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Selfishness vs Selflessness

by on March 12, 2012

Two young men who posed as ‘Good Samaritans’ were recently convicted of robbing a young Malaysian student who had been attacked and had his jaw broken during last year’s August riots in the UK. The theft was just one of many serious crimes and incidents that occurred but by being caught on video and coming to the attention of millions around the world, it became one of the key defining images and lingering memories of the chaos. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, said “When we see the disgusting sight of an injured young man with people pretending to help him while they are robbing him, it is clear there are things that are badly wrong in our society.”

So why was this sad event so arresting and why is the biblical story of the Good Samaritan so enduring?

In the last six months since the riots alone there have been a stream of stories that have reported people coming to the aid of others as ‘Good Samaritans’. The biblical story still resonates with people today and is a metaphor for the mercy, compassion and generosity that we can show as individuals in our society. The story was told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke 10:25-37, and is perhaps the best known and the most morally influential story told by someone in the Bible. Although it undoubtedly contains a positive moral message that could be of benefit to society today, I want to focus on the potential of our personal response to the story.

The lawyer, who is attempting to test Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy – one of the books of the Law, like Leviticus, containing commandments given by God to Moses. This is the law that the people in Israel were trying to live to – giving a moral and legal framework. The two parts of this specific commandment are very challenging indeed:
Firstly: ”Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”.
Secondly: “And your neighbour as yourself”.

The lawyer later replies “Who is my neighbour?” – this is a thorny question that lawyers and law makers have been discussing for 2,000 years. It is hopefully not too hard to love our family and our friends, but what about people we barely know or have never even met before? How can we love them like ourselves?

In the story Jesus tells, we can see some clear parallels to the events in the London Riots. But why did the Priest and the Levite not help? You could say that these were people who were so conscious of the strict letter of the law, they had lost sight of the spirit of the law. It seems that they did not want to become “ceremonially unclean” (which we read of in Leviticus 5:2,3 and 7:20). This would temporarily have prevented them taking part in their privileges and responsibilities of service until they were made clean. Whether they would have considered this as a purely personal inconvenience or something that would have negatively affected their standing or reputation among their peers, they chose to carry on. I think it’s important to recognise that this doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t have any concern or sympathy for the injured man or want to help him, but on balance they put themselves first.

If we’re honest this is something each of us is prone to do. It could be little things like choosing not to let someone out at a junction when you’re driving because you’re running late or it could be bigger things that are a lot more important, things that could make a big difference to someone else without actually costing us a lot. Was temporary uncleanness for the Priest a price worth paying to potentially save someone’s life?

Selfishness, like all sin, can skew our judgement and our priorities in the heat of a specific moment or even consistently throughout our whole lives if we let it. We’ll never know if those robbers in London had any shred of sympathy or compassion for that Malaysian student, or if their sense of morals are so skewed that they are able to justify their actions as in keeping with the state of society – that we should be able to have whatever we want no matter what the cost to other people – that it is “all part of the game”.

Today, selfishness is in so many different ways pervasive in our culture. And to be blunt that’s because each one of us is guilty of sin – “There is none righteous, no not one” – that is still the same now as it was 2,000 years ago or 3,000 years ago. No one could ever keep to the letter of the law, and so the people had to offer sacrifices to cover for their mistakes – their sins. We can read about one example of that in Leviticus 6:1-7, and how it was dealt with. That’s why the mercy, compassion and generosity of the Good Samaritan in the story that Jesus taught is so thought-provoking and challenging to us today even if ultimately it is only a metaphor.

However, Jesus is the real example and true embodiment of these characteristics. We can see them in every action and interaction recorded for us in the Bible:
– Mercy is “kindness and forgiveness shown towards someone you have authority over”.
– Compassion is “a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering of others and a wish to help them”.
– Generosity is being “willing to give something, especially more than is usual or expected” and “disregarding your own advantages and welfare over those of others”.

We can consider how the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, displayed these so completely and perfectly in His love towards us – in coming down from Heaven, to live as a person, to die for each of us on the cross as a sacrifice, as a perfect offering.
– As God the Son and our creator, Jesus has all authority over us, and although he was rejected by those He came to save, He chose to show mercy – kindness and forgiveness – “For God so loved the World…”
– As the Friend of Sinners and as a man, Jesus knows our sufferings and showed his compassionate love in healing and doing good, in weeping over Lazarus and raising him from the dead.
– As our Saviour, He was willing to give His life for us so that we can “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” 

In the years before the Lord Jesus was born, the people of Israel needed to make offerings to cover their mistakes and sins – because no one could keep the law perfectly – until Jesus. Because He was perfect he could pay the penalty for our sins, once and for all. By believing on Him, who He is, and what He has done, we can be saved!

Some people today treat Christianity as just one source of advice. The morals of the Good Samaritan may be influential to many but are not truly life-changing. Accepting the Lord Jesus Christ isn’t just accepting good advice, but it’s knowing the good news that Jesus has already done what we could not do ourselves and it is a calling to serve Him as our Saviour, our Creator and our King.

The selfishness, or self-centredness we considered has been described by Tim Keller in King’s Cross like this: “Self-centredness makes everything else a means to an end. And that end, that non-negotiable, is whatever I want and whatever I like, my interests over theirs. I’ll have fun with people, I’ll talk with people, but in the end everything orbits around me”. This is perhaps something that we can empathise with on some level. Being prone to selfishness is something I am personally wary of in my own life, and while it might affect us all to different degrees, I don’t think it is something that any of us are entirely free from.

In a sense some people may even approach God from this angle of self-centredness. That is that rather than worshipping and serving God as an end itself, we might see God as just another means to an end – be that happiness or wealth or fulfilment. However, when we look at the trinity – the relationship of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, we see the exact opposite. When we follow this example of mutual love and selflessness as God intends, when we centre our whole lives on God rather than ourselves, we serve unconditionally. Then from this, a genuine, dynamic and active love for others will flow with compassion and gentleness. This is the working out and also the challenge to each of us, and to our Churches in our communities:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.”

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