It was February 1962 when boxing legend Muhammad Ali, at the time simply known as Cassius Clay, declared to the world he was the greatest of all time. The declaration came before his title bout with Sonny Liston, who was the current heavyweight champion. Muhammad Ali arrogantly declared to the world not only was he the greatest, but he was going to prove he was the greatest in the fight soon to take place. After the title fight, which he won, he announced I told you I was the greatest before it happened, thus proving I am the greatest.
We have an interesting relationship in our society with the idea of greatness. Like Muhammad Ali over fifty years ago, we seek greatness. The most famous political slogan of the past few years is centered around greatness. Sports radio is constantly debating who is the greatest player of all time. In the entertainment world, conversations abound over the greatest movie or the greatest musician. Often the declarations are reinforced by numbers. Championships won. Attendance at gatherings. Accolades received. Salary obtained. Positions attained.
But is greatness reserved for who wins the most championships, sells the most clothes, or can fill the largest stadiums?
In Luke 22 Jesus begins the Last Supper by sharing the Passover meal with his disciples. He has earnestly desired to share this meal with his most trusted friends. It’s a meal in which they remember and rehearse the redemption story. Our story had gone wrong, but God stepped in and changed the narrative. Before his death, which would also be a moment in which the narrative is changed, Jesus wanted to reorient the lives of his disciples into the story of God. Yet in the midst of this meal, the disciples lose focus and start arguing over which is the greatest. What should be a time of thanksgiving becomes a petty argument centered around power and prestige. Jesus, however, pushes through the pettiness to use this moment to change the conversation and reimagine ideas like greatness and leadership.
You know the way leadership and greatness work in our society, Jesus says. Those who have power control everything. The kings and ruling authorities lead with a heavy hand, demanding their way and punishing anyone who dares to disagree. The wealthy, use their money strategically; donating to causes not for the betterment of the community, but in order to gain influence and power over decisions. That’s the way the world works; but not with you. Instead, it’s the servant who is great. It’s the one who thinks of others, and works toward the blessing of others, that is most important. Be like me, one who serves.
Jesus is doing more than just advocating for servant leadership. It’s more than just finding the most efficient way to rise to the top; like some self-help leadership book. Jesus is changing the paradigm. Jesus is insinuating that greatness should be viewed in what one does for others; especially when it gets the individual nothing in return.
Consider the Christ hymn that Paul shares in Philippians 2. Jesus was in the very nature God. Jesus had all power; all control. Jesus was truly the greatest of all time. Yet Jesus chose to use that power not for his own advancement, but for the good of others. Jesus emptied himself, became a servant, and was obedient to death on a cross. Not because it was good for him, but because it would redeem humanity and enable humans to flourish.
Consider the last supper episode recorded in John 13, as Jesus washes the disciples feet. John tells us that Jesus knew he was God, and because he knew he was God he washed feet. Not despite the fact that he was God, but because he was God. What it means to be God, who has ultimate power, is to use that power to benefit others.
Jesus wants us to reimagine greatness; not as something we obtain, but in harnessing every opportunity to bless others and help others flourish. Jesus wants us to use our power, position, influence…anything that we possess not for our own benefit (that’s what the Gentiles do, he says), but for the blessing of others. Greatness is always about helping others, including, and perhaps especially, when it does nothing for us personally, and may even be worse for us personally.
What would happen if we embraced this role of greatness? How would our families change if we were always looking for ways to help the other members of our family to flourish? How would our jobs change if our primary task was making sure everyone else was the best employee they could be? How would our engagement in politics change if our guiding principle was not what benefits me (gives me more security, income, benefits) but what actually helps the most people flourish, especially those whom society would label as having very little?
Living this way, reimagining greatness, won’t benefit us personally; at least the way the world defines personal benefits. But, it will help us to embrace the way of Jesus.