September 19, 2021: Homily- 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.”

Those of us of a certain age remember a time when Muhammad Ali was probably the most famous person in the world.  Back then, you could show his picture to people in virtually any country on earth, in towns large and small, and most people would know who he was.  He was a larger than life figure, with a really big personality.

And while it’s hard for me to imagine, I’m guessing that a few of the younger people in our society today have never heard of him.  For most of us we know Muhammad Ali was an Olympic gold medalist and world champion heavyweight boxer in the 60s and 70s (winning the title multiple times).  He also was a very socially conscious guy – so much so that he was willing to be stripped of his boxing title (and almost go to prison in the process) for refusing to be drafted into the military during the Vietnam War.

And he was absolutely everywhere during a time when media exposure was not anywhere near as easily available as it is today.  Muhammad Ali also had an extremely well-known nickname, as many sports figures do.  And the funny thing is that he gave the nickname to himself. Yep, to himself.  (Imagine that!)  What was that name?  Do you remember?  The Greatest.  He called himself The Greatest.  Not once in a while.  All the time.  Every chance he got.

Naturally, some people loved him for it, for the brashness of calling himself that.  But some bristled at it (as you can imagine, especially since he was a conscientious objector).  But no one could ignore him.  That was nearly impossible.  No one could look away when he was in the ring or on TV or at some public event.  He was just that famous, just that popular, just that “great” in the eyes of so many.

Watching from my Ghanaian black and white tv in the good old days, I was one of those people who thoroughly enjoyed him, and admired him in many ways.  I loved watching him both in the ring and out of it, especially the times when he was being interviewed on talk shows.  I always found myself smiling as he went on and on about how “great” he was, and how pretty he was, and how nobody was as good a boxer as he was.

And the reason I would smile nearly every time I heard his bragging, was because he always said these things with a twinkle in his eye, with a playful grin on his face, as if he couldn’t believe what he was saying, couldn’t believe how outrageous his claims were.  Put it simply, he was an entertainer at heart.  He knew (better than almost anyone) how to work a crowd, work an audience for maximum effect.  In these interviews, it was always crystal clear that Muhammad Ali was enjoying himself immensely, and knew that the audience (pro or con) was eating it up, mesmerized by his whole persona.  No one could do it like him.

They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.”

 We just heard that line in today’s Gospel passage from Mark.  It’s kind of a puzzling verse.  I have trouble trying to figure out exactly what they were bragging about or maybe even arguing about.  One thing seems to be pretty clear, Jesus was not too happy with what he was hearing.  And so, he sort of “corrects them” he clarifies a few things for them in case they were missing what he was truly all about, missing the point of what he had been telling them and showing them for quite a long time.

“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

Evidently, Jesus’ idea of “greatness” and that of his disciples were two completely different things.  And Jesus wanted to make sure they understood the difference.

It’s a fact that most of us want to be “great” at something, or many things.  Great with people.  Great at work.  Great at school.  Great at sports.  Great at fixing things.  Great at music.  Great at making money.   Great looking.  Great at knowing stuff.  Great at parenting.  You name it.  And there is nothing wrong with any of it, nothing wrong with trying to be the best we can be, at whatever it is we are trying to achieve, whether that be something rather trivial and insignificant or tremendously important and essential.

But if we could only be good at ONE thing, if we had to choose what would that one thing be?

“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

My dear friends in Christ, the spiritual life, the life of a disciple, a life lived for, in, and with God, is not easy.  But it’s also not complicated.  We really only have one duty, one responsibility, one “thing” we are called to be “great” in – love.  A “great” person in the eyes of God is one who loves a lot, loves often, loves deeply, loves without counting the cost.  As simple as that. Love is the answer.

There is no other measure of being faithful, no matter how much we may want it to be otherwise,  no other endeavor which is more important.  If we can only be great at one thing — that one thing needs to be “love”.  Without it, no other accomplishments of ours matter – no matter how “great” they may seem to be.  Our achievements are always less than the achievements God so desperately wants to work through us.

It’s okay to be confident in our abilities.  It’s okay to believe that each of us might be better than others at some particular thing or things.  It’s okay even to take a certain kind of healthy “pride” in our accomplishments – as long as our pride is accompanied by a deep sense of gratitude – a sincere recognition that our accomplishments are always because of God’s goodness, not because we are somehow “better” than others.

I often wonder how Muhammad Ali talked about his bravado as he discussed these things privately with his family and friends.  My guess is that he probably laughed about it and joked about how it was all in good fun, all to put on a good show.  He was great at what he did – no question about it.  And he knew it.  It was undeniable to everyone and anyone who saw him in action.  But was that what he truly wanted to be “greatest” at, what he thought was most important in life?  I doubt it.  After all, his life in so many other ways would seem to indicate otherwise.

What do we want to be great at?  Seriously.  What do we want to be great at?

Hopefully, only one particular thing tops that list.

And trying to be the “greatest” at it is not a trivial pursuit.  Nor is it a waste of time even if we never become the “greatest” at it.

But let’s not let it be for a lack of trying.

Father Boat

Older Homilies