The Golden Rule and the Failure of Human Relations

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Sermon on the Mount, lately.  The record we have in Matthew must be highly abridged:  I can’t imagine anyone giving such a short address.  The three chapters as we read it are easily consumed in only a few minutes, but even at that, the pithy sayings may take a lifetime to comprehend.

Following his temptation in the desert by the devil himself, Jesus heard that his cousin John had been arrested, probably for some kind of subversive activity–which was really because he condemned Herod’s unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife.  Jesus went to live in Capernaum by the sea.  From that time, he began preaching repentance, which was what John taught before him, both teaching that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.  He called his first disciples, and went about teaching openly in the synagogues, healing people, teaching all the time, and in doing so, he built an army of a following from areas as far apart as the Ten Cities, Jerusalem, other parts of Judaea, and from beyond the Jordan.  He saw the crowds, and took the opportunity to teach them.  It’s interesting to me that unlike today’s preachers who must rise above their listeners, stand and project, Jesus went up on the hillside and sat down and began to teach.  Perhaps that was common among the teachers of the day, but it seems odd.  With a massive crowd, Jesus must have had to talk with some volume to be heard, but the typical preacher delivery that seems to require yelling to make a point does not seem to be in play here.  No, Jesus sat down, he opened his mouth, and taught them.

Here, as he was coming into his own, Jesus was strong and confident.  He had grown up in the working class, the earthly son of a carpenter.  He would be strong and powerfully built, not the slight, pale, milk-toast of a man that was so common in the renaissance depictions.  No, Jesus was a man of passion, not sad, beatific smiles.  He was educated in Hebrew law and prophecy, he could read and write and think and reason.   His closest friends were working men.  He walked among hated members of society: tax collectors and prostitutes.  He went to parties, he had dear friends that he cried with, he found joy in the trust and love he saw in children.  He was compassionate, and driven to heal the world of its diseases, whether physical or spiritual.  He was the kind of man you wouldn’t mind talking to, or having a meal with.  He was every man, and yet no man was his match.

What did he teach them?  He taught them how to live, how to get along with others, how to project a clear, pure motive of righteousness.   It was revolutionary, but not in the militant sense.  He revolutionized their concepts of human relations, so tainted by centuries of rabbinic commentary and selfishness, with their layer upon multiplied layers of laws and prohibitions, the keeping of which was sure to engender righteousness.

Jesus opened this first great lesson with what we call the beatitudes, a beautiful set of juxtapositions that set the stage for the mental and spiritual exercise he was about to unleash on the world.  He revised their understanding of many of the commands they had faithfully (or not) adhered to since the days of Moses.  He showed them where their lives were shallow and their understanding flawed.  He constantly sent them looking inside themselves, questioning their motives, their reasons for their external displays of righteousness.  He spoke of the need for deep honest prayer.  He taught them about the futility of anxiety and the untold benefits of trusting God.

I have been thinking about that verse in chapter 7, verse 12, which is only 22 words long in the ESV, and how much impact they could have, if we only let them.  It is, of course, the “Golden Rule,” which we have shortened and corrupted into the tersely prosaic aphorism, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  It’s roughly equivalent in the text, but Jesus says it a lot better, and says a lot more with only a few extra words:  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”€

Of course, the verses preceding the delivery of the Golden Rule were foundational to the Rule itself.  Chapter 7 begins with the warning on judging, that if it is done, it must be done with a righteous standard.  The humorous image of the plank in the eye is a wonderful use of hyperbole to demonstrate that we should deal with our own issues before we turn our judgmental attention on another.

As he moves towards the Rule itself, he discusses the nature of God’s providence:  Jesus tells his listeners that all they must do is ask for the things they need.  Like a good father, he gives his children what they need, not perverting their request, not giving something useless like a stone for bread (reminiscent of the temptation scene?) or harmful like a serpent instead of a fish.  No, God provides what is needed, and what is beneficial.

Verse 12 is a conclusion drawn from the preceding lines of argument.  If you want others to judge you fairly, judge them fairly as well.  If you want to be supplied with what you need, be generous in your dealings with others.  It doesn’t take an expert in sociology to see the logic here.

