to keep drinks filled and plates of good food delivered. That kind of service what I’m doing for you, after all. So if you want to be on my level, then you’d better start doing the same” (see Matthew 20:25-28).

ApronSee, the Greek word for servant – diakonos – has the meaning of a table servant, a waiter or a waitress.*** Think of a time you’ve been out to eat and had exceptional service. Typically this involves a waiter or waitress anticipating things before you even ask for them, always thinking of you and what you might want or need. If you can picture that, then you know the kind of servanthood Christ is asking his disciples to take on.

It doesn’t seem like the twelve understood this immediately. When Jesus was arrested and began taking on that cup of suffering, they scattered like scared animals running from danger. But later, they seem to have taken his words to heart. Church tradition tells us that all of them but John were martyred for the cause of Christ. James was killed by the sword of Herod in Acts 12. Peter is supposed to have been crucified by the emperor Nero, and not only that, that he didn’t think it right to die in the same way as Jesus so he requested to be crucified upside-down.

They had that ambition, baby.

Yes; that’s still ambition. It’s still a strong inner drive for a status or success. The difference is that Jesus’ disciples were driven to serve – to serve God, and to serve others. They were so driven that they didn’t care what it cost or who it hurt – even if it hurt themselves.

How about you. Do you have that ambition, baby?

Maybe you do. Maybe you have a drive for something, and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get it. Then a good question might be: A drive for what? Because the world still wants to run like a hierarchy, tempting us to climb a ladder to the top, but we are not to run like that. Our ambition cannot be to get the best seat in our church, or our town, or at our jobs, simply for the sake of having it. Our ambition is to serve because we are followers of the one who served.

Or maybe you don’t have that ambition. Maybe you don’t feel a big drive to go and get anything. If that’s the case, then I think Jesus might call on you to get some ambition. You were not created simply to coast from birth to gentle death, a passive participant in life. You were created to play a part in God’s great story. And for every one of us who is a disciple of Christ, our first role is as servant.

You’ve got that ambition! It has been given to you by Jesus Christ; it is your calling. Go and be driven to serve. Serve others like a good waiter – anticipating their needs, doing whatever it takes to make sure they are provided for. As you serve others like that – with drive, with ambition – you might find yourself in a leadership role, after all.

That’s how the kingdom works, Jesus says.
“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,
And whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.”

* Credit and many thanks to Craig Hill, Will Willimon, and my classmates at Duke Divinity School for the teaching and discussion about ambition this week. While there aren’t many direct quotes or references here, many of these reflections came as a result of our time together. Thank you.

** Quotes taken from: and

*** Thank you, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.


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