One of the most frequently propagated economic myths is that free market capitalism is founded on selfishness or greed. I can’t count the number of commentators and teachers I have heard say that Adam Smith based his economic thinking on selfishness. As we all know, selfishness is anathema to the Christian life. Therefore, we should condemn, or at least be suspicious of, capitalism.
Unfortunately, the purveyors of this myth are dead wrong! Capitalism is not based on greed and Adam Smith argued that society functions best when each person is given freedom to act on their enlightened self-interest. Selfish and self-interest are not the same thing.
Two months before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The title of the sermon was the The Drum Major Instinct and was based on the passage from Mark, chapter ten, where James and John asked to be seated at the left and right hand of Jesus when he entered his kingdom. Of course, what immediately strikes us about this story is the bold arrogance James and John exhibit by asking such a question. Have they been listening to anything Jesus has been saying?
King points out a frequently overlooked aspect of this story. If you and I can see how clueless and selfish the question was, don’t you suppose Jesus saw this too? How would you or I have handled this? I can tell you how I would have handled it. I probably would have grabbed a trout, smacked them upside the head, and said, “Hello! Hello! Are you idiots listening to anything I have been teaching you!!!” But King points out that this was not Jesus’ response.
Jesus shows no impatience. Jesus does not get angry. Instead, Jesus questions them as to whether they now what they are asking. They say they do. Jesus informs them that the positions they seek are not his to grant. The other disciples find out what James and John asked and get really ticked. (Probably because they didn’t think to ask first.) Then Jesus explains how any of them can earn the highest positions:
"You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10:42b-45 (NIV)
As King notes, every single one of us has the desire to be out front. We want to be the one who gets noticed. We want to lead the band. What King astutely points out is that Jesus does not condemn this longing! No, Jesus says “Go for it! Seek to be the very best; better than all the others. Here is how you do it: give up all your demands and wants and become the servants of everyone around you. Go for it!” Jesus turns the whole thing inside out and upside down. If we want to be seated on the left and right hand of God, then it is in our “self-interest” to become the servant of everyone else. Jesus loves and wants ambitious people.
Think about some of Jesus' other teachings. In Matthew 7 Jesus said, “Do not Judge …” Why? “… so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Is this not a direct appeal to our self-interest; the avoidance of judgment?
In Matthew 16:25-26, Jesus teaches:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Is not the point here that our soul is more valuable then ownership the whole world? Therefore, it is in our “self-interest” to protect our soul and avoid being deluded my worldly enticements?
What did Jesus say was the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor and hate yourself?” No. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” We love both neighbor AND self. The way we best do this is by making the choices available to us in our contexts that are most in keeping with God’s character and values. We love our neighbors and ourselves when we seek what God seeks for our neighbors and ourselves. It is in our “self-interest” to be other-centered.
Now Adam Smith wrote of “enlightened self-interest.” As Christians we believe that true enlightenment comes from God through the Word and the community of believers. People operating according Spirit illumined self-interest will ALWAYS bring far greater degrees of shalom than any coercive force used to compel good behavior. The practice of Spirit illumined self-interest in the marketplace, and in every other sphere of life, is precisely what it means to give witness to the Kingdom of God. It is this demonstration that will bend the will of people in the culture toward God.