The Sin of Self-Interest
The winsome Rabbi answered the interviewer’s question by sharing a story of one of his contemporaries had with a man who sat down to enjoy a meal. The rabbi approached the gentleman and asked, “Young man, why are you eating that fish?” Probably stunned by the question, the man hesitantly responded, “Because I love fish.”
Nodding his head gently and stroking his gray beard, the rabbi said, “Well, if you love the fish, why did you take it out of the water, kill it, boil it, and eat it?” which undoubtedly caused the fish great harm. Before allowing him to respond, the rabbi explained, “Don’t tell me you love the fish. You love yourself.” He concluded the interview by suggesting our relationships are “fish love” which is based on someone else’s ability to satisfy our needs.
We Treat People The Same Way
After listening to the Rabbi’s intriguing parable, and pushing aside my plate of grilled salmon and veggies, I became convicted. I was guilty of building relationships across similar lines. Sadly, many of us in the Christian community foster bonds with influential, powerful, and well-connected people wholly because these friendships prove to be invaluable to us. We establish rapport exclusively to satisfy our emotional and material needs. We commoditize relationships to further our careers, families, bank accounts, and material possessions and essentially build mutually exclusive affiliations.
From a biblical standpoint, we know building networks are vital. Jesus had extensive relationships with people, many of who supported his mission (Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42), and the Apostle Paul was constantly flanked by like-minded associates who aided his missionary endeavors (Acts 17:16). What Jesus communicates is that if the extent of our benevolence is limited to those who are able to reciprocate it, then we’ve only become manipulators who simply use friends to serve our self-interests (Luke 6:32-36).
The Slippery Slope of Self-Interest
Substantively, the scripture affirms biblical pursuits of self-interest. When affirming the need for Christians to show counter-intuitive love to adversaries, our Lord uses self-interest as a basis for gauging our love (Mark 12:31). Furthermore, Paul encourages the church at Philippi to “…look not only to his own, but also to the interest of others” (Philippians 2:4), proving there is a place for the pursuit of legitimate self-interest as the believer seeks to faithfully steward his or her life.
The scriptures caution us, however, of the type of self-interest that delves into selfishness. Selfishness fails to balance our concern for others and robs us of being contributing members of God’s community. It creates spiritual blind spots that centralize our affairs and minimizes the issues of others.
On the heels of the Golden Rule in Luke 6, Jesus makes three declarative statements (Luke 6:32-34), which provide us with a practical guidance to determine whether our self-interest delves into unbiblical selfishness.
- Unbiblical Self-Interest is Based on Reciprocity
Like rust that decays metals, the “quid pro quo/you-scratch-my-back-and-I yours” approach corrodes relationships by withholding benevolence from people who are ultimately in need of it and/or are unable to reciprocate (Luke 6:32). It’s the antithesis to our example of Christ’s radical love that extended to his enemies.
It’s a form of benevolence discrimination that withholds it from those who often need it the most. It ultimately is found to be a manipulative form of love that treats people like pawns on a board. Jesus makes clear that even unbelievers are willing to love those who love them back.
- Unbiblical Self-Interest Can Often Open The Doorway to Revenge
As our obsession with our own affairs grows, the benevolence of others becomes the prerequisite for our good deeds (Luke 6:33). Not only do these forms of deeds juxtapose the biblical standard, but can also open the sinister door of vengeance, because this deeply-flawed type of affection doesn’t possess the constitution to love in spite of offense.
The revocation of benevolence is the knee-jerk reaction that quickly follows. Because it’s not grounded in the love of Christ, it often leads to the desire of vindication that boasts in the calamity of others. This is contrary to the gospel and detrimental to our spiritual maturity.
- Unbiblical Self-Interest Obligates
Jesus also warned of predatory lending practices that obligated debtors to contribute to the financial stability of the lender (Luke 6:34). Jesus wasn’t opposed to others being paid back for the money they lent (Rom. 13:7); rather he was challenging the type of lending that existed to exclusively protecte the interest of the lender. They were motivated to give financially, while ensuring their own self-interest, not to address the pressing need of another. While we may not lend money or our financial future, we often lend our time, talent, and treasure to the less fortunat,e because it is morally therapeutic, not because of genuine affection.
Jesus simply exhorts us that if we exercise these types of virtues, we’re simply acting like those outside the covenant community. The disposition of the Christian is one that reflects on the mercy of God to the ungrateful and unbelieving (Luke 6:36), which, ultimately, engenders our hearts abandon “fish love” to genuine brotherly affection.
Sage M.L. Hendrix
I suggest Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s I and Thou. This book talks about how we should treat each other as true autonomous beings rather than mere objects of our perception. He mentions that a cause of “fish love” is the bureaucratic, institutionalized society that strips us of our personal lives and replaces it with absent professionalism. It bleeds into how we percieve ourselves, others, and even the things we possess. I would definitely recommend reading.