To Be #1

Every Sunday afternoon, I teach an English Literature class to a small group of Chinese high schoolers. These days we are reading through The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, occasionally pausing for discussion and reflection.

Last Sunday, however, only one student showed up: Sophia. Not wanting the others to fall behind, I decided to shelve Narnia and instead use this time to get to know Sophia, asking her questions and – if my boss asks – helping her with her English conversation skills.

Even in this ‘free’ time, all Sophia was able to talk about was the overwhelming amount of homework waiting for her, and how she needed to do it as soon as possible. “I am top of my class,” she exclaimed. “So I must work very hard to stay on top.”

Hearing this, I asked Sophia about something I’d been pondering for a while. “I often find myself riding my bike behind the Tang Lai students,” I told her. “Their uniforms say ‘To Be Number One’ on the back. How do you feel about this motto?”


Sophia thought for a second. “If you try your best, then you are at the top. If you are not at the top, then you are not trying your best. This slogan is an encouragement. Anybody can be number one.”

Later reflecting on Sophia’s words, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for my students. They are under such intense pressure from their teachers and parents that they think there is no room for failure and that there is little worth in trying their best if it does not result in top marks. Life is too short to think only of status, I thought. Even the lowliest, most imperfect person has a purpose and can make a meaningful impact on this world.

After all, that’s what Jesus did.

Jesus – the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation. He did not live a life of royalty and high class while he walked this earth. Instead, he lived a life of submission and humility. He made himself lowly, being born in a stable, spending time with sinful people, and enduring ridicule, condemnation, and death for them. For us.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
— 1 John 4:10

Thinking about competition and measures of status reminded me of the disciples’ argument on their way to Capernaum. When Jesus confronted them, they were embarrassed and remained quiet, until finally posing the question to him:

Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
— Matthew 18:1

The disciples were not doubting Jesus’ greatness; rather, they were wondering which one of them would have the greatest job in heaven. Each man loved the Lord so deeply and wanted desperately to be his number one, to serve him as his right-hand man.

What the disciples failed to realize, however, is that there is no competition in God’s kingdom. There is no valedictorian or salutatorian, no class president, no Assistant to the Regional Manager. In his kingdom, greatness is not a matter of title and status. Why, earthly greatness has no place in Jesus’ value system at all. The disciples completely misunderstood the concept of greatness in the Lord’s domain.

It’s only human, after all. In our studies, our jobs, our relationships, our hobbies – you name it, we want to be the best of it. All too often we see greatness as a material, measurable thing. A status-marker. And all too often, we have the audacity to whip out our life report cards and compare them with each other, thinking we somehow have the authority and ability to judge who is the greatest. We willingly choose to identify and rank ourselves based on our own sinful disposition.

God in his almighty and gracious mercy, however, refuses to define the greatness of our lives the way our sinful hearts try to. Through his word and example, Jesus corrects our ignorance, just as he corrected his disciples following their argument so many years ago:

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
— Matthew 18:2-5

Jesus instructs us to redefine greatness not by status or hierarchy, but by humility, love, and service. He directs us to a child as an example of greatness in his kingdom because of the child’s great humility. Like the child depends on his father, so do we completely depend on G0d’s merciful love, forgiveness, and salvation in order to enter his almighty kingdom.

As God’s children, we must recognize that we cannot do anything to earn or deserve God’s love. We must look to Jesus Christ and humbly throw ourselves at his feet, knowing we rely completely on his mercy for forgiveness and salvation. “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). In order to inherit his kingdom, we must not put ourselves first, but last, and without any regard for personal greatness, just as our Savior did for us.

At the end of our conversation, Sophia mentioned a time when her class rank momentarily dropped from number one. “You should be at the top,” her father had said to her, angrily. “Why aren’t you at the top?” Thanks be to God that he does not identify us by our report cards or lifetime achievement awards. Praise be to HIM who made himself last for me so that I might have greatness in his kingdom as a daughter of the King!

Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
— Mark 10:43–45