As human beings we can be consumed with the idea of greatness. We strive for greatness. We admire greatness. Sometimes we’re jealous of or won’t even acknowledge greatness if we are not somehow associated with it. The subject of greatness and the idea of someone being the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time) is front and center in our sports-free quarantined world in the person of Michael Jordan in the ESPN ten-part documentary The Last Dance. His documentary has added more fuel to the fire of the feud over whether or not Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in history – the G.O.A.T.
Michael Jordan being interviewed during the documentary The Last Dance
These types of debates have been going on for ages. Jesus found himself in the middle of such a debate one day as he traveled with His disciples to Capernum. When they arrived at their destination, Jesus asked his disciples what they had been talking about while they were traveling.
“What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” Mark 9:33-34
Shortly before this, Jesus had revealed for the second time to his disciples His coming fate.
“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day.” Matthew 17:22-23
“Why would this question be on the minds of the disciples anyway? Aside from the normal quest of human pride to find a way to boost itself, they are aware that they are moving steadily toward what they believe will be the culmination of Jesus’ ministry and the establishment of His kingdom. They do not understand how Jesus’ prophecy of His coming suffering, death and resurrection fit in, but they expect Jesus to take David’s throne in the not-too-distance future. Certainly the response of the crowds in wanting to crown Jesus king adds to this expectation (John 6:15). The people were ready, so it would be just a matter of when Jesus was ready to make His move to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.” – GraceBibleNY.org
Maybe the question of greatness had to do with whom they thought would get the most power when Jesus assumed David’s throne. Maybe it had to do with petty comparisons of who did the most or who was praised the most or who was scolded the least. Whatever the reason, the fact is the disciples were human, just like you and me. And as humans, we can let pride get in our way especially when dealing with one another.
“Can you see the nature of man’s pride arise in this situation? But be careful, for what they did is a mirror for us, for we easily do the same thing. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of the church? The most obvious candidates are those of up front or serve in some leadership capacity. Is it the pastor? Or perhaps Ed because he chairs the Deacons and teaches the adult Family Bible Hour class? Maybe one of the other Deacons or one of the Women’s Servant Council members? How about Jane since she is the treasurer? What about Jonathan who directs [the] music for worship or perhaps one of the musicians?” – GraceBibleNY.org
In the documentary The Last Dance, we see an unvarnished behind-the-scenes look at Michael Jordan’s life and career in the NBA and a lot of what went into making him great. He was hyper competitive and had a win-at-all costs mentality. He not only wanted to be great. He strove to be the greatest basketball player of all time, a title that has been bestowed upon him by most basketball pundits and fans.
But what was the cost for his greatness?
Did his means justify the ends and the wins?
Jordan gives us a rare peek behind the curtain and reveals what made him tick as a competitor in Episode 7 of the documentary.
“Look, winning has a price and leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right because my teammates who came after me they didn’t endure all of the things that I endured. Once you join the team, you lived at a certain standard where I played the game and I wasn’t going to take any less. Now if that means that I am going to have to go in there and get in your ass a little bit then I did that. You ask all my teammates – the one thing about Michael Jordan was, he never asked me to do something that he didn’t [expletive] do. When people see this [documentary], they’re gonna say well he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant. Well that’s you, because you’ve never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win to be a part of that as well. I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t wanna play that way, don’t play that way.”
Before we are too hard on Jordan, let’s stop and think about the things that we do every day in our personal push for greatness.
“…the push to be the “greatest” is not always in an outward display. It can also be in the quietness of our hearts because we would be embarrassed to say out loud the kinds of things we think. Things like, “I am doing a better job than so and so because I . . .” “I am more spiritual than so and so because I . . .” “I please God more than so and so because I . . .” “I am more important to God’s kingdom than so and so because I . . .” You can fill in the blanks, but no, we are essentially no different from the disciples [or Michael Jordan] for pride and conceit are natural to the human condition.” – GraceBibleNY.org
In response to the disciples quarreling, Jesus turned the idea of greatness on its head.
“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Mark 9:35
Greatness is not about you and what you accomplish. It’s about serving others. Even though the Bulls accomplished their ultimate goal of six NBA championships under Jordan’s leadership, he wasn’t serving the team. He expected the team and his teammates to serve him, to live up to his standards. Why? Because he put in the work, he expected them to do the same.
What if Jesus used that standard with us?
Of course, I know it’s not fair to compare any human to Jesus, but here’s the point.
God provided us with the ultimate role model and leader in Jesus, a true embodiment of human greatness. Jesus doesn’t demand that we follow Him and do God’s will. Instead, He inspires and guides us to want to try, knowing that when we fall short He will be there to pick us up and help us get back on track. As we strive to do great things in the Kingdom of God, we should always be humble, the opposite of how Jordan acted. However, “Being humble does not mean you have to lack confidence or conviction, but it does mean that your understanding and desires [should] always [be] placed in submission to God.”
Jesus also compared greatness to a child.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Matthew 18:3-5
“A child is simple, dependent, helpless, genuine, unpretentious and modest. A young child trusts his parents to provide for him. He believes what they tell him. He submits to their authority and obeys them, and if he does something wrong, he wants to be reconciled to them. Those are all things that are also marks of saving faith. Salvation is impossible without a recognition of your sin and a desire for reconciliation with God.” – GraceBibleNY.org
Arguments, debates and discussions about who is the greatest in a particular endeavor will always be with us, but thankfully as Believers we know who is the one and only G.O.A.T. He is the lamb of God who took away the sins of the world! His greatness is freely available to us all!