The Golden Rule (2)
Jesus sums up his teaching on how to treat people (7:12). We must behave towards others as we would like them to behave towards us. Give generously and receive joyfully. Forgive and be forgiven. Don’t judge and don’t be judged. This is the golden rule. This is the love of God in action.
Moreover, this love shows no respect of persons; verse 12 does not speak exclusively of “brothers,” as did verses 3–5. Jesus now concludes the exposition begun at 5:17, which rested in turn upon the gracious indicatives of 5:1–16. Verse 12 summarizes all that he has taught about human relationships
This command, often called the Golden Rule, epitomizes Jesus’ ethical teaching and describes how people should interact with one another.
For this is the law and the prophets Jesus later says that the Law and the Prophets can be summarized by two commandments—to love God completely, and to love your neighbor as yourself (22:37–40).
The Mosaic Law contains a parallel commandment: “Whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to any other person.” “Do unto others” is a central ethical teaching of Jesus. “The Golden Rule” is another one of those teachings of Jesus that has gained fame throughout the Western world, and there are few who haven’t heard it or don’t know what it means
THE EVEREST OF ETHICS
‘So, then, all the things which you wish that men should do to you, so do you too do to them; for this is the law and the prophets.’
THIS is probably the most universally famous thing that Jesus ever said. With this commandment, the Sermon on the Mount reaches its summit. This saying of Jesus has been called ‘the capstone of the whole discourse’. It is the topmost peak of social ethics, and the Everest of all ethical teaching.
It is possible to quote Rabbinic parallels for almost everything that Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount; but there is no real parallel to this saying. This is something which had never been said before. It is new teaching, and a new view of life and of life’s obligations.
It is not difﬁcult to ﬁnd many parallels to this saying in its negative form. As we have seen, there were two most famous Jewish teachers. There was Shammai, who was famous for his stern and rigid austerity; and there was Hillel, who was famous for his sweet graciousness. The Jews had a story like this: ‘A pagan came to Shammai and said, “I am prepared to be received as a proselyte [convert] on the condition that you teach me the whole law while I am standing on one leg.” Shammai drove him away with a foot-rule which he had in his hand. He went to Hillel, who received him as a proselyte. He said to him, “What is hateful to yourself, do to no other; that is the whole law, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn.” ’ There is the Golden Rule in its negative form.
In the Book of Tobit, there is a passage in which the aged Tobias teaches his son all that is necessary for life. One of his maxims is: ‘What you hate, do not do to anyone’ (Tobit 4:15).
There is a Jewish work called The Letter of Aristeas, which purports to be an account of the Jewish scholars who went to Alexandria to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, and who produced the Septuagint. The Egyptian king gave them a banquet at which he asked them certain difﬁcult questions. ‘What is the teaching of wisdom?’ he asked. A Jewish scholar answered: ‘As you wish that no evil should befall you, but to be a partaker of all good things, so you should act on the same principle towards your subjects and offenders, and you should mildly admonish the noble and the good. For God draws all men unto himself by his benignity’ (The Letter of Aristeas, 207).
Rabbi Eliezer came nearer to Jesus’ way of putting it when he said: ‘Let the honour of thy friend be as dear unto thee as thine own.’ The psalmist again had the negative form when he said that only those who do no evil to their friends can approach God (Psalm 15:3).
It is not difﬁcult to ﬁnd this rule in Jewish teaching in its negative form, but there is no parallel to the positive form in which Jesus put it.
The same is true of the teaching of other religions. The negative form is one of the basic principles of Confucius. Tsze-Kung asked him: ‘Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?’ Confucius said: ‘Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.’
There are certain beautiful lines in the Buddhist Hymns of the Faith which come very near the Christian teaching:
All men tremble at the rod, all men fear death;
Putting oneself in the place of others, kill not, nor cause to kill.
All men tremble at the rod, unto all men life is dear;
Doing as one would be done by, kill not nor cause to kill.
With the Greeks and the Romans, it is the same. The orator Isocrates tells how King Nicocles advised his subordinate ofﬁcials: ‘Do not do to others the things which make you angry when you experience them at the hands of other people.’ The philosopher Epictetus condemned slavery on the principle: ‘What you avoid suffering yourselves, seek not to inﬂict upon others.’ The Stoics had as one of their basic maxims: ‘What you do not wish to be done to you, do not do to anyone else.’ And it is told that the emperor Alexander Severus had that sentence engraved upon the walls of his palace so that he might never forget it as a rule of life.
In its negative form, this rule is in fact the basis of all ethical teaching; but no one but Jesus ever put it in its positive form. Many voices had said: ‘Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you,’ but no voice had ever said: ‘Do to others what you would have them do to you.’
THE GOLDEN RULE OF JESUS
Matthew 7:12 (contd)
LET us see just how the positive form of the Golden Rule differs from the negative form; and let us see just how much more Jesus was demanding than any teacher had ever demanded before.
When this rule is put in its negative form, when we are told that we must refrain from doing to others that which we would not wish them to do to us, it is not an essentially religious rule at all. It is simply a common-sense statement without which no social intercourse at all would be possible. Sir Thomas Browne, the seventeenth-century author and physician, once said: ‘We are beholden to every man we meet that he doth not kill us.’ In a sense that is true, but if we could not assume that the conduct and the behaviour of other people to us would conform to the accepted standards of civilized life, then life would be intolerable. The negative form of the Golden Rule is not in any sense an extra; it is something without which life could not go on at all.
Further, the negative form of the rule involves nothing more than not doing certain things; it means refraining from certain actions. It is never very difﬁcult not to do things. That we must not do injury to other people is not a specially religious principle; it is, rather, a legal principle. It is the kind of principle that could well be kept by those who have no belief and no interest in religion at all. Such people might always refrain from doing any injury to anyone else, and yet be quite useless citizens to their neighbours. They could satisfy the negative form of the rule by simple inaction; if they consistently did nothing, they would never break the rule. And a goodness which consists in doing nothing would be a contradiction of everything that Christian goodness means.
When this rule is put positively, when we are told that we must actively do to others what we would have them do to us, a new principle enters into life, and a new attitude to others. It is one thing to say: ‘I must not injure people; I must not do to them what I would object to their doing to me.’ That, the law can compel us to do. It is quite another thing to say: ‘I must go out of my way to help other people and to be kind to them, as I would wish them to help and to be kind to me.’ That, only love can compel us to do. The attitude which says: ‘I must do no harm to people’ is quite different from the attitude which says: ‘I must do my best to help people.’
To take a very simple analogy—if we own a car, the law can compel us to drive it in such a way that we do not injure anyone else on the road, but no law can compel us to stop and give a lift to someone who is obviously in need of help. It is quite a simple thing to refrain from hurting and injuring people; it is not so very difﬁcult to respect their principles and their feelings; it is a far harder thing to make it the chosen and deliberate policy of life to go out of our way to be as kind to them as we would wish them to be to us.
And yet it is just that new attitude which makes life beautiful. Jane Stoddart quotes an incident from the life of the nineteenth-century statesman W. H. Smith. ‘When Smith was at the War Ofﬁce, his private secretary, Mr Fleetwood Wilson, noticed that at the end of a week’s work, when his chief was preparing to leave for Greenlands on a Saturday afternoon, he used to pack a despatch-box with the papers he required to take with him, and carry it himself on his journey. Mr Wilson remarked that Mr Smith would save himself much trouble if he did as was the practice of other ministers—leave the papers to be put in an ofﬁce “pouch” and sent by post. Mr Smith looked rather ashamed for a moment, and then, looking up at his secretary, said: “Well, my dear Wilson, the fact is this: our postman who brings the letters from Henley has plenty to carry. I watched him one morning coming up the approach with my heavy pouch in addition to his usual load, and I determined to save him as much as I could.” ’ An action like that shows a certain attitude to others. It is the attitude which believes that we should treat one another not as the law allows, but as love demands.
It is perfectly possible for people to observe the negative form of the Golden Rule. They could without very serious difﬁculty so discipline their lives that they would not do to others what they did not wish others to do to them; but the only people who can even begin to satisfy the positive form of the rule are those men and women who have the love of Christ within their hearts. They will try to forgive as they would wish to be forgiven, to help as they would wish to be helped, to praise as they would wish to be praised, to understand as they would wish to be understood. They will never seek to avoid doing things; they will always look for things to do. Clearly this will make life much more complicated; clearly they will have much less time to spend on their own desires and their own activities, for time and time again they will have to stop what they are doing to help someone else. It will be a principle which will dominate their lives at home, in the factory, on the bus, in the ofﬁce, in the street, on the train, in their leisure activities—everywhere. They can never do it until self withers and dies within their hearts. To obey this commandment, we must become new men and women with a new centre to our lives; and if the world was composed of people who sought to obey this rule, it would be a new world.