Being an athlete is often depicted as being interchangeable with striving for glory. Indeed the pinnacle of achievement in sports is almost always depicted as receiving public acclaim and recognition. The Olympics even mythologize this fact by representing spatially what is implied figuratively by placing the top athlete in each field atop a podium above his or her peers.
The desire for greatness seems bound up with the very notion of sport itself. How might we understand Christian participation in sports while remaining faithful to the calling of the gospel? It is precisely in this intersection of “greatness” and “sports” that I think the gospel challenges us at our most basic assumptions.
Mark 10:32-45 tells the story of Jesus “on the way” with his disciples, headed for Jerusalem.1 Jesus is “ahead of them,” leading them and in the midst of their amazement and fear Jesus takes aside the twelve and tells them, for the third time, what is to happen to him. Afterwards James and John approach Jesus and essentially ask him for a blank check (“whatever we ask of you”).2 While Jesus has been discussing his ignominious fate James and John have come to ask for the highest seats of honor next to him. They listened to what Jesus said but they did not hear him. They still imagine that following Jesus entails honors and privilege, that in the end Jesus will sit on a throne of glory and they will get to sit next to him when he is enthroned with power.
The conventional reading of this passage is that James and John come to Jesus with a desire to attain greatness and get rebuffed by him. Instead, Jesus redirects them and offers them a better way, shows them what true greatness looks like. In this reading, the desire for greatness is not wrong, it is simply misdirected. Jesus chastises them for their inability to see where true greatness lies and explains an alternative path.
This reading, however, misses precisely the scandal that following Jesus involves and that he attempts to lay out in this encounter. It is not an alternative path Jesus offers but an alternative desire.
“Whoever Wishes to be Great”
The ambition of James and John was not simply to make themselves great; it was to stake out positions of power and honor at the expense of others who would necessarily lose out.
Or, to put it differently, their desire to be great was intrinsically linked to and identical with their desire to stake out positions of power and honor at the expense of others. Being great meant ascending, meant going up, meant ensuring that their space of honor was not to be occupied by others.
It is often at these moments that people will talk about the inverted pyramid of servant leadership. The world – in this case the Roman world – sees power and privilege as having accolades and awards but the church sees power and privilege as serving others, this line of thinking goes. Thus Jesus inverts the pyramid and says that those who serve are really the ones who are on top.
However, even though this move does seek to ameliorate the caustic effects of tyranny and “lording it over” others, in the end it appears to reproduce the exact same request of James and John, who wanted seats of honor next to Jesus in glory. It changes the conditions for honor and glory but not the desire for honor and glory. Inverting the pyramid seems subversive but in the end it is simply another way of gaining honor for oneself.3
Jesus’ words, rather than offering an alternative path to greatness, instead critiques the desire for greatness itself. The word used for greatness, μέγας (MEG-as, where we get the word “mega” from), is an adjective that means “great, mighty, weighty, important.” To be great is to be a ruler. To be great is to be important, to matter, to be weighty and have one’s opinions carry influence. To be great is to be able to effect change, to have access to the levers of power in a group, association, or community. To be great is to be high up. To be over others. To be great is to have positions of honor and power and prestige, which are necessarily defined over against others. Turning the pyramid upside down changes the conditions for moving up. It does not change the fact that one is still seeking to move up.
The desire to move up, Jesus says, is antithetical to the call to be a disciple. Being a servant is not intended to provide you with the necessary conditions to become great. It is meant to reorder your understanding of the world and yourself. Being a servant is the antidote to the desire to become great. Nothing better illustrates this critique than the next line, which is meant to help interpret this one: “and whoever wishes to become first among you must be slave of all” (10:44). Being great is about moving up, going higher (than others). The logical end of this desire is to be “first,” to be above everyone else, at the apex of the pyramid.4 Instead, Jesus says this person is to become a slave. This image defines precisely the nature of Jesus’ critique. A slave in the ancient world was a nobody. They were defined precisely through their lack of power, lack of agency, lack of identity. The slave was socially irrelevant, dead to society. Slaves did not matter.5
The call to become a slave is not a call to alternative greatness. It is a call to give up wanting to be important. It is to embrace social death. Becoming a slave means aiming for downward mobility, not an alternative upward mobility. No one would consider a slave “great” in any fashion. A slave is a nobody, by definition. Becoming a slave means becoming a nobody.
The idea of an inverted pyramid does get at something right: there is an inversion that Jesus is describing. But it is not the inversion of the path to glory. It is an inversion of the desire for glory. Here the biblical scholar Ulrich Luz, who is writing on this same passage but in Matthew 20:17-28 rather than in Mark, explains succinctly what is at issue:
The issue for Jesus is not that such common excesses of worldly authority as repression or the unjust use of power should not happen in the church but that there simply is not to be in the church any “being great” and “being first” at all…The issue, however, is not to present a new way to greatness – a more noble way than that of authority and power; it is rather that the desire to be great is itself to be eliminated, since even the most subtle desire for greatness for oneself corrupts genuine service.6
If followers of Jesus are to give up the desire for greatness, what, then, does this mean for athletes?
