When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?”
But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first
must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Mark 9:33-35

The G.O.A.T.

Earl “the Goat” Mainigault was a South Carolina-born street basketball player who was raised in Harlem, NY. The 6’1 Manigault ruled the neighborhood courts. His vertical jump was legendary. He often dunked over players much taller than himself and once reverse dunked 36 times in a row to win a $60 bet. Although he never played in the NBA and only briefly in college, the legend of Manigault spread far and wide and led to his play being glorified in magazines, books, the documentary film Doin’ it in the Park, and even a movie – Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault starring Don Cheadle. He is likely the best basketball player you never heard of.

His nickname “The Goat” has a few proposed origins. Some say he received it because of his quiet demeanor. Others say it was simply a mispronunciation of his last name. But the popular belief, and the explanation that stuck, is that he was called the Goat as an acronym for “Greatest Of All Time”. Manigault played with some of the best players of his day including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When Kareem retired from the NBA in 1989, the 6-time league MVP and all-time scoring leader was asked, “Who is the greatest basketball player of all time?” His answer: Earl Manigault.

There are plenty of people who would disagree with Kareem. Some would say Kareem himself is the best of all time. Others would certainly point to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Lebron James. Basketball fans could argue endlessly about who is the greatest player of all time. It is certainly debatable. One’s answer really depends on the definition of greatness.

Jesus never defined what it means to be a great basketball player, but he did tell us what it means to be great in the kingdom of God.

After providing a sneak peek of his glory on the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus headed to Capernaum, which was a 30-mile journey from Mt. Tabor, the suspected site of the Transfiguration. The disciples had plenty of time to talk as they walked. They misunderstood the magnificent event they had just witnessed and had visions of Jesus restoring Israel to power and setting up a kingdom on earth. They anticipated that they would be the ruling class, so they argued about who of them would be the greatest in this new administration. Jesus must have sighed and shaken his head when he overheard the debate, knowing the grisly events that were to come.

Jesus addressed the matter when they reached their destination. “What were you arguing about on the road?” he asked. Of course, he already knew. The disciples, who haughtily boasted their greatness just moments ago, now sheepishly turned their eyes to the ground and remained silent. Jesus called them out on their misplaced pride.

The disciples misunderstood the meaning of greatness. So Jesus redefines it for them: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Being the greatest, by Jesus’ definition, means being a servant. It means always putting the needs of others before your own. It means making sacrifices without expecting anything in return. It means loving unconditionally even when we are unappreciated or even mocked by those we serve. Being a servant doesn’t mean being a push-over or that you can never say no, but servant-mindedness always has the greater Gospel-good in mind and at heart. (And sometimes that means saying no!)

Are you great? I’m not. In truth, no human being is. We are all plagued with selfish pride and sinful greed that believes it is greater to be served than to serve; the complete opposite of Jesus’ definition. We are not great. In fact, we are detestable by our very nature.

But we have a Savior who exemplifies greatness in his service to us. In Mark 10, Jesus notes, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus served us by selflessly crediting his perfect life of service to you and me, while unconditionally taking on the punishment we really deserve. Christ had nothing to gain by going to the cross and had everything to lose. Yet he went anyway – for me and for you. He continues to serve our eternal interests from his heavenly throne.

Who is the greatest basketball player of all time? That certainly is debatable. Who is the greatest servant of all time? There is no debate. Jesus claims the GOAT label without any competition. There is not even a close second. Reflect on the selfless and sacrificial service of your Savior and give thanks by serving others in the same way.

 Written by Brent R. Bitter, Staff Minister