So, intellectually, we understand the principle.  For two millennia, Christians of one brand or another have touted the benefits of the Golden Rule.  But humankind is a lot better at preaching than practicing.  Why would I make such a sweeping pronouncement?  Because virtually every human conflict has been a violation of the principle.  In Matthew 22, when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, He responded by citing Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” He followed that by quoting from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” He underscored the value of these commandments by noting that all the law and prophets were hinged on these commandments.  The Golden Rule is a crystallization of these.

Why does this define human conflict?  Pick a war, any war.  Sure, there are libraries filled with the analysis of geopolitical arguments that justify the mobilization of soldier against soldier, eye for eye, death for death, evil for evil.  The American Revolution, which we rationalize as the triumph of the virtues of liberty over detached, disinterested tyranny, was as much a bloody civil war between the revolutionaries and their loyalist neighbors—a conflict borne of the unwillingness to consider the others’ views and allegiances.  The American War Between the States was fought over the unjust practice of human slavery, along with a suite of economic and political injustices.  World War I was fought in response to German imperialism; World War II was fought in response to Japanese imperialism and a resurrected German imperialism fueled by the punitive actions taken against the vanquished Germany after the first War to End All Wars.

And those are only four examples at the global level.  At the individual level, conflicts occur in much the same way.  One man robs another because he wants something he does not have, whether money or goods.  The one who robs may have been driven to his action by being oppressed by yet another person or system that fails to consider the well-being of all.  Human failure leads to conflict.  The Golden Rule leads to peace.

In each case, the Golden Rule would ask, “How do I wish to be treated?  Do I relish the idea of being enslaved, having my home, my livelihood, and security shattered by an invading person, power or force?  Do I appreciate oppression in any form?”  The answer, again, is obvious.  If we do not wish to be brutalized, we must learn to be content.

Or better yet, we must learn to work together, nation with nation, man with man, husband with wife, brother with sister, parent with child, enemy with enemy, neighbor with neighbor, friend with friend.

But the interactions are not only among people.  The Golden Rule pertains to humanity’s relations with none other than God.  The first great commandment says that people should love God.  Why?  Because he models the behavior he wants us to demonstrate, namely, he loved us first.  That’s what John says.  God supplies our needs, but we have nothing that that he truly needs, only something that he wants:  he wants our love and respect, displayed in gratitude and obedience.

“But I don’t want to obey anyone!  I am my own person and my own standard!” some may claim.  And they would miss the point.  God never asks anything of us that doesn’t ultimately reap a benefit.  The Golden Rule is no exception.  It brings peace, harmony, understanding, all from an ancient perspective but borne out in modern day models of cooperation theory.  Twentieth century social and behavioral sciences merely confirmed the wisdom of the rule that Jesus proposed that men live by, which was a reaffirmation of even older truth.  Truth is truth, wisdom is wisdom, good is good.

I have said nothing here that is not obvious and inherent in the 22 words of Matthew 7:12.  But because we read those words, commit them to memory but do not truly apply them conscientiously, considerately, and constantly, conflicts continue.  We relegate fundamental truth to the dustbin of hackneyed platitude, and we are the poorer for it.  How many of the world’s problems could be eliminated by following this one simple rule, the value of which seems to elude so many, from the greatest to the least?

Perhaps we neglect the Golden Rule because of its simplicity.  Something so simple must not be effective.  And yet, when we are cold, we cover ourselves with blankets.  When we are hungry, we fill our stomachs with food.  These are simple rules of survival.  But so is the Golden Rule.  It’s not just for school rooms and playgrounds.  It’s for board rooms and battlegrounds.  It eliminates the concept of advantage over another by bringing the effect home.  If I wish to be treated with dignity and respect, I must treat others with dignity and respect.

But how does this apply to economics?  Can the Golden Rule translate into an economic standard?  Only if we can embrace the concept of being content with “enough.”  Unless I abandon the idea that I am more important than you and I deserve more of the world’s benefits and goods than you deserve, I will never play by the rules that bring peace.  Unless I understand and embrace the fundamental equality of all people, and do what I can to lift another up, I will not achieve the prize of that greater “Gold.”

So is seeking a world that lives by the Golden Rule a lost cause?  Is it a legendary treasure lost for eons, its reputation built more from the gossamer web of romantic idealism than reality?  We will never know how far 22 words can take us unless we take it upon ourselves to learn them, embrace them, teach them, and live them.  I may never be rich as determined by a monetary scale.  But I can wrap myself in that greater gold and find peace with others, and peace of mind.  Those are things that money can’t buy.

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