March Madness has arrived! As I write this, many in the United States are filling out the their NCAA basketball brackets. Games begin later this week to determine which of the 64 teams in the tournament is the GREATEST. Ours is a culture obsessed with being number one. We want to dominate our opponents, win the championship trophy and establish bragging rights. This is true in sports, business and even in churches. We want to be the greatest, and sadly, many are willing to achieve this status at all costs.
In our readings today, Isaiah and Jesus call us to a different way. God has an entirely different standard for greatness. How do you define greatness? Read on…
Read Isaiah 1:10, 16-20 – Greatness achieved by Caring for the Weakest
Isaiah begins today’s reading with a stinging indictment. He refers to Israel’s leaders and people as “Sodom and Gomorrah”. These two cities were destroyed for their rampant evil (Genesis 19:23-29). What is Israel’s egregious wrong doing? Not only were God’s chosen people relying on alliances with foreign powers rather than on God, they were ambivalent to the plight of the weakest and most vulnerable members of their society. Isaiah equates being washed clean with amending their attitudes and actions toward the underprivileged, like orphans and widows. A recommitment to God’s justice is required.
Isaiah calls them to set things straight. Though their sins are like a scarlet S emblazoned on their collective cloak, Isaiah informs them they can be washed white as snow. Their stain of sin can become white as wool. If Israel will rely solely on Him, and learn to serve the needs of the least of the people, then God will restore them. If not, then God’s judgment will come.
Read Matthew 23:1-12 – Greatness means Being a Servant
Jesus wastes not time addressing the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. They are in the seat of Moses, an honored place of teaching and interpretation. Yet, what they taught the people differed from how they lived. They did not practice what they preached. Jesus warns the disciples to follow their teaching because of their office, but to avoid emulating these phonies. They love the place of honor. They long for the accolades and attention. They so enjoy wearing the garments of their privileged position. Then, rather than love and care for the people, they impose “burdens” on them – laying stringent requirements and extra-Biblical laws on the people that do not enhance or edify them, but weigh them down. Through the centuries, the religious elite had elevated their own importance by imposing 613 additional “laws.” They believed that they were great because of their titles and their power. Jesus summarily rejected this view of greatness.
Jesus said, “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” One day, the mother of James and John came to Jesus and made a special request of the Lord. She wanted her sons to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand when He came into His Kingdom. This mother wanted her boys to have the places of honor and privilege. Jesus said in response, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). Jesus lays out a very different standard of greatness. The one who will great is the one who serves.
Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus doesn’t expect of us what He isn’t willing to do. On the night Jesus was betrayed, He knelt down before His disciples and washed their feet. After he finished, Jesus said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).
As we continue to follow the Path of the Passion, we will see many holding up their trophies claiming greatness. With each step toward the cross, may we recognize that the greatest trophy of all time is not made of marble and gold. No, the greatest victory of all time was won on a rugged trophy made of wood!