Before he came along modesty, humility, and generosity to one’s opponent was the norm. After he came self-promotion, bragging, arrogance, and conceit took over. Today, when you see an athlete preen before the camera, thump his chest over a play just made, or put on some kind of overt display to draw attention to himself and the great thing he has just done, you can thank this man.
He came out of Louisville, Kentucky. There was no denying his athletic prowess. But along with that prowess came a personality the likes of which no one had ever seen in a public figure such as he became. He was called “The Louisville Lip”, Cassius Clay, and as an adult, Mohammed Ali. But he preferred his self-given nickname; “The Greatest”. Boxers had always had nicknames from “Hands of Stone’ to “The Hitman”, to “The Bayonne Bleeder”, to “The Mongoose”, to “The Brown Bomber”. Hardly a boxer alive did not/does not have a nickname. But those nicknames were given to them. Mohammed Ali chose his own nickname; simply “The Greatest”.
Asked in a 1975 interview with Playboy why “The Greatest” he replied, “I’m the most talked-about, most publicized, the most famous, and the most colorful fighter in history. And I’m the fastest heavyweight — with feet and hands — who ever lived. Besides that, I’m the onliest poet laureate boxing’s ever had. “One other thing, too: If you look at pictures of all the former champions you know in a flash that I’m the best-looking champion in history. It all adds up to being The Greatest, don’t it?”
This kind of public bragging has become the norm in our culture for public figures. We even see it displayed at times in our current president which at one time in our society would have been a death knell for a politician. But we live in a different day. However, while such things are more “public” and celebrated as they have ever been, they are not new. There was once a group of men who argued among themselves about who among them was the greatest.
It is in Mark 9:33-34 that we read, “And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. The parallel passage in Matthew 18:1 ff., indicates that they asked Jesus the question of who was the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. When these two accounts are harmonized it becomes clear that Jesus initiated the conversation asking them what they were discussing on the way and subsequently, when they were questioned by Jesus, they framed the question in terms of the more generic who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven rather than whom among them was the greatest. But make no mistake, jockeying for position in the Kingdom was that about which they were talking.
Now, think about that for a moment. Here are twelve mostly uneducated, common laboring type of men who have been gathered by Jesus to live and walk with him. They had up to this point seen some amazing things including resurrections at the hand of Jesus. And in the very presence of this amazing man called Jesus the Christ, they are arguing about which one of them would be greatest in the kingdom and it did not even seem strange to them that they would do so.
Mildly, gently, and patiently, Jesus teaches his disciples that “greatness” is to be “the servant of all”. He illustrates this by drawing a little child to himself and taking him in his arms says to the disciples that “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:4). Thus, Jesus affirms that genuine greatness is to be a humble servant who is willing to put others ahead of himself.
Now, none of us would be so brash and arrogant so as to literally say, “I am the greatest”. But don’t we do so in practice when we superimpose our wants, our desires, and our prerogatives over those of the Lord? Don’t we say “I am the greatest” when we determine that other things than worship on Sunday are more important? Do we not say “I am the greatest” when we spend our money on everything but giving to the Lord’s work? Isn’t it tantamount to saying, “I am the greatest” when pleasing ourselves is more important than pleasing God?
When I graduated from my master’s program I was given, along with the other graduates, a hand towel. On the hand towel was stitched the words “Be Great; Serve”. I confess to you that I am not a natural servant like my wife is. But only as I, or any of us, become like a humble, dependent child, can we ever be considered great in the kingdom of heaven. Be great…serve!