There was trouble in old Arcadia. No sooner had the new concept of “democracy” begun to spread through the area, than along came its by-product: corrupt politicians. Such men would shamelessly canvass to get votes, even hiring partisans to promote their cause. Their real concern was not to uphold noble principles; they just wanted to get elected. The politicians became so corrupt that elections finally had to be canceled, and winners were chosen by lot. Aristotle called that kind of politics eritheia (eh rih THAY ah).
And there was trouble in ancient Egypt. Two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah, were acting like harlots. Chasing after a succession of rich and powerful lovers, they shamelessly gave up their honor to promote their own selfish ends. When Symmachus told their story in his version of Ezekiel 23, he also used the word eritheia.
Now, what do such politicians and prostitutes have to do with our study of New Testament words? Their shared vice—conniving to do whatever it takes to promote their own selfish cause—is Paul’s word for “selfish ambition.” It is listed as a work of the flesh in Gal 5:20. People driven by this sin “insist on getting their own way,” and in their “mean-¬spirited ambition” they try to “get the better of others” (Rom 2:8 and James 3:14, 16 in The Message).
The really scary thing is that eritheia can sometimes be a person’s motive for preaching Christ! When Paul was imprisoned in Rome, there were some who thought they could stir up trouble for him by proclaiming Christ. In their twisted, devilish, conniving way of thinking, this was just the opportunity to get ahead of Paul! They preached out of “selfish ambition” (Phil 1:17, NIV) and were “merely greedy, hoping to get something out of it for themselves” (The Message). May we who preach take heed!