And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to him, saying, Master, we would that you should do for us whatever we shall desire.…
It is ambition for place and power that is here illustrated.
I. IT IS NATURAL IN THE SENSE IN WHICH ALL HUMAN INSTINCTS ARE NATURAL.
1. To be without ambition of some kind is a defect of organization; a negative, not a positive; a weakness, not a virtue. Man is man because he aspires. He ceases from his worth when he becomes content to remain what he is. Milton speaks of the last "infirmity of noble minds." It is an infirmity of which a man will be ashamed to be ashamed, though he will try to conceal it under that name from others. Shakespeare makes one of his characters exclaim, "If it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive."
2. This passion reveals our social nature. We delight in the picture of others' respect, love, obedience, esteem. Such pictures goad us to our noblest actions.
3. Vice lies not in the passion itself, but in the wrong direction of the will, the mistake of our proper objects. We are ambitious to govern when we are only fit to serve; to teach when we should still be learning; to act when we have need to be acted upon; to be artists when we are only fit for clay, to be moulded by the Divine Artist; to be assessors of Christ when our initiation into the ways of the kingdom has only just begun.
II. CHRIST'S CORRECTION OF AMBITION.
1. By showing its ignorance of its proper objects. There is a condition attached to every distinction. The price must be paid. Have we counted the cost? One illusion is that we separate the pleasure from the means to it in our thought. Another is that we represent to ourselves incompatible things, e.g. a high place with a satisfaction only to be obtained by working up from a low place. Crabb Robinson said that having read, as a young man, Mrs. Barbauld's essay on the vanity of inconsistent expectations, it had cured him for life of idle wishes.
2. By showing its impossibility. Places are reserved in Providence for those fit to fill them. In the kingdom of God there is no putting of wrong men into wrong places. The principle of spiritual selection unerringly prevails in the kingdom, and "the fittest survive." The path of self-denial and suffering is open to all. It coincides at many points with that of duty for all; and it may be throughout coincident for some. It leads to blessing, but that blessing is internal. If we confound the inward blessing with the outward place, we deceive ourselves. If God gives us the higher, let us not envy those to whom he is pleased to allot the lower.
III. CHRIST'S EXPOSURE OF THE UNSOCIAL CHARACTER OF AMBITION.
1. The other disciples were indignant when the failings of the brethren were brought to light. Our secret vices never look so hideous as when we see them mirrored in another. For then the illusion of self-love has vanished, and we stand before the naked and ugly fact.
2. To desire to be above others is not Christian. To dominate and exact is the reverse of the Christian temper. It makes self the center the world revolves around. To serve, to be useful, is the Christian temper; this makes human good the center of every sphere of life - the family, the Church, the nation.
3. The example of Christ is the eternal light for conduct. His glory arises out of service, as in an immortal passage St. Paul teaches (Philippians 2.). Without method there is nothing sound. We need a method of thought and life - to put the first before the second. The whole is before the part, humanity more than the individual; there must be giving in order to receiving; and for the highest possible objects of our aspiration nothing less than the whole life must be paid. - J.
Parallel VersesKJV: And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come unto him, saying, Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire.