Who is the greatest?

It seems like in our quest to find the greatest we have left no stones unturned. We seek the greatest among nations and athletes and actors and musicians and parents and pastors and teachers and students and spouses, and sometimes even among children. It wouldn’t be a far stretch to say that often social media is used to say, “Look at me. I am the greatest.” We sometimes try to one up each other to prove our own greatness.

Maybe the problem is not our quest for greatness. Maybe the problem is how we go about seeking greatness.

God is great. He created Adam and Eve in his image and he created the world for them to cultivate and care for. They were meant to display true greatness by the posture of their service. They misunderstood what true greatness is and failed.

So God started a new community through Abraham promising to make him into a great nation. He would be blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12:2). Abraham was to train his children and the generations that followed them to observe God’s way of life. They were to live kindly and generously and fairly so that God can complete in Abraham what he had promised him (Genesis 18:19). But they were distracted from true greatness and failed.

In several occasions, the disciples who were called and hand picked by Jesus engaged in arguments about who is the greatest among them (Luke 9:46; 22:24). They too didn’t grasp true greatness and so failed.

Adam and Eve and Abraham and Israel and Jesus’ disciples and you and I find ourselves misunderstanding true greatness all too often and we use that energy and desire focusing on our self.

Tue greatness is not about having the upper hand. It is not about having power and position and accolades and attention. Rather it is all about humble service. John Ortberg rightly points out that in the entire ancient world, there is no record of a rabbi washing the feet of his disciples other than Jesus. Humble service is a focus on someone else’s interest, not our own. Jesus said, “I came to seek and to save the lost” and “I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus’ life was about service. He displayed true greatness.

Many years ago, a Christian multimillionaire from the US spotted one of my Seminary classmates in a poor African nation during one of his visits there. He offered to fund my friend’s Seminary education and cover all the costs during his studies in Canada. Often we look at generosity of funds as greatness. But that is not the highlight of my story.

What amazed me was this multimillionaires humble service. He could have easily paid someone to help my friend move into Canada. But he took it upon himself to fly all the way from the US to receive my friend and serve him for couple of days before he got adjusted to this new land. One of my awestruck moments was when I saw this multimillionaire lay aside his power and position and age and wealth and make my African friend’s bed when he first moved into our dorm. He didn’t do it because we were watching. I actually peeped into my friend’s room and caught him cleaning the room.

He wasn’t taking selfies of himself serving or posting an image on facebook trying to communicate, “Look at how great I am. I am helping an African man today.” Everything that he did in those few days seemed like it was for an audience of one. God.

This is true greatness.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim was a leading Polish rabbi in the late 18th and early 19th century. He said every person should have two pockets, with a note in each pocket.  In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying:  “I am but dust and ashes.”  In the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying:  “For my sake was the world created.” This teaching reflects the tension in us for humility and pride.

When we are feeling proud and arrogant and longing for attention and approval, we should take the slip of paper from our pocket that reads, “I am but dust and ashes,” reminding us that we are ordinary. We are not more special than the person next to us.  On the other hand, when we struggle with low self-esteem and feel discouraged and purposeless, we should take the slip from the other pocket that reads, “for my sake was the world created.”

Our challenge is to live our lives recognizing the significance of these paradoxical truths, remembering the world was created for our sake and we are privileged to cultivate and care for it, while at the same time recognizing that we are but dust and ashes, special but not more special than others.

G.K. Chesterton once said,“there is the great man who makes every man feel small, but the really great man is the man who makes every man feel great.”

Jesus is the really great man who though equal with God set aside his position and privilege and became the lowest to serve us and make us feel great (Philippians 2:6-8).

True greatness, after all is said and done, looks like Jesus.