They called him “The Lip of Louisville,” a heavyweight boxer who followed his gold medal victory in the 1960 Rome Olympics with a professional career that quickly led to two things: amazing success and widespread animosity.
There was no doubting his ability, but his brash personality and in-your-face arrogance led many to dislike him. His boasting eventually took the form of a simple anthem: “I am the greatest!”
Few genuine fans of the sport of boxing would challenge his claim of greatness, although many still remember and resent the boasting and bluster he continued to spew for a good part of his career. But time has a way of mellowing all of us, and Muhammad Ali was no exception.
There’s a story told of a traveler curious about the small crowd surrounding someone at Metro Airport in Detroit. The traveler had enough time to investigate and recognized “The Champ,” as Ali became known later in his life, as the center of all the attention. Afflicted by Parkinson’s disease that had robbed him of his gift of gab, he was wordlessly, even humbly, handing out leaflets. The traveler took one and read a message that began with: “God is the greatest.”
That’s the simple message of today’s first reading from the prophet Malachi: A great king am I, says the Lord. There’s a dire warning to the priests: Give glory to my name…(or) your blessing I will make a curse. It seems it is from this very perspective that Jesus speaks out so aggressively in our Gospel, as he confronts the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. How interesting that he doesn’t dismiss them or question their authority, but warns all of us to go beyond words of faith and act on what we profess.
Whenever Jesus says I am in the Gospels – and he does it a number of times, especially in John – he is making a clear reference to the First Commandment of the Ten, and to his own divinity. Remember the First Commandment? I am the Lord your God. You shall have no strange gods before me. It is very easy to dismiss it as hopelessly out of step with the modern world.
We might say there’s not a lot of idol worship going on in our culture, at least worship of carved images of strange deities. But we do have our idols – power, wealth, fame, pleasure, independence. The most insidious and widely embraced idol, though, is the image we see when we look in the mirror. There is something within us that in subtle ways struggles mightily with the notion of allowing God to be God: it’s that determined sense that “nobody is going to tell me what to do.”
So how do we let God be God; let God be the greatest? One way is through prayer, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and say “thy will be done.” Repeatedly returning to a posture of humbly seeking and following the will of God, no matter how challenging, no matter how contrary to our own will, is the heart and soul of humbling ourselves as Jesus calls us to. It allows God to be God. And God IS the greatest!
By: Father Jonathan Austin
(Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash)