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Unselfishness: The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

An editorial cartoon once featured the picture of a great stone monument with four levels:


Around this idol scores of people were worshipping, and the cartoon's caption read: "Speaking of American cults. . . ." Christianity in America has rarely if ever been as popular as the cult of selfishness. Fathers who spend their limited income to buy fancy mud flaps for their pickups instead of formula for their babies serve at the altar of selfishness. Newspapers tell the stories of parents, addicted to selfishness, who leave their children alone while they shop, party, or even vacation. Someone has rightly said that we live in a post-Christian era whose God is Self.

The Bible, however, never uses the words "selfish" and "selfishness" per se, perhaps because the radical individualism that has come to dominate the Western psyche since the Enlightenment was not characteristic of ancient thought. The modern preoccupation with inalienable individual rights, self-fulfillment, and self-actualization did not exist in its current form. Much more emphasis was placed on responsibility to community and submission to God.

Whether or not there was a word for it, selfishness clearly existed in ancient times. The tenth commandment was "You shall not covet" (Exodus 20:17). Covetousness was the sin of Achan (Joshua 7:19-21) who put the whole people of Israel at risk because of his own selfishness. David acted selfishly in his affair with Bathsheba, and the parable of Nathan underscores God's indignation (2 Samuel 12:1-10). Ahab and Jezebel selfishly appropriated Naboth's vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-16). Whether the overt crime was theft, adultery, or murder, the root cause in each case was nothing but selfishness.

The “Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus” stands alone among Jesus' story parables in that it names one of the characters. This has caused some to believe that the parable is non-fiction. But because the name "Lazarus" means "God helps," most commentators think Jesus created a fictional character to symbolize the poor and oppressed who depend solely on the mercy of God (see, for example, Luke 1:52-53; 4:18-19).

This parable never states what it was that doomed the rich man to Hades. Was being rich the chief sin that sent him to hell and poverty the chief virtue that sent Lazarus to heaven? Does God, like Robin Hood, take pleasure in simply turning the tables on people? If not, what is the lesson of the parable and why didn't Jesus specify a particular vice? In the context of Luke 16, Jesus clearly focuses on the dangers of loving and misusing money. The unspoken sin of the rich man is clearly selfishness. He used his wealth to dress and eat sumptuously, never paying the slightest attention to anyone but himself.

Paul says that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross should teach us to be unselfish (Philippians 2:3-11). He seems to be alluding particularly to those who preach the gospel out of impure motives, including rivalry, ambition, and a desire for personal influence or profit (Philippians 1:17).

Selfishness has a much broader scope than materialism. We may be selfish in demanding our own way as well as in seeking to use our possessions solely for our own benefit. To be inconsiderate, rude, headstrong, and willful is basically to be selfish. Jesus set us an example for living that may be summed up in words of Paul: "Love is never selfish" (1 Corinthians 13:5, REB).


1.What are some of the most common forms of selfishness you encounter on a daily basis?

2. Are men more selfish than women? What are some ways marriage partners can show Christ-like unselfishness?

3.Would you be more inclined to be unselfish if someone returned from the dead to warn you? Do you agree with Abraham that selfish people would pay no more heed to one risen from the dead than to scripture?

4.Do you think division in the church is often a manifestation of selfishness? What various disguises does selfishness take?

5.Selfish people are jerks--they thoughtlessly take advantage of others yet typically feel resentful when any sacrifice is asked of them. What are some practical ways we can teach our children not to be jerks?

6.Do you identify more with the rich man or with Lazarus? How specifically are we rich Americans to avoid the rich man's fate?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 10, 2007 9:59 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Forgiveness: The Unforgiving Debtor (Matthew 18:21-35).

The next post in this blog is Repentance: The Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-31).

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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