The Golden Rule
“Everything then, whatever you want people to do to you, in the same way also do to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Just about everyone seems to have some knowledge of the verse in the Bible known as the Golden Rule. Most people could probably recite it in one form or another, or at least paraphrase it. It also seem to be the verse most often deliberately misquoted:
- “Do unto others what they do unto you.”
- “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
- Or (my personal favorite) simply: “Do others!”
The saying (sometimes referred to as the ethic of reciprocity) is so familiar to Christians who know that it’s a quote from Jesus, that they are often surprised to find that this concept is also found in many religions and cultures. A Google search will quickly show many similar sayings in Buddhism, Baha’i, Hinduism Islam and Judaism, as well as in many ancient writings much older that the Gospels. A few samples:
- "...a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?" Samyutta NIkaya v. 353
- Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." Udana-Varga 5:18
- "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you" Analects 15:23
- "Tse-kung asked, 'Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?' Confucius replied, 'It is the word 'shu' -- reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'" Doctrine of the Mean 13.3
- Hinduism: This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. Mahabharata 5:1517
- Islam: "None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." Number 13 of Imam "Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths." 3
- "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary." Talmud, Shabbat 31a.
- "And what you hate, do not do to anyone." Tobit 4:15 4
Theologically liberal Christians gladly receive this information as evidence that all religions are equal. Theologically conservative Christians are sometimes rattled or upset, feeling that this sort of thinking is a threat to the uniqueness of Jesus. My orthodoxy as a teacher has even been called into question by some for even discussing the existence of such sayings.
But does the recognition of truth in other religions threaten the uniqueness of Jesus?
- First of all we need to realize that not everything Jesus said was original with Him. Every word He said was and is true, not because it was all original with Him, but because He is God.
- Secondly the doctrine of natural revelation teaches us that God has revealed Himself in many ways. “…that which is known of God is evident among them (humankind), for God made it evident to them” (Romans 1:19). “For whenever gentiles, those not having the Law, do by nature the things of the Law, these, though not having the Law are a law to themselves, such ones as show the work of the Law written in their hearts…” (2:14, 15).
But Jesus’ statement is unique for a number of reasons. The first reason is that it is the word of the Son of God and as such has an authority over His hearers that the other sayings do not. Also, many (though not all) of the other sayings were in a negative form (“Do not…”), whereas Jesus’ was in a positive form.
Many of the other sayings were stated or could be interpreted with a utilitarian motive, i.e., be nice to others, so that they will be nice to you. Jesus gives a different reason for this behavior, “…for this is the Law and the Prophets.” This, I believe, is the radical difference.
Jesus’ hearers were mostly Jews, living under the Old Testament Law of Moses. Jesus had already devoted a large portion of this sermon to the proper understanding of that Law (5:17-48). He taught that God’s Law is not simply about the performance or non-performance of external acts, but began with the thought life. Much of that teaching was in a negative fashion. Here, in this one statement, He gives a positive summation of the keeping of the Law, as well as the teachings of the Old Testament prophets.
Later, when Jesus is questioned by a Pharisaic law expert (Matthew 22:34-36) as to which is the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus replied, “’You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Jesus was quoting from two texts in the Mosaic Law, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18b. And He ties these two together as a summation of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus had quoted these passages a number of times, but sometimes only the second, Leviticus 19:18b, about loving one’s neighbor. He even referred to it earlier in this Sermon (Matthew 5:45).
I would even venture to say that when He placed the two love commands together, He was implying a link between them – an unbreakable link. Can one actually love his neighbor without loving God? Can a person love God without loving His neighbor?
And if the “Golden Rule” and the Law of Love are both said to be the fulfillment of God’s Law, can we not assume that they are one and the same? This elevates the Rule to more than a utilitarian social ethic. Though it may be found to be good practical advice, it is so much more than that. It is an expression of the Love of God worked out in our lives. As John, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, would later write, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The other disciples also grasped this concept. James, Jesus’ brother, who was not a believer at the time Jesus preached the Sermon, but may very well have heard it, wrote of it in his letter, referring to it as “the perfect Law, the Law of Liberty” (James 1:25) and “the Royal Law” (2:8).
And then there’s Paul, another who was an unbeliever at the time of the Sermon, who probably never heard Jesus at all, and who many believe wrote before the Gospels were written. Yet he grasps Jesus’ sayings and almost paraphrases Him. (See: PAUL AND JESUS 4/11/09.)
“For all the Law is fulfilled in one word in this, ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14).
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another, for the one who loves the other has fulfilled the Law. For this, ‘You will not commit adultery, you will not murder, you will not steal, you will not covet,’ and if there’s any other commandment, it is summed up in this word, ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does not do evil to a neighbor, therefore love is the Law’s fulfillment!’” (Romans 13:8-10).
So for the follower of Jesus, the “Golden Rule” is more than just good advice, more than the best advice. It is the living out of the love of Christ in our relationships with others.
Also see: THE SECOND GREAT COMMANDMENT .