Today’s Gospel forms part of a series of encounters between Jesus and his opponents. In Luke’s version of these controversies the gap between Jesus and his opponents, who represent the elite of society, is emphasised. This gap is demonstrated by Jesus at the end of the series of encounters, in his contrast between the actions of the poor widow in throwing two copper coins into the temple treasury and the hypocrisy of the Scribes. Those at the top jealously hold on to their wealth and position, whereas the widow who has nothing gives away the little that she has. The elite have reached the top and cling to their privileges: the only way is down. The widow is at the bottom and is free to give what she has.
In the episode narrated in today’s Gospel it is the Sadducees who take on Jesus. The issue concerns the resurrection of the dead, and we are told that the Sadducees did not believe in this doctrine. Jesus refutes them by arguing that there will be a new order in the world to come, in which those who are resurrected from the dead no longer marry or die. From their position as the rich and powerful of society the Sadducees can see nothing beyond the current world order. Yet in clinging to their privileges they set a deadly limit to their ambitions. They have nowhere to go but down (literally in this case where the grave will be their resting place), and thus furiously hold onto their position, opposing those who challenge them even to the point of killing.
It is not only the rich and powerful in society who are prone to this clinging to position. Each of us faces the temptation of replacing the Kingdom Jesus promises to the children of the resurrection with our own limited ambitions; and if we do succeed in our ambitions what then? Once you reach the top the only way is down. So should we give up all ambition, content ourselves with coasting along in life? There is no doubt that giving up certain ambitions can be immensely freeing. Frustrated ambition can crush our spirits, but to completely give up on our ambitions is to succumb to a melancholy which leads towards despair. In his classic comic novel A House for Mr Biswas V S Naipaul tells the story of a man with a simple ambition; to build his own house. Mr Biswas is a tragically comic figure, yet for all his foolishness he retains something of his dignity. The house is a botched job, his life is in many respects tragic, yet his ambition sets him apart from those who are willing to sit and wait passively for what life will throw at them.
Those of us with seemingly more successful lives (I write from the dizzy heights of being editor of Torch!), may be inclined to sympathise with Mr Biswas, yet would find little in common with him. But each of us at some time has to face the fact that our lives are a botched job. Wittgenstein in the preface to his Philosophical Investigations writes that he would have liked to have produced a good book, but it did not come about. Fear of producing a work somewhat less than perfect can cripple many writers, yet it is in accepting our limitation, rather than in pretending to a perfection beyond us that great works can emerge.
So ambition in itself is not wrong, but it has to be exercised in humility and always with an eye to that which is the only ambition that really counts: ‘to be considered worthy of reaching that world.’ Now we are incapable of being able to do this on our own. Our lives are botched jobs, and we cannot obtain by our own merits the perfection of the children of God. But we are not to despair. In sending us His Son Jesus Christ, the Father has offered us the possibility of becoming His adopted children. The cross is not so much a botched job as an utter failure. But the failure is on our side, not on His. Out of this failure God the Father through the resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ has given us the chance to become His children, through the power of His Holy Spirit. If we place into His hands the limitation of our botched lives, and even the times of utter failure, He will transform our poor ambition so that we become His great work: the New Creation in which there will be no limit to ambition as there will no limit to how great we can become by sharing in His greatness.