“The Golden Rule”
Watch the sermon here.
As you know I decided to signal that things look different during the season of Lent by giving up shaving and growing a beard this year for the season. You know that in Lenten worship we have been focusing on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Considering the Beatitudes and salt of the earth in Matthew 5; the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6. This week a friend sent me the following passage from Matthew 6 in the Sermon on the Mount that comes right after the Lord’s Prayer in reference to my Lenten practice this year.
He sent Jesus’ words, “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites (I didn’t think I looked that bad), for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting (yikes!). But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen…. by your Father…. who is in secret.” (Well, Easter is coming soon.)
This morning we consider Matthew 7 and Jesus’ famous Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As with Jesus’ wisdom which my friend shared, the innovative genius of Jesus’ Golden Rule is that it’s not all about us. Let us pray. Gracious God, you have given us a rule to connect, empathize and love. You love us out of your abundant love for all creation. Help us to do the same. Amen.
The Golden Rule has been called the most famous thing Jesus ever said. The culmination of the Sermon on the Mount. The Everest of Ethics.[i]
Sarah Hamaker’s article on parenting in the Washington Post last Thursday entitled “7 ways to nip narcissism in the bud” in children included the idea of “teaching them the golden rule.”[ii] She argues that we parents should have our kids memorize it and use it to check motivations, actions and attitudes.” She concludes, “The Golden Rule helps to ground our children in a life of thinking of others.”
Yet, as with everything else, we too often make the Golden Rule about us.
There is the malevolent Jafar from the movie Aladdin, among others, who defines the Golden Rule as “whoever has the gold makes the rules.”
I spent many Friday evenings growing up watching the TV show Dallas with my parents, and I recall J.R. Ewing’s preemptive Golden Rule, “Go unto others before they do unto you.”
The story is told of a parent who had been explaining the Golden Rule to her preschool daughter, and asked “Now what’s the Golden Rule?” With a look of exasperation the girl replied, “I know, I know. It’s “You’re the mommy!”
The concept of doing unto others as we would like them to do unto us did not originate with Jesus. It appears in many ancient cultures and religions. Centuries before Jesus Confucius said, “Here certainly is the golden maxim: Do not do to the other that which we do not want them to do to us.” Socrates said something similar. The idea is in part of the Hebrew Bible and the code of Hammurabi. It’s in Greek philosophy, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism. They all contain statements similar to the Golden Rule.
It is interesting to note that most of the statements written in other traditions are written in the negative. [iii] Similar to Confucius’ saying, “don’t hurt someone or if you don’t want them to hurt you.” There are some ancient Hebrew texts that are phrased more positively and some Christian texts which are more negative,[iv] but Jesus is credited with being innovative in stating his golden rule in such a clearly positive way compared to many ancient texts.[v] Much as Jesus took some of the general format of the ancient texts that were written as negative “thou shalt not” statements, and made positive ones at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in the beatitudes, “blessed are you who…” statements, here Jesus takes some ancient wisdom about not doing to others and makes it positive, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Jesus is unique in putting such emphasis is his Golden Rule on people acting to help one another for the benefit of the other.[vi] That is challenging as Jesus’ is a higher standard than the more ancient one. It is often not that hard to not do something.[vii] Saying “if you don’t want to be attacked in return, don’t attack someone,” is not that difficult to comply with. If you do nothing, you never break the rule.[viii] Yet, the emphasis remains on your ultimately projecting yourself. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is more difficult. That requires you to do something. It can be challenging to go out of your way to treat someone with the kind of care and concern most of us would ideally like to receive.[ix]
Of course we must be sensitive to the real needs of others when “doing unto them,” for all folks’ needs are not the same. Management guru Marcus Buckingham writes that the common interpretation of the Golden Rule “presupposes that everyone breathes the same psychological oxygen as you do,” so if you just do to them what you’d like done to you they will be happy. It is not necessarily so simple. As one of you mentioned to me last week about the passage, “The way I want or need to be treated may not be the way someone else wants or needs to be treated.” Or as novelist John Rachel put it, “You can’t teach your calculus to a chimpanzee, so just give them your banana.”
