Super Bowls Ads, MLK, and True Greatness
Super Bowls Ads, MLK, and True Greatness
by Bryce Morgan
Trucks can't serve, but people can.
This past Sunday, Dodge wanted Super Bowl viewers to know its trucks were “Built to Serve”. And to drive home that idea (no pun intended), some 'creative' in the Dodge marketing department thought it would be a good idea to borrow audio from a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, given exactly fifty years earlier, to the day. The connection between Dodge and Dr. King? The idea of service.
But trucks can't serve.
Dr. King understood the agenda of the marketer. In fact, he makes this statement in that very same sermon:
“Now the presence of this instinct [i.e. the fleshly desire for attention and recognition; to be first] explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car.”
The irony is as thick as the mud on that Dodge commercial.
But even though the pairing (i.e. Dodge and Dr. King) was a poor choice, the sermon audio was still stirring. And it was stirring because it pointed to the words and wisdom of Jesus (whether viewers understood that or not). This is the text on which Dr. King preached back in 1968:
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to [Jesus] and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?”  And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized,  but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”  And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.  And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,  and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. (Mark 10:35-44)
Reflecting on the words of Christ, Dr. King stated,
“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
Trucks can't serve, but you can.
Jesus taught us that true greatness is not found in worldly positions or worldly power. No, true greatness is found on the path of humility and sacrificial love. Why? Because God said so. Because God will exalt the humble (cf. James 4:10), and will fill up the one who empties himself or herself out for the good of others.
But the marketers at Dodge are not the only ones to miss the mark here. Though there is much to be commended about his message, Dr. King wrongly made this assertion:
“And [Jesus] transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, 'Now brethren, I can't give you greatness. And really, I can't make you first.' This is what Jesus said to James and John. 'You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness.'”
Martin Luther King is to be honored for his immeasurable contributions to the civil rights movement. But we can do that while at the same time pointing out the serious problems with his understanding of the gospel. Consider the final verse of that passage from Mark, a verse Dr. King left out of his message:
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
While all of us can serve and know the true greatness Jesus spoke of, none of us can truly “earn it”. If it were ultimately a matter of “fitness”, we would all fail. While Dr. King wanted to stir hearts and call them to action, he failed to point his listeners to the key: the sacrificial service of Jesus on the cross. Jesus gave his life “as a ransom for many” in order to redeem us from the power of sin and death. And without that redemption, and the new heart Jesus secured, we will continue to be ruled by that “fleshly desire for attention and recognition; to be first”.
It is only the self-emptying, sin-bearing, death-defeating, blood-stained, God-glorifying cross of Jesus that can give us “a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love”. For only the gospel, the Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection, can humble us to the servant's posture Christ commended.
Jesus may have told James and John that the Father has seen fit to appoint and arrange those surrounding the Messiah's throne ("it is for those for whom it has been prepared"), but contrary to Dr. King, he really can give us the greatness he spoke about. Jesus was more than a great teacher and moral example. He was and is the Deliverer. He was and is our only hope, in light of sin's corrosive grip on our hearts.
Funny how God works. He can even use the misguided pairing of Dodge and Dr. King, on a Super Bowl Sunday, to point us back to true greatness and the One who makes it possible.
*For those interested, the transcript of Dr. King's sermon can be found here.