The Golden Rule

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 7:12

If you really want to know what is the right thing to do in almost any situation, just apply the “Golden Rule.”

In answer to the question, “What do all religions have in common?” someone humorously suggested these three things: they all talk about right and wrong, they all talk about what happens after death, and they all use candles!

I’m not certain about that last one, but the other two surely are universal human concerns. The Bible says of humans that God “has put eternity into their hearts” (Eccl. 3:11). All people everywhere, no matter what their race or culture, struggle with the problem of death. Everyone has a sense that we were meant to live, that death cannot and should not be the end of our existence. One of the chief things we seek in religion is an answer to all the questions we have surrounding our eternal destiny.

But we also struggle with the more immediate questions of life and conduct and ethics. We wonder not just what happens when we die, but what we should do while we live. The key word there is “should”; not what we can do but what we should do. One of the things which most defines us as humans is the concept of morality, of “ought-ness,” the notion that some things simply should be done just because they are right, whether they help or hurt us, while other things should not be done because they are wrong, no matter how appealing they might be. Every culture on earth has standards of right and wrong. Every religion tries to teach how to distinguish between right and wrong, and every human authority seeks to reward those who do right and deter or punish those who do wrong. Different authorities may define some details of morality differently – they draw the lines between good and bad behavior in different places – but all of them believe the lines are real. Recognition of the existence of right and wrong is universal; definition of what specific acts are right and what are wrong sometimes is variable.

THE GOLDEN RULE

At the same time, there is a remarkable agreement about the most basic moral duties. God made the conscience, and put one in every human being. And, even though our conscience can sometimes be distorted or stifled or even silenced, still, if we listen to it, our conscience will usually point us in the right direction. The best teachers of all times and places have said similar things about morality and ethics. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered his famous Golden Rule (“golden” because it is so valuable): “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).The whole principle of biblical ethics can be expressed in this one sentence: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

But others have said something very similar. For example, the Chinese philosopher Confucius gave this advice: “Do not do to others what you would not wish done to yourself.” And when the well-known Jewish teacher Rabbi Hillel, some fifty years before Jesus, was asked if he could state the whole law while standing on one leg, he is said to have replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. This is the whole law; the rest is only commentary.”

So the basic principle is clear. If you want to know how to treat others, just ask how you would like them to treat you. Of course Jesus’ form of the golden rule, being positive, is far more demanding. It is one thing just to avoid doing things to people that we would hate to have done to us. It’s quite another to go out of our way to help others, as we would want them to help us. On one memorable occasion Jesus illustrated what this means, as he so often did, by telling a story (Luke 10:25ff.).

WHAT MUST I DO?

One day a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). He was “an expert in the law,” one of Israel’s professional theologians. The gospel writer also says that the man asked his question “to test Jesus.” In other words, it wasn’t a sincere request. It was an attempt to show Jesus up or catch him in a mistake and embarrass him. Perhaps the man only wanted to make Jesus prove his wisdom and mastery of the Bible. The expert undoubtedly felt he already knew the correct answer, he was hoping maybe that Jesus’ reply would give him a chance to show off his own brilliance and insight.

So the response Jesus made to him seemed like a welcome opportunity. “What does the Law say?” Jesus asked. “You are an expert; how do you interpret it?” And the man quoted the familiar summary of the Law of God: “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “You’re right,” said Jesus. “Go do that.” Just that simple. No argument, no chance to show off knowledge or score debating points; “Just do it. Go love.” “You want to know how to inherit eternal life? The Law says to love God and people, so go love them.” End of discussion.

WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?

But the theologian didn’t want it to end there. Jesus’ answer unsettled him. It was so simple. He wanted to philosophize, perhaps raising the issue of the nature of eternal life or engaging in an interesting discussion about the interpretation of some difficult passages, but Jesus gave him something to do. “Go love God with all your being. And while you’re doing that (actually, to show that you are doing that), love your neighbor the way you love yourself. Then you will have eternal life.” I think the man must have been terribly disappointed in that answer; it just took the wind out of his sails. But then he had a flash of inspiration. He thought of another question: “And who is my neighbor?” he asked, because “he wanted to justify himself.” It seems that Jesus’ practical response not only disappointed the theologian but made him feel uncomfortable as well. It hit too close to home. It put him on the defensive, so he tried to redirect the conversation by making it theoretical again. “Let’s talk about the concept of ‘my neighbor.’ How do you define that, Jesus?”

Jesus answered this question with one of his most famous stories, the story we call “The Good Samaritan.” It was about the fellow who fell victim to a gang of thugs while traveling on a dangerous stretch of road one day, and who was beaten and robbed and left to die. While he lay there helpless, a priest first and then a Levite passed by, but they didn’t do anything. And then finally a Samaritan, a Samaritan of all people, a member of a despised enemy race, stopped and saved the injured man’s life. If Jesus were telling the story today, I think he would have made the rescuer of the injured Jew a Palestinian.

The effectiveness of the story lies in its shock effect. The very ones who should have been readiest to help refused. Both the priest and the Levite were religious leaders, and as such might have been expected to set the example for everyone else, but they failed dismally. Their sin lay not in what they did notice, but in what they failed to do – they could not, they would not take the trouble to love. They broke the golden rule.

No doubt they had their excuses. Both were in a hurry, probably on their way to the Temple for worship. The man was lying in a dangerous place, and if they lingered what happened to him could very well befall them. To stop and help would be costly in time and trouble as well as money, because if he were still alive it would detain them, and if he were dead then touching the corpse would make them ritually unclean. So both priest and Levite took the easy way out. Turning aside, they passed by as if they did not see the wounded traveler. All it takes is to look the other way. Your hands will have no work to do if you do not let your eyes see your neighbor’s need.

WHICH WAS A NEIGHBOR?

But now Jesus takes the initiative. Remember that theologian’s question: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus alters that slightly after the story and turns it back on the questioner. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asked. “The one who had mercy on him,” answered the man.

It’s this final question from Jesus that provides the key. He told his story in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer to that seems clear: the man lying in the road is my neighbor, even if he is very different from me, even if he’s a stranger, even if he’s someone whom I am tempted to despise. My neighbor is anybody I see who is in need, in need of my help, whatever the need, whoever the person. But the question Jesus throws back to the theologian is slightly different: “Which one of the three was a neighbor to the man in the road?” The answer: the one who helped – “The one who had mercy on him,” the one who loved. Now comes the punch line. Jesus said to the man, “Go and do likewise” (v. 37). The issue is not so much “Who is my neighbor?”; the issue is “Am I doing for my neighbor what I would want him or her to do for me?” The Lord’s main concern is not that we identify our neighbors, but that we love them. He expects action from us.

TELL ME HOW

The famous nineteenth-century British writer Thomas Carlyle had very little respect for the traditional Christianity of his native Scotland. Once, when he was speaking with his mother, he expressed scorn for all the preaching that went on week after week in various churches. “It’s all such a waste of time!” Carlyle exclaimed. “Why, if I were a preacher, I wouldn’t need a long sermon. I’d simply say to the people, ‘You know what you should do; now go and do it!’” “Aye, Thomas,” his mother responded, “but would you tell them how?”

Many teachers can tell us what we ought to do. For that matter, we usually can tell ourselves, by consulting our own conscience or following the golden rule. But only Jesus can tell us how, because he is not just a teacher; he is a Savior. Jesus is the One who can not only give us understanding of what is right. He can give us the strength to do it, to overcome our moral weakness, to turn away from our self-centeredness so that we can love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus invites us to come to him, learn from him, and live through him. And if we do that, we discover that he gives us the power to love God and others. And that is the way to eternal life.