Muhammad Ali was known for many things, but was he “The Greatest”? What does that mean?
I remember that I wasn’t a Christian very long when I came across an article that claimed Muhammad Ali developed Parkinson’s Disease because he defied God by claiming to be “The Greatest”, a title which only God could claim. The article seemed overall hypercritical and looking for something to stir up and cause controversy. It was one of my first brushes with an underlying judgmental attitude that pervades so many who claim to be part of the Church of God, and I didn’t know how to respond.
Simply put, I always thought that “The Greatest” referred to his being the greatest fighter of all time. Silly me, I suppose. However, Ali was not a one-dimensional character, unlike many of the famous-because-they-are-famous “celebrities” of today. It was some of these other qualities that made Ali “the greatest human” to them personally.
Ali was brash, cocky, and sometimes villianized his opponents mercilessly. This alienated him from many whites at the time, whose idea of how black athletes should behave was more of a quiet stoicism rather than a lout, jovial black man shooting his mouth off. He made enemies, at least at the time, as easily as he made admirers.
This worked against him, IMO, when it came time to declare he would not fight in Vietnam. Some saw it as more of the same, but I believe history shows that it took guts and character to stand up to the huge injustices of his day.
In short, Ali was a mass of contradictions. In short, Ali was just as much human as he was legend.
Desire to Be “The Greatest” Not New
Wanting to be “the greatest” is nothing new. Perhaps that same author who accused Ali of claiming a title belonging to God would just as gladly have struck down the Apostles before their full conversion, and more than once at that!
24 And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.
25 And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.
26 But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
27 For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.
~ Lk 22:24-27
In other instance(s), we see Jesus putting a child in the middle of the group of men and pointing out the child as an example of what it takes to be the greatest. However, I chose this passage because it clearly outlines a few things:
- Striving to be the chief, the head honcho, the greatest, is nothing new. It is all-too-human.
- It is the way of the gentiles, that is, non-believers. It is the world’s way.
- God does not give the greatest reward to those who seek status for self. Rather, God gives the greatest reward to those who seek to serve.
What a different world it would be if everyone followed this philosophy! What a different Church we would see today if men weren’t poaching members for fame, fortune and status!
Who Is Really The Greatest?
Still, if Muhammad Ali was The Greatest, as in the greatest human being, then we are still all in trouble. He was very human, very brash and very filled with ego. That is the very human problem right there in a nutshell, and that is what Jesus was pointing out to His disciples.
However, what of Jesus Himself? Was He not The Greatest human that ever lived? He also was a man of convictions, One Who stood up to the authorities of His day and was hated for it. However, instead of being stripped of worldly titles, they took His life!
Furthermore, Jesus did not go about bragging about Himself. Instead of wounding, He healed. Instead of instantly casting stones, He picked people up, dusted them off and then told them to sin no more. When people mourned, He was even known to raise the dead.
Jesus refused to be part of the problem. In fact, He came to point out The Solution — The Only Solution — to all of mankind’s problems.
Truly, it is written by The Real Greatest:
28 And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:
29 That no flesh should glory in his presence.
~ 1Co 1:28-29
Even so, Amen.