Greatness, Glory, and Christian Discipleship
We return now to our initial question: should Christians engage in sports? And if so how ought they do so?
Some have answered this question by side-stepping Jesus’ teaching here and offering God what they think God really wants. The glory of sports (and of our lives in general), this idea goes, belongs not to us but to God. God wants us to be great but to give that glory back over to God so that everyone will recognize where it comes from, this thinking goes. By achieving great things and reaping public honor and recognition we can throw a spotlight on God and redirect all of that praise to our Creator. Thus, whether one eats or drinks or plays sports, one is giving all the glory to God. I, as an athlete, accomplish great things but God gets the credit for it.
While this sentiment does truly seek to honor God it can appear to offer God something that God has not asked for. That is, God does not need our help to become “famous” and, in fact, it might not be the kind of fame and recognition that God seeks anyway. The divine economy according to Jesus in Mark actually operates differently, by embracing downward mobility and seeking to become unimportant, less famous, less renowned. Living according to the kingdom is to take on the ignominy of the “slave of all.”
It seems helpful here to articulate very carefully the goals intrinsic to sports and those that are placed on it extrinsically. I think that for many Christians the language of “glory” and “greatness” is a cipher for discussing “excellence.” What each athlete aims for, what a sport demands of its practitioner, is excellence –aspiring to be ever more skillful, precise, artistic, and efficient at the tasks and performances of the sport in question. The basketball player desires to be ever more skillful handling the ball, the gymnast to exercise more balance, grace, and poise, and the runner to endure more strain and increase one’s stamina. Each of these endeavors is synonymous with the desire for excellence at whatever the particular sport demands.There is no mandate against excellence in itself in Scripture. In fact, the Bible often praises the way of excellence, from the “more excellent way” of love (1 Cor 12:31) to the “more excellent” ministry of Jesus (Heb 8:36).7 Desiring excellence, to be the best that one is able to be at a particular task, is part of one’s basic human constitution. What distinguishes excellence from greatness (as we are defining it here) is that excellence is seeking to be the best one can be at something (in this case, sports) but greatness is seeking for others to acknowledge that one is the best at something. Glory, greatness, and honor are all defined by their social character; no one is great and glorious by themselves.
So the final word for Christians who play sports might be to ask what it would look like to strive for excellence in their sport but for no one to see them be excellent? What might it look like to be excellent but unimportant at the same time? How can one fight hard for being the very best they can be, not for their glory, or even God’s glory, but for the love of the thing in itself? Stripping away glory and greatness from sports, ironically, can return sports to its true foundation as a form of play. In his book The Four Loves C. S. Lewis he examines what he considers the four human loves (which he defines as Affection, Friendship, Romance, and Charity). Behind these Lewis identifies the different component parts of love.8 The highest kind of love, Lewis argues, is not to love someone or something because we need it or even because we want it. The highest form of love is to love something for itself. Lewis calls this appreciative love. With this love we have moved fully outside ourselves and love the Other because they are beautiful or honorable or righteous, and not because we feel better about ourselves because we are associated with someone who is those things.
We can apply this same discussion to sports. The athlete who loves sports because it brings them recognition – greatness or glory – loves that sport because it gives them something, provides them something. It is only by learning to strip back those layers and removing the desire for greatness and glory that we can learn to love the sport for the inherent joy within it. Just like in every other area of life, the very thing that feels like death – seeking downward mobility, becoming a slave – is also, paradoxically, the very thing that gives life.
- The Greek word ὁδός means “road,” or “path,” or “way” and it is used throughout this entire section (8:22 – 10:52) to illustrate the “way” of discipleship as the disciples are on the “way” to Jerusalem.
- The wording of their request – do whatever we ask of you – is very similar to the language of Herod earlier in the Gospel who told Herodias to “ask of me whatever you wish and I will give it to you” (6:22). That James and John so clearly mirror Herod indicates that their thinking is aligned more with Herod – one of the “rulers” and “great ones” – rather than Jesus.
- In reality it doesn’t even invert the pyramid. There is simply a new pyramid, an alternative pyramid, with different rules for climbing up. There is still a point at the top where, under these rules, presumably the most serving person of all is the greatest.
- Jesus isn’t referring to two classes of people, some who want to be “great” and others who want to be “first.” The imagery here is meant to build on each other. The desire to become great leads naturally to the desire to be first. It is an intensification of the former, not a different desire altogether.
- “The initial response in nearly all slaveholding societies was to define the slave as a socially dead person… The idea of social death was also given direct legal expression in Roman law. The slave was pro nulla. We learn, too, from the comedies of Plautus and Terence that the slave was one who recognized no father and no fatherland.” Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 38-40.
- Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary (trans. James E. Crouch, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001), 544-45.
- Depending on the translation we can also include Luke’s salutation to the “most excellent Theophilus” (Luk 1:1, Acts 1:1), the “excellent” good works of Titus (Tit 3:8), and the “excellent name” of Jesus (Jas 2:7).
- C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1980), 16-17.