Did Christ really praise ‘Selfishness’?

First a parable that Christ gave about wise and foolish virgins!

Gospel:  Matt chapter 25 verses 1-13

“When that day comes, the Kingdom of Heaven will be like this. There were 10 girls, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five prudent; when the foolish ones took their lamps they took no oil with them, but the others took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was late in coming they all dozed off to sleep. But at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ With that the girls all got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the prudent, ‘Our lamps are going out; give us some of your oil.’ ‘No,’ they said; ‘there will never be enough for all of us. You had better go to the shop and buy some for yourselves.’ While they were away the bridegroom arrived; those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. And then the other five came back. ‘Sir, sir,’ they cried, ‘open the door for us.’ But he answered, ‘I declare, I do not know you.’ Keep awake then; for you never know the day or the hour. ”

This gospel passage is one of the more well known stories that Jesus gave, but remembered not so much for its content as the humorous connotations of wise and foolish virgins! However, let’s look at it again.

The parable is normally recounted before Advent time when the general content of that time of year is to look at the Second Coming of Christ. In the story the bridegroom is expected but no one knows when he will actually arrive. So it is with the Second Coming of Christ. Jesus is expected to return someday but no one knows when that will be. The message therefore is one of commending the girls who were prepared for that return, no matter what hour he showed up. Those girls who were not prepared were strongly condemned for their lack of foresight.

At second glance, that raises a few questions, for elsewhere in the New Testament we are most certainly taught to give – almost sacrificially. If someone asks for your coat then we are told to give our shirt as well. If we are asked to walk one mile, then we are told to walk an extra one as well. We have been taught to give ‘And not to count the cost’ as the prayer goes. Yet here we see the girls who are considered wise being commended for their selfishness! They would not share even a small amount. Not only that but the other girls who did go and buy more oil to remedy their situation and returned to the wedding were then refused entry, despite their trying to sort matters out. That seems over the top and back to front – at first.

Let me give an up to date example of what I mean. About 15 years or so ago my wife and I were doing the weekly shop with our youngsters in the local supermarket. It was a Friday evening and I was extremely tired and no doubt grumpy. [No change there then!] The smell of chicken cooking in the rotisserie worked its magic and I wanted a whole [small] chicken for my tea – just for myself. It was important, but I distinctly remember asking if anyone else wanted chicken for more than one could be bought, but I was assured that they didn’t. Of course when we got home the inevitable happened and the words “Dad, can I have some of your chicken?” wafted my way when I opened the hot bag wrapping. I refused categorically. I felt no shame or guilt, so was I selfish or not? Most of you no doubt will give a resounding “Yes”.

During my 35 years or so of counselling I have been repeatedly asked for help from people who have come to their wits end about relatives or work situations where they cannot cope with other people’s demands. It could have been a hyperactive child or demanding and difficult teenager, it sometimes has been a partner who cannot see what they are doing by their selfish demands, or very commonly the need of constant care for an elderly parent who sees no further than their own discomfort or needs. Such a Carer needs caring for as well, but so often they find themselves in a situation where there is seemingly no way out or resolving the dilemmas. The end result is resentment, anger, overwhelming guilt, leading to depression and possible breakdown. Counselling is recommended.

The whole thing is ten times worse when the carer works in the caring profession anyhow. The pattern of giving is so ingrained and it would be a mark against their career if weakness is shown. That is exacerbated when the person also has a faith and sees it as their spiritual duty to ‘love’ and give of themselves – for that is what they have been taught!

It is at that point that I usually ask them what the is difference between selfishness and self love? Quite often the person can see no difference.

Selfishness is quite easy to define. It is someone who puts self before others even to the detriment of those others. NO. That is SELF CENTRED. If the person has no idea of the consequences of their actions then they are acting in ignorance. They are acting with only themselves in the frame. Once they are aware of what is happening to others they might be full of remorse and act differently. Selfishness is where the person KNOWINGLY puts their own needs before others, possibly to their detriment.

That is different to SELF LOVE. For Jesus taught that the great commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbour AS YOURSELF. And I am sure Jesus is not teaching us to be selfish!

In other words, you cannot truly love your neighbour unless you truly love yourself. You cannot truly love your parent, child, partner, colleague etc unless you truly love yourself. In other words, if you do not look after yourself then you will be unable to look after others. If you give of yourself to the extent that you cannot function, then you are unable to give to others. You will be so full of anger and guilt that you will scream your way to a breakdown.

In 9 cases out of 10 a person can give, and give sacrificially, when asked to do so. Energy and compassion is found from somewhere, and hopefully long before a person gets to the breaking point they can find solutions to coping. But we are all human and have our limits – even parsons! I had reached my limit that Friday evening. Perhaps I needed a whole chicken at that moment to restore something in me, just as the wise girls needed all of their oil to function in that situation. They could not share even if they felt guilty or wanted to. Their wisdom was to understand that and say “No!” Hardly a selfish act.

So when we are aware of that strain and stress and our increasing lack of compassion, then that is definitely the time to remember Christ’s command, and consider as to who cares for the carers? There are times when you need to put yourself first in order to carry on, for there are no spiritual brownie points earned if you kill yourself in the process and cause greater concern to those you leave untended, loved or cared for.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbour AS YOURSELF.”