Of Jesus’ many famous sayings, perhaps the most well-known is one we call the Golden Rule. He spoke it toward the end of his famous Sermon on the Mount: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12).” These are perhaps Jesus’ most famous words. They are the capstone of that whole, famous sermon.
And that Golden Rule, I believe, is the Everest of all ethical teaching.
For us, some two thousand years later, the significance of this statement is hard to grasp. It has become, perhaps, too familiar. Familiarity breeds contempt, the saying goes. Having heard our mothers and Sunday School teachers preach that to us for so long, we no longer really comprehend its weight.
There are similar statements from other traditions outside of Christianity:
- In Psalm 15:2-3, the one who knows God is the one “…who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman….”
- The famous Jewish Rabbi Shammai taught: “What is hateful to yourself, do to no other.”
- Confucious was asked if there was one word which might serve as a rule of practice for one’s life. His answer: “Reciprocity – what you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
- In the Buddhist Hymns of Faith we read: “Doing as one would be done by, kill not or cause to kill.”
- There’s the old Stoic maxim: “What you do not wish to be done to you, do not do to anyone else.”
- Even an American proverb describes “Chickens coming home to roost.”
This idea of doing no harm has been around for a long time and is, in fact, the basis of all ethical teaching. However, no one but Jesus ever put it in its positive form. Each one of the examples above is negative in configuration. Many voices have said: Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. But no voice had ever said “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”
Jesus changed the ethical landscape completely in two important ways. First, the rule in its negative form must necessarily exist so that life on this planet continues. The negative version of this rule promotes order. It suppresses anarchy. We create rules and laws to prevent people from doing immoral things to one another.
These rules apply to all – at least in theory we force lawmakers to abide by the same laws they enact. So, the rule in its negative form is a necessary part of a civilized society, but it adds nothing to life. Jesus taught differently.
Second, the rule in its negative form involves nothing more than not doing certain things – refraining from certain actions. This rule is in no way religious, but legal. It is adhered to by all humans, Christians and humanists alike, regardless of religious persuasion. To follow it, a person need do nothing good, nothing positive, nor add benefit to humanity. Rather, he must simply refrain from doing bad.
On the other hand, Jesus’ positive spin on this rule is a call to action. He calls us to add something positive to life. We must refrain from injuring, but also move toward healing. We must refrain from harming, but also move to helping. We must move from tolerating to valuing.
As an analogy, the civil government can dictate to me how I may drive a car. I must obey safety and speed laws so that I might be a safer driver. But no civil authority compels me to stop and render aid to a stranded motorist. Stopping and helping with the flat tire is the heart of Jesus’ Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule is the heart of God found in the Old Testament (the Law and Prophets) and fully realized in Jesus. The God of the Bible is a God of action. The Gospel of John reminds us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:16-17).”
God sent his Son to add value to our world – He lived out his own rule.
Our role on this planet is to follow His lead – to make the world a better place for His glory.
Rather than going through life with the goal of not harming others, God wants us to add a little extra to life – to actually leave this a better place for our being here. This only happens when we take action.
Philosophically, that might include making laws against harming others, but also legislation that promotes the well-being of others.
Personally, it will include not harming others, but must also lead us to get out there and add value to our world through community service projects, providing for the poor, protecting the weak, speaking for the powerless, and standing for righteousness.
When we can love, listen, and value others the way we want to be loved, heard, and valued, then we can benefit our world.