Sports fans love to debate who’s the best: who’s the highest scorer of all time? Who had the longest streak of wins? Who’s won the most championships?
The world recently said goodbye to Muhammad Ali, a boxer whose elegantly succinct nickname put to rest any doubts. He was simply known as The Greatest.
As my only sports hero, it’s not hard for me to explain why. He was unlike anyone who came before or since. He had hands so fast that he threw a knockout “phantom punch” that the film cameras of the Sixties were too slow to capture. He put his money where his mouth was and accepted a three-year ban from boxing that stripped him of the heavyweight title because of his moral protest of the Vietnam War. In doing so, he also gave up his prime fighting years. But he came back a new and different Ali, slower but smarter, losing his title multiple times, magnanimous in defeat, magnificent in each of his comebacks.
As much as I admire him (and know that he is not without his faults), and as much as I believe he lives up to the nickname in terms of boxing, the title of The Greatest is like a feint that makes me wince. Sports fans aren’t the only ones who like to discuss Who is the greatest? We see this discussion happening many times amongst the apostles. The funny is that they weren’t talking about who the greatest gladiator or fisherman was. They were debating who among themselves was the greatest disciple! Read Luke’s account of the Last Supper and it’s jaw-dropping to see them bickering about this even after Jesus has just explained the symbolism of the bread and the cup and also predicted his death.
I’m guessing most of us would never come close to claiming to be the Greatest Disciple, but that doesn’t mean we’re completely immune. There are many areas of life where we may think of ourselves as the greatest. We can take credit for achievements and success and forget to honour the Giver of our talents and abilities. Even when we crucify these human tendencies, this sickness can invade our spiritual lives as well. Our Bible knowledge, our church attendance, our tithing amount, our number of volunteer or leadership roles – or perhaps one of the most insidious, our sense of moral rightness – all can fuel our sense of greatness if we’re not careful.
Paul was someone who understood the temptation of being called the greatest (in ways for and against the Kingdom). He understood that a life of discipleship is one where we take ourselves off of the throne and out of the spotlight. In Philippians 2:3-4 he writes:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.
Is there an area of your life that you need to submit to the Lord in humility? Maybe you need to consider how others – in the way they do things or the way they lead their lives – may be more significant in God’s eyes than yourself. How could you put aside your own interests to serve someone else?
I, for one, don’t think Ali believed in his own hype. After his boxing career he was humbled by Parkinson’s Disease. He weakened to the point where his words were slurred and his motion limited, but he bore it with dignity and still made public appearances in spite of his condition. His legend grew in his twilight years as The Greatest became an example of humility to all.