Jesus taught that we should not necessarily conform to the practices and patterns of the world around us.
For example, the Disciples were challenged by Jesus to question their ambitions and act with ever-greater humility. He emphasised that they should seek to serve one another, rather than be served (e.g. Mark 11:42-45).
The instruction was often ignored. Even at the Last Supper, Jesus decided to intervene in a discussion about which of them might be about to betray Him when it descended into a row about who was the ‘greatest’ (Luke 22:24). About 10 years after the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ, it seems that the Early Church still struggled with the task of being humble. Jesus’ half-brother, James, wrote these words in the third chapter of his letter:
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition (eritheia) in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition (eritheia) exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
In this little reflection, I would like to focus on a single Greek word that James employs. I’ve shown where it crops up in the passage above by putting it in brackets after its translation.
The Greek word eritheia (rendered as ‘selfish ambition’) is clearly highlighted as something to be avoided. Prior to its use in the New Testament, Aristotle made use of eritheia to describe ‘electioneering’ or ‘intriguing for office’. It seems to describe the behaviour of a person who tries very hard to establish himself or herself in a position of importance.
As is often the case when correcting wrong behaviour, we have to identify and then engage in the opposite type of behaviour. Helpfully, Paul also makes mention of eritheia in chapter two of his letter to the church at Philippi. He is kind enough to offer a delightful picture of an opposing, Christ-like approach to life:
3 Do nothing from rivalry (eritheia) or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
It seems as though Paul is encouraging us to establish those around us in preference to ourselves. Such an encouragement raises many questions, not least: if I’m busy building up those around me, who then will establish me?
Returning to James’ letter we find a simple and direct answer (4:10):
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
We are called to take a step of faith and replace our lowly scramble to establish ourselves with a joyful surrender to God and His ability to establish us for His glory.