True Greatness: Sacrificial Love and Selfless Service to Others

What is greatness? And how do we define greatness, or more importantly achieve greatness?

Before this pandemic, too many people evaluated greatness by how well someone threw a football or shot a basketball or played certain sports. Too many evaluated greatness by how much money one could amass and by what celebrity or fame one could attain? Too many people evaluated greatness by the superficial worldly standards of money, fame, and power.

Yet, has this pandemic maybe revealed to us how shallow such thinking of greatness is?

In NY City today, ground zero for the pandemic in America, it is so clear that true greatness can be measured by the heroic and sacrificial service of the nurses and doctors and frontline medical workers risking their lives to help others during this crisis!

A certain greatness can be seen in the property owner in New York who told all of his tenants in his 18 apartment buildings that they didn’t have to pay their April rent, so that he could help relieve the economic stress they face during these days! Can we see such greatness and generosity abound in others who have the means to truly relieve the suffering of those most impacted by this tragedy?

In God’s eyes, I’m sure He sees greatness in the countless unknown people who are quietly reaching out to their elderly neighbors, to those who are alone and afraid, to those who are afflicted and struggling, and who are offering to shop for them, check in on them, give them hope in humankind, and do whatever small act of love they can to let others know they are not alone, that we are in this together!

In God’s eyes, I’m sure He sees greatness in all the people who are praying fervently day and night, who are sincerely and continuously asking for God’s mercy and grace, pleading for His comfort and strength, seeking His peace to come upon our broken and lost world, upon all those who are suffering deeply from this pandemic!

Hopefully these days of crisis and uncertainty are helping us reevaluate and understand greatness from a new perspective. True greatness has little to do with money, fame, or power, it has little to do with one’s athletic accomplishments, with one’s celebrity, or with whatever wealth and positions of privilege we hold.

Remember, what the world often considers great, God looks upon as foolishness. Just think about the Parable of the Rich Fool who thought he was someone special to retire early with plenty of money to enjoy a comfortable old age. God calls him a fool for his egocentric and selfish worldview. Worldly greatness is often foolishness to God!

True and eternal greatness has to do with offering oneself in love for another. As our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13) To sacrifice one’s life for another – like these frontline healthcare workers - and not only for a friend, but even for a stranger, or for one’s enemy, this is the agape (divine) love of God. This is the sign of true and eternal greatness!

That is what we hear clearly in today’s Gospel story, where Jesus approaches Jerusalem and his disciples look at him in amazement. Yet as they have dreams of a worldly king overcoming the evils of the Roman Empire, He gives them a glimpse of greatness from His perspective: “The Son of Man will be betrayed and they will condemn Him to death… they will mock Him and scourge Him and spit on Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.”

This made no sense to His disciples – mocking, scourging, being spit upon, and dying. They viewed none of that as greatness, yet God’s perspective stood outside their worldly view. He reveals His greatness by willingly entering into the darkness of humanity’s suffering and evil, even to the point of death, so that He could then lift up humanity through His resurrection. He condescended into the depths of humanity’s fallenness, so that He could lift up humanity to His greatness. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

Unfortunately, Christ’s disciples, like so many of us, didn’t understand this perspective of greatness. They wouldn’t completely grasp it until after His Resurrection and until after the Holy Spirit enlightened and empowered them. In fact, even after these words from Christ, can you imagine that the disciples still argued with one another about who would sit at the right and at the left when Jesus entered into His glory. They wanted places of honor. They recognized greatness as positions of privilege and admiration.

So our Lord shocks them even further with His definition of what greatness means in the kingdom of God: Whoever wishes to become great among you must become a servant to others, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44). Once again Christ turns the world’s understanding of greatness upside down! The world often considers themselves important or great if others are waiting on them and serving them. Jesus teaches His followers that we discover greatness precisely in serving others, not in being served, in humbly submitting to others, not in dominating them. Why? Because the root of humble service is selfless love. Humble service is love in action.

St. Paul explained it this way: “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but EMPTIED HIMSELF taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form HE HUMBLED HIMSELF AND BECAME OBEDIENT UNTO DEATH, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

The entire life of Christ on earth was one act after another of loving and serving others.  He did not come on earth to demand others to serve Him. He reached out, helped, served, and finally offered his life for others. One of the most unforgettable images of Christ is during the Last Supper when he actually got on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples. What a witness of humble, selfless service. An act His disciples would surely never forget! “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet,” Jesus went on to say, “you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you… love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:12-15, 34-35).

Today, let us remember what true and eternal greatness is! We see greatness, according to God - whether during this pandemic, but just as much once this pandemic ends - in the humble service and selfless, sacrificial love we offer to one another. “I have come not to be served, but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for others” Jesus said. “As I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet… For greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for another.”

May we also strive to follow this path of serving and offering our lives for others – during this crisis and long beyond these uncertain days.  This is true GREATNESS!

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