In the United States, and throughout the world, there are many discussions being had about who is the greatest basketball player of all time (the G.O.A.T.). As a big basketball fan growing up, I have been intrigued by the arguments being made for each player in consideration. Is it Kareem Abdul-Jabbar whose dominance spanned two decades? Is it Magic Johnson who won five championships and revolutionized the point guard position? Is it Lebron James who has won three championships and appears to be a more physical and athletic version of Magic Johnson? Or is it Michael Jordan, whose athletic greatness and unmatched will to win led to six championships? Such questions and debate are good fodder for your local barber shop debate, but for me this whole discussion about the G.O.A.T. in basketball has led me to ask another question, a much more important question: what did Jesus say about being great?
We read in the gospel of Matthew, “The disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’” (18:1-4). So how do we become great in the spiritual life? Be like a child in our dependence upon God for all things (cf. Mt 6:25-33) and live with simplicity. Essentially, we begin the process of becoming great when we reach out to God just like Jesus reached out to God the Father on the cross--with arms raised up! Jesus is the greatest of the great--the G.O.A.T. in showing us how to live out our divine sonship (cf. Rom 8:14-17).
Many discussions on greatness focus on the doing as opposed to the being, more precisely, our being in God. Many discussions on greatness come up short because we are not human doings but human beings. What we do is only as good as who we are. The identity crisis of American popular culture is that we measure ourselves against how much we can accomplish as opposed to who we are in God. Once we discover that true greatness is the outgrowth of our littleness in God (being like a child), our doing will be what it needs to be because we have placed ourselves along the path of becoming more in God, which is the path of imitating Christ more perfectly.
So next time we find ourselves in a discussion on the G.O.A.T. in basketball (or in any other sport or genre), let us always remember there is another conversation to be had on greatness, a conversation that concerns our salvation--the conversation that starts with the question: what did Jesus say about being great?