The Path to Short-Lived Greatness
What greatness do you really value? If you’ve been a Christian very long, you know the right answer — Jesus’s answer (Matthew 23:11). But if you’re ruthlessly honest, who would you list as “the greatest among you”? The greatness you value is not necessarily what you can articulate to others, or preach from your pulpit — or write in your article — but what you secretly wish you were or who you wish you were more like.
Throughout history, human greatness has almost always been measured within some framework of meritocracy. By meritocracy, I mean any social system — great or small, formal or informal — where people earn rewards or status based on achievements that their social system values highly. Alexander the Great merited greatness through his military and leadership achievements, Shakespeare through literary achievements, Steve Jobs through technological design achievements. They each lived in very different eras and socio-cultural-political environments. But they’re remembered for their merits — for what they each achieved.
Every human culture and subculture has its meritocracies. And that's not necessarily evil. In many cases they are the most just and beneficial systems, all things considered in this age. But since we tend to have an upside-down definition of greatness — the measure of our superiority to others rather than our love for them — our meritocracies have a powerful tendency to appeal to the sinful, selfish, self-exalting parts of us.
A Strange Greatness
Which is why Jesus's definition of greatness can sound so foreign and disorienting to us:
“The greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)
It’s very tempting to take Jesus’s statement as a sort of poetic flourish, a metaphor for remembering to be kind and somewhat generous as we pursue achieving some level of relative greatness compared with others (like everybody else does). The only problem is, Jesus wasn’t speaking metaphorically. He very literally meant we should aspire to be servants.
In every culture throughout history, servants have been those who, by virtue of birth or circumstances, have been forced to spend much of their lives pursuing the good of someone else above their own. The vast majority of servants have occupied the lower tiers of social status. And while a servant might aspire to a more socially recognized and rewarded level of servitude, it has been extremely rare that a free person would aspire to servanthood. In almost every human culture, servanthood is not the path to greatness. The best servants can hope for is to serve great people (Matthew 20:25).
But in the kingdom of God, as Jesus demonstrated, servanthood is the path to greatness (Philippians 2:5–11). “The last will be first” (Matthew 20:16). Those who humble themselves will be exalted, while those who exalt themselves will be humbled (Matthew 23:12). God incentivizes our freely and joyfully choosing to put others’ interests above our own (Philippians 2:3–4).
This is a strange greatness to fallen humans. It is an otherworldly meritocracy— not in terms of meriting salvation (Ephesians 2:8–9), but in terms of meriting God’s commendation and rewards (1 Peter 5:6; 1 Corinthians 3:14–15; 2 Corinthians 5:9–10). It is a greatness so counter-cultural, so counter-intuitive that it is impossible to pursue unless a person really believes the gospel is true.
The Mark of Misplaced Greatness
When Jesus said, “The greatest among you shall be your servant,” the context was a scathing public rebuke of the Jewish religious leaders. Here’s some of what he said:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (Matthew 23:2–7)
A key — and convicting — phrase is, “they do all their deeds to be seen by others.”
This revealed the heart’s affections that were fueling leaders’ behaviors. They were operating in a fallen human-defined meritocracy. They were pursuing the rewards and commendation their culture valued. In all their pious-appearing achievements, they were aiming for this-worldly greatness — and probably mistaking it for next-worldly greatness too. The evidence was that they were too preoccupied with appearing righteous in order to win human approval than to attend to “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
That is the mark of misplaced greatness: valuing one’s personal benefit and reputation more than the real good of other people.
A Greatness Only Grace Produces
So, what greatness do we really value? The ambitions that govern our motives and actions will tell us. We will always desire the treasure we believe most valuable. We will always pursue what we believe is true.
It’s not sinful to desire to be great; it’s sinful to desire idolatrous, selfish greatness. Kingdom greatness reveals the character and genius of God: the greatest among us are those who love and serve others most — who love others most by serving others most. The truly greatest among us are those who by their actions demonstrate they trust God to exalt them at the proper time and to the appropriate degrees (1 Peter 5:6), and, like Jesus, don’t measure their greatness by the commendation and rewards they receive from their social systems (John 5:41).
This is an otherworldly greatness we only pursue when we truly understand the grace of God — that the Triune God has so utterly and completely served us in every facet of our experience that we wish to freely give what we have freely received (Matthew 10:8), and in love present our bodies as living sacrifices of worshipful service (Romans 12:1).