Sorry, folks – I forgot to hit the record button on this one, so no audio this week. Enjoy!
Usually I’m fairly up on the popular lingo, so I’m hesitant to admit to you that it was only a couple of months ago that I noticed that the internet seemed to be referring to a lot of people as “the goat.” Serena Williams seemed to be universally acknowledged as the goat, but then there were some debates about who else might be the goat, and sometimes people would proclaim themselves the goat, or tell someone else, “You’re the goat!”
I had this vague sense that I should already know what this meant – obviously it meant something good? – but I decided to check it out on Urban Dictionary and see what it really meant to be the goat. Well, as I should have known, the reference mostly seems to go back to Muhammad Ali, who was not shy about telling everyone that he was the greatest of all time. In 1992, his wife incorporated the phrase, Greatest of All Time, Inc. – that is, GOAT, Inc. – to consolidate and license her husband’s intellectual property for commercial purposes. Since then, GOAT has generally been used to describe someone who is the very best in their sport. And although I clearly didn’t notice, the term really came into common parlance in the early 2000s, when LL Cool J released his album that was called GOAT (Greatest of All Time), referring back to – you guessed it – Muhammad Ali. The more you know!
Well, not all of us walk around proclaiming ourselves the GOAT, thank goodness. One Muhammad Ali is entertaining; a world full of him would be unbearable. However, even when politeness keeps us from being quite so outspoken about it, humans do have a tendency to focus our attention on making ourselves great – or at least making ourselves sound great. I’m sure we can all think of notable current examples.
Today both of our readings deal with people who are trying to be known as the GOAT, or at least the greatest in their own circle. James is addressing a community where people are boasting of their wisdom and understanding and vying for positions of influence. The Gospel of Mark tells a story of the disciples arguing about which one of them is the goat.
How I actually picture this argument is that Peter, James, and John, who seem to be the loudmouths of the bunch, are the ones who are arguing over who is the goat, while several of the other disciples sit on the sidelines thinking, “I am definitely not the goat,” and Thomas asks a lot of questions that are highly skeptical of any of them being the goat. Because, let’s face it, some people are more prone to think they are the goat or want to be the goat than others.
I suspect the thing that all the disciples were doing in that conversation is the thing that is common to humanity in general: each of them was thinking primarily about themselves. This is, not coincidentally, also what was happening in the community addressed by James. Everyone wanted to be the teacher, the leader, the respected one. Everyone was looking for status and for things to go their own preferred way.
But James writes that true wisdom is when we don’t center ourselves and the idea of our own greatness. True wisdom isn’t something that is shown in boasting or in striving for recognition. It is shown “by your good life, that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” James sets up a contrast between the kind of wisdom that is typically exercised by the world and the kind of wisdom that comes “from above,” the wisdom that followers of Christ are supposed to be obtaining. The wisdom of the world is boasting, envious, ambitious, focused on having its own way – in short, it looks out for number one. It’s all about being the goat. But wisdom that comes from God is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” In other words, it is a wisdom that involves getting yourself out of the center of your consciousness and acting out of a sense of good for all.
Jesus is on the same page here, but instead of writing a letter, he acts it out in a dramatized parable. I’m not sure where he finds a child hanging around, but he does, and he puts this child right in the center of all of them, and he embraces this child.
Now, in our culture this sounds cute and fairly normal. We may be thinking of the kids here and how adorable and hilarious they are during the time with the youngest disciples. But children in that day were not ever the center of attention. They were seen and not heard. They had no rights, and they weren’t considered to have much worth until they grew up and proved themselves as adults. It’s fairly certain that none of the disciples was thinking, “Ah, but what will be best for the children?” while they were having this little dispute over who was greatest.
But Jesus puts a little child at the center of the disciples’ attention and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
In many ways, children were treated quite differently in that time than they are now, but one of the common characteristics of children in almost every situation is that they are usually not the principle actors, but rather they are those who are affected by the actions of others. They don’t hold positions of power, they are acted upon by those in power over them. In this, the child becomes a mirror of how Jesus describes himself in the beginning of this reading, that he will be betrayed into human hands and be powerless to defend himself against the combined authority of the religious establishment and the state. The disciples are following him around like he is the goat, but he is about to become the weakest of the weak. And he holds a child close and tells the disciples and us that welcoming the weak is in fact welcoming God – because God has chosen to be revealed to us most fully not in power but in weakness.
I feel like I’m preaching versions of the same sermon over and over in the past few months, and part of that is because, well, the Bible keeps saying the same things a lot of the time. But I also suspect it is a word that we need to hear repeatedly as we continue to live in a society that is all about obtaining status by any means necessary and using influence to get your own way regardless of whether it’s good for anyone else, that is obsessed with power plays and winning at all cost, even when the cost is someone else’s freedom or livelihood or life. Many of us become so enmeshed in this that it’s difficult to remember that this is not the only way.
We do not have to argue over who is the greatest or boast about our own qualities. We do not have to strive for what benefits us personally and forget about the greater good. We do not have to center our own perspectives and needs. We can choose instead to treat every person we meet as the greatest of all time, worthy of honor and respect. We can choose to focus our attention on solutions that allow everyone to thrive, even if we’re not getting quite as rich on the deal. We can choose to listen to the perspectives of others, especially those who are weak, silenced, and marginalized. We can choose to place the little child at our center and welcome her as we would hope to welcome God, knowing that when we welcome the weak, we are in fact welcoming God.
With all respect to Muhammad Ali and Serena Williams, I’ve come to the conclusion that the GOAT is not a person. The GOAT is a way of living. It is a path of true wisdom, that is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. It is the path of servanthood. It is the path of love.