It is called “climbing the ladder.”
In today’s society, we view our lives as climbing a ladder, trying to get ahead. We rise in the ranks by getting better jobs, earning a larger salary and showing off flashier toys than the people below us. Our value lies in how high and how fast we are able to rise. We look down on those below us on the ladder because they are obviously not as smart or as hardworking as we are. If they suffer because they lack the resources we enjoy, we consider it their own fault. As for the people above us, we look on them with envy and spite. We call them names like “fat-cats” or “the one percent”. To get as high as they did, they must have inherited their money or earned it by cheating others. All the while we are trying to get up to where they are.
This idea of climbing the ladder which is so pervasive in our world today may be successful at motivating us to get ahead but it has devastating consequences for society. It teaches us that our worth as individuals can be measured in material possessions. Goodness, integrity and honesty are only valuable if they help us get ahead. It splinters society by creating divisions based on class and income. Finally it gives us an excuse for not reaching down to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves. As we see it, it is their own fault for not getting ahead. Their misfortune is their own problem. We are not responsible for their hardships. We are only responsible for our own successes or failures.
As we see in today’s gospel, even Jesus’ disciples were not immune from jockeying for position in the rank of apostle. Saint Mark tells us that on the way to the town of Capernaum, they were arguing among themselves about which one was the greatest. We are not told exactly what they were saying, but we can imagine that one claimed to have more faith, another probably claimed to know Scripture better and yet another probably claimed to be a closer friend of Jesus. While they would not have been arguing over who made the most money or who had the finest tunic, their mentality was the same as ours. Each was trying to climb the ladder by stepping on the person below.
However, Jesus tells them - and us - that nothing could be further from the message of love He came to teach. In fact, He came to take the climbing the ladder mentality and turn it on its head by saying, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Unlike the corporate world of power and politics, in God’s kingdom we show our status not by trying to get ahead of others but by reaching down to help others get ahead of us. We do not climb the stairway to heaven by asserting our own rights and interests but by promoting the interests of those less fortunate than ourselves. Jesus came to preach a revolutionary message of love that tears down the divisions of class, status and income that society creates and replaces it with unity, solidarity and cooperation.
Saint James picks up on this theme in today’s second reading. The type of jealousy and selfish ambition which drives our idea of climbing the ladder is the cause of endless strife in society and much injustice. But God shows us a better way. It is the way of wisdom which is peaceable and full of mercy. Such wisdom leads to peace. If we want a more just world in which all people have an opportunity to practice their faith and support their families, then it is clear that we have to jump off the ladder, put aside our selfish ambition and begin to serve one another out of love.
Jesus shows us how in the gospel. By taking a child into His arms, He tells us, “If you are going to envy someone, envy this child.” Love comes naturally to children. Everything they have comes from their parents. They look to others to have their needs met. Money, power and prestige mean nothing to them. Jesus makes it clear, that unless we become like children, unless we put aside the drive to get ahead at all costs, we cannot enter His Kingdom.
As followers of Jesus living in a world driven by greed, it can be difficult for us not to get caught up in the mindless pursuit of wealth and possessions. However, we are called to something greater. We are called to store treasure in heaven. So while we participate in the economy by working and investing our money, we must be driven by more than just trying to get ahead. As a witness to our faith, we should be living simpler lives so that we will have more money to give to charities. By volunteering at soup kitchens or at suicide hotlines, we point out to others that we have a responsibility to come to the aid of those who have fallen into misfortune. And if it happens that we lose our job or fall on hard times ourselves, we can rest assured that although we may be looked down upon or ignored by others, we are still valuable members of society and that we will be richly provided for by our Heavenly Father.
As in all things, Jesus shows us the way. Although He was more powerful than any other man who walked the earth, He used His power to help others rather than to gain an advantage for Himself. When He was rejected, He did not resort to vengeance or violence but to forgiveness, offering Himself up to death so that we could live. Our world which is caught up in divisions, strife and violence is so in need of that example, and we must give it by God’s grace by refusing to get ahead at the expense of others and refusing to look down on those who have less than we do. To transform our world, we must become like the child Jesus held in His arms, trusting that our needs will be provided for as we seek to serve others. Then the peace of God’s Kingdom can begin to take hold in our world.