At that time, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Superlatives have long been a part of sports vernacular. Both spectators and the media have rightly applauded feats of extraordinary athletic achievement. Halls of Fame have been constructed and populated. And debates rage on cable networks and bar stools as to who the standard bearers are.
Unfortunately, in the decades since Muhammad Ali first proclaimed himself, “The Greatest of All Time,” I’ve been a part of the generation that has watched the world of sports follow the cultural shift toward the loud and vacuous self. Aided, certainly, by what Christopher Lasch called, “The proliferation of visual and auditory images in a ‘society of the spectacle’.”
Where we once may have emphasized being a culture of character, we’re now a culture of personality. And perhaps nowhere do we see that on display more that in our professional sports leagues. A love of the game has been traded for entitlement and self-aggrandizement has replaced acting like you’ve been there.
This is why, in part, I prefer the game of hockey. It is by no means a perfect illustration (every circus has its clowns). But I’ve found, in my many years as a fan, principles and philosophies in the game that have led me to reflect deeply on what the Bible defines as greatness.
Arguably, the most crucial and important hockey philosophy is that your consistency and responsibility in your own end dictates your opportunities in your opponents end. We who are interested in cultural engagement can be quick to confront the culture without having first having engaged with our heavenly Father in a meaningful way.
Said another way, our inward transformation must precede our outward response. Christ not only demonstrated that in His ministry by retreating to quiet places to pray and be with the Father, but just before His ascension, He charged the disciples to WAIT until the Spirit had come upon them.
The second principle I’d highlight is that the best players are the best players away from the puck. The really useful places on the ice and in life are rarely in the spotlight. Very often, it’s only when no one is looking, that we find ourselves in the right place, at the right time.
Lastly, and not necessarily exclusive to hockey, the best players on any team, because they’re great, make everyone else on their team better. They elevate the game and the individual giftedness of their entire team.
We’re taught in scripture that our identity must be in Whom we are not what we do. It’s our character that directs our performance. Numbers never tell the whole story.
In the 1970s, a young hockey player named Wayne Gretzky was turning the hockey world upside down, eventually earning the nickname, “The Great One.” But as many, including Gretzky himself, have acknowledged, it was the passion, commitment, and practice alone, on a backyard pond with his father, which led to his success.
His record setting statistics were a result of his greatness, not the other way around.
Since the Sermon on the Mount, Christ has been illustrating and demonstrating for His disciples the difference between worldly greatness and true greatness. In these parallel passages, He uses the disciple’s desire to know where they are on the depth chart as another teachable moment.
I find it encouraging that He doesn’t rebuke them. Instead He stuns them, again, by folding a child lovingly into His arms. Like children, we’re to be bold in our uncertainty and meek in our capacity to be awed. It’s God and children who never tire of what we’re so simply numbed into not seeing.
When we read Luke 18:19, and we see what’s lived out around us, we shouldn’t be surprised when we’re mistaken about what, or rather Who, is Great when we have difficulty understanding what "good" is.
Christ’s declaration that He didn’t come to be served but to SERVE is so radical and profound and, thereby, offensive to a culture devolving on an axis of self-interest. The disciples were rightly embarrassed when confronted with their inquiry.
Pride always falters in the face of humility. Our ambitions and motivations should always be measured against the standard Paul describes in Philippians 2—against the model of Jesus Christ.
True greatness isn’t about superiority. It’s demonstrated in how we receive that which we can so easily overcome or reason away. To the world, greatness is found in being irreplaceable. But true greatness is found in a legacy. True greatness isn’t about numbers—whether it's goals or souls. Greatness isn't measured by statistics.
If we’re ever to be truly great, we must cease to be good. We must cease to be ourselves. We must be emptied of our talents, our human wisdom, our charity, and all that which makes us useful to ourselves. Only then, when He’s all we have to offer the world, can true greatness shine through us.
- What is it about people that we admire that make them great in our eyes?
- How does that compare to what makes Jesus great?
- Children are quick to respond to the care they receive from a loving adult. Are we so quick to respond to the care Jesus offers? Do you allow Jesus to serve you?