Another Look at the Golden Rule: A Short Course in Ethics for (a Confused) Humanity

How do we get along in the world?  Sometimes it seems like a near impossibility.  The cards are stacked against us.  We get dealt a bad hand.  People are out to get me.  Life isn’t fair.

And sometimes, those things may be true.  But there are ways to make life better. And it’s not really all that hard.

Some people will be upset to find that the key is in that dusty old book of spiritual writings that we call the Bible.

Many people have heard of something that has come to be called The Golden Rule, found in Matthew 7.12.  In one translation, it reads, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”  It’s Jesus talking to incipient disciples in what has been labeled the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of sayings that essentially herald the opening of Jesus’s personal earthly ministry.  It is found from Matthew 5 through Matthew 7, and it is full of ideas and ideals of human behavior.

But verse 12 is of particular interest in that it is said to sum up the entirety of the Law and the Prophets.  There are other sayings in Jesus’s teachings that mention the Law and Prophets.  Later in Matthew’s very Jewish history of Jesus’s life, the teacher was asked what the greatest commandment of the Law was.  Jesus replied in chapter 22, “37 …”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38  This is the great and first commandment.  39  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  40  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  Later, James wrote about the Royal Law in James 2.8, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.”

Paul’s writings return to this ideal that was originally written in Leviticus 19.8, in the context of not seeking vengeance.  Moses scribed, “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.”  Paul, who was self-described as the consummate Jew, an academic legal expert and later, Christian convert, wrote in Romans 13.9-10, “For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  10  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Then, in his dissertation on the Law vs. Liberty, he wrote in Galatians 5.14, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Jews had a written code of religious and secular laws.  On top of it, they added commentaries that essentially compounded the Law with corollaries that made keeping the Law immensely difficult to any but those who were focused completely on it.  But even they could not keep it all.  Thus, sacrifices were made to atone for those that violated even the smallest bit of that Law.

Law keeping is hard.

Jesus simplified the fundamentals of Biblical ethics in his Golden Rule, and his teaching on the Greatest Commandments. What is the heart of the matter?  Loving others as we love ourselves.  Unless we have some sort of condition that forces us to do self-destructive things, we show our love for ourselves by doing things that are good for us, by doing things that make us happy, that keep us safe, and that keep us going a little longer, a little farther down this road of life.

All of these things we have learned since our earliest acquaintance with scripture.  Many learned Matthew 7.12 as one of the first “memory verses” they mastered.  Words are so easy to commit to rote.  Application is the hard part:  How do we wish to be treated?  With dignity and respect, or with indignation and disdain?  What makes us feel better about ourselves and our lives? What makes life easier?

But the Golden Rule did not just fulfill the Law to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  Jesus said it fulfilled the prophets’ call to justice and kindness.  I was deaf to the prophets’ calls to justice until I was well into middle age.  I avoided the dry moanings of those men, calling the erring Israel and Judah back to the reality of a relationship with God.  They had wandered away from God, even followed after pagan deities.  But so often, they were called to return to justice, mercy, kindness and humility.

For example, the very opening of Isaiah describes the futility of the expression of Law keeping without attention to the core teaching of love for others.  In Isaiah 1, the Prophet speaks forth for God, “16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”  All of the observances of feast days and sacrifices were pointless if they did not show love for others.

Jesus related the same concept in Matthew 9.13 and 12.7, where he asks his detractors what was meant by a quote from Hosea 6.6, “For I desire steadfast love (also translated as “mercy”) and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Why is this such a big deal?  Because God made humankind to be in his image.  To bring this essay full circle, go back to the Sermon on the Mount, back to Matthew 7.  The Golden Rule verse begins with “so” or “therefore” in many translations, demonstrating that a conclusion is being drawn from the preceding argument in verses 7-11.  ” 7 Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”  

No one who loves his child would give him something harmful when the child asks for food.  It seems so obvious as to need no actual comment.  But the principle is then crystallized in verse 12, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

So the question remains for many today: how do I treat others?  The answer is simple: how I would wish to be treated.  That answer is simple, and indeed, rather simplistic and superficial with direct connection to reciting the Golden Rule, but the true depth requires more thought and reasoning. Everyone would likely want to be treated well in general, with respect and with dignity.  But we need to be able to understand where others are in terms of their needs.  If I were homeless, how would I hope to be treated?  If I were sick and in desperate need of medical care, how would I hope to be treated? If I were fleeing from oppression, the threat of a violent death; if I were struggling to find some place where my children could grow up in peace, with the hope of a better life, how would I wish to be treated?  If my life were so difficult that I have sought refuge in medications, becoming addicted to opioids or alcohol or gambling or sex, how would I hope to be treated? I know I have a problem, so do I need lectures and punishment and harassment? Or could I use some help to overcome my addiction and change my life so that it is bearable and so that I can find strength and comfort in something besides such self-destructive outlets? If I were trapped in a cycle of poverty, financially unable to move my home to a place where there may be greater opportunity, yet unable to find work where I live in this blighted inner city, do I need berating for living on handouts or the encouragement that a hand-up could provide? 

Some will say that this smacks of “liberalism.”  I say it shouts the most fundamental of godly principles. Given a choice between placating some oppressive political ideology and following God’s own fundamental ethic, I will take the path that makes life better for the oppressed, not the oppressors.  It is the Rule that is Golden.  Gold is not the rule.


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