Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
I have never visited New York—hope to one day. But it is an amazing city apparently, with a huge airport called LaGuardia Airport. It was named after Fiorello La Guardia, who was mayor of New York for 3 terms, from 1934 to 1945. Those were difficult days for New Yorkers—the Great Depression, and World War II. And yet many historians consider La Guardia the greatest mayor ever.
He was an interesting man—he loved his job, and loved people. He was short in stature, and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a fascinating and unorthodox political leader. But he will always be remembered for his compassion. It wasn’t unusual for him to accompany police and firemen while they fought fires or caught criminals. He used to take out orphans for a day’s treat.
A remarkable act of wisdom
There’s a fascinating story how one night he turned up at a night court. He dismissed the judge and sat on the bench himself. An old woman was brought before him charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She explained that her daughter’s husband had left her, the daughter was very sick and her two grandchildren were starving. That’s why she stole the bread. But the shopkeeper wasn’t having any of that. He was angry, and refused to drop the charges. He told the mayor it was such a rough neighbourhood that the lady needed to be punished to teach others a lesson.
La Guardia looking at the woman said, “The law makes no exceptions here. I’ve got to punish you. Ten dollars or 10 days in jail”. But even as he made the judgement, La Guardia reached into his pocket and took out ten dollars. “Here is the ten dollars. Furthermore I’m going to fine everyone in this courtroom 50 cents for living in a city where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat”. And that’s what happened: he ordered the fines be collected and given to the woman. A huge amount of money was collected—$47.50, a large amount back in those days. And it was turned over to the bewildered woman. The mayor was given a standing ovation for his remarkable act of wisdom and compassion—I love that story.
What is greatness?
I guess we all have our own definition of what constitutes greatness—perhaps it’s about accomplishments. What Steve Jobs did in building Apple to a world leading corporation—or historical accomplishments with people like Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill. They had a huge impact on world history..Others think of people in power such as a Prime Minister or a President of the US. Or what of climbing the corporate ladder—Bob Dylan said, “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants.”
For some greatness is about wanting to leave a legacy and want to achieve great things, and that desire being the impetus behind every action you take. If you have power, money, and status, then the world calls you great. Sometimes it’s chance; sometimes it’s not. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” says William Shakespeare. Greatness, in the world’s eyes, is about material possessions and accomplishments. Nothing wrong with these things. But is this the correct definition? The desire to be great is inside all of us. None of us at age 10 said we wanted to grow up to be mediocre. No, we all aspired to be great and do great things.
But the Bible has something very different to say. And Jesus’ remarkable words recorded in Mark 10:43 say it all: “Whoever wants to be great must become a servant”. Come again? A servant? A servant is in the lowest position—how can that be? Jesus Christ was the greatest person who ever lived, and he was a servant. Surely a wonderful example for us. So different to the world’s view of greatness.
Philippians 2:6-7 says:
He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. (The Message).
Jesus completely redefines what greatness is, which is serving others to the glory of God. In a word, true greatness is about humility—thinking of others before yourself. Putting others first. Jesus measured greatness in terms of service, not status. God determines your greatness by how many people you serve, not how many people serve you. Jesus teaches his disciples that the greatest person is last of all, and servant of all. This is so counter-cultural that I don’t think people understand it. Why would I want to be last when I can be first? Why should I serve when I can be served?
Jesus wants his disciples and us to know that if you truly want to be great, serve others. Believe that you are not above anything or anyone and serve. Jesus himself washed the disciples feet before the night he died because all the disciples thought they were above it. The world says greatness is served, but Jesus says greatest is serving. Who do you believe?