The one universal in all this is love. Jesus’ statements imply that everyone understands, responds to and deserves love, for we are made in God’s image, God loves each soul, and so should we.
As we approach holy week it’s interesting to compare the Golden Rule in Matthew to Jesus’ statement in John to love one another from which Maundy Thursday gets its name. Both are said to small groups of disciples, but Jesus’ rule in the Sermon on the Mount is for disciples to love those they don’t know as well, rather than only those in their group, which is the focus in John.
Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount is echoed and defined by Jesus’ Great commandment in Matthew 22 – to love God and neighbor. The two scriptures we heard today are linked. They are preceded with a statement about loving and being loved by God. Then they have a similar rhythm “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Then they contain the same ending. In both passages Jesus says that doing unto others and loving God and neighbor “summarizes all the law and the prophets.” That phrase is found several times in scripture, but this is the only time in Matthew’s Gospel that they are linked so closely in this way as defining the commandments to love neighbor. Paul supports this writing to the Galatians in 5:14 “the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
It’s a call to focus on the doing for others, not on what one gets in return. In Matthew 22, Jesus is talking with his critics rather than his friends. Building on Leviticus 19, Jesus creates a powerful definition of doing unto others by loving them because we all are made in God’s image. He implies that one cannot love God without loving their neighbor too. As such, Matthew 22, the Great commandment, helps define what it means to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That means not ignoring, but empathizing with your neighbor. That means recognizing your differences, but connecting. It means treating them with love.
One hour after the January 7 terrorist attack in France on Charlie Hebdo, a slogan was posted to Twitter by a French artist who used the words from a French children’s book. That phrase “Je Suis Charlie” became a global phenomenon on Facebook. As late as this week there was a “Je Suis Charlie” sign on the bulletin board at the YMCA on Old Georgetown. It means “I am Charlie” and expresses outrage, but above all empathy. It was doing unto others in seeming responsive sympathy to the phrase “Today, we are all Americans,” on the front page of the largest French newspaper the morning after 9/11. Similar to JFK’s Ich bin ein Berliner, “I am a Berliner” statement in 1963. Or the t-shirt “I am Michael Brown” worn after recent protests against police violence.
These are all statements of connection, empathy and putting oneself in the position of the other.
As America negotiates with Iran, a new government in Israel impacts Palestinian aspirations for statehood and violence continues in Tunisia, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, we recall the words of the Koran, “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”
Yes we are different, but cannot Christians, Jews and Muslims find a way to love each other? The Seder we have today following worship shows our commitment to that ideal.
Famed Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, looks at the growing inequality between American families and the decline of communities such as the Ohio town where Putnam grew up. Putnam concludes that growing boundaries between classes have significantly undermined social mobility in America. Yet, he argues in his book and with its title, these are “our” kids who aren’t able to make it in America. They are our neighbors and they deserve love.
In the recent film St. Vincent, which Bridget and I are making our way through at our normal rate of about 10 minutes a night, Bill Murray plays a stubborn, hedonistic, curmudgeonly man who doesn’t want to be a neighbor to anyone. Early in the film, his new next door neighbors, a single mom and her son, move in and Murray’s character could not be less interested in being nice and helpful. He very reluctantly watches the son after school, then starts watching him regularly and eventually develops a deep family-like attachment to him. Over time, as the boy gets to know Murray’s character, he begins to see that beneath Murray’s character’s rough exterior is a love for his neighbor in his heart.
It is love, God’s love, which we celebrate each Sunday, for each Sunday is a remembrance of the work of Christ. The Hallelujah in the heart of God about which our choir sings this morning. The sacrificial love of the lamb in which we rejoice at Easter. Love, not for the sake of oneself, but for the other.
Only someone with genuine love in their heart could fulfill Jesus’ difficult and sacred commandment to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That is part of our exploration of the season.[x]
Only those with love in their hearts, experience the priceless feeling which comes from forgiving, helping, supporting, and rejoicing in the love of their neighbor.
It can be a lonely path at times to show such radical love. It may not always look pretty. Yet that is the steep road up the Everest of Ethics. That is the path of Lent. The journey toward the cross. The way, the truth and the life. Amen.
[i] William Barclay. The Gospel of Matthew. New Daily Study Bible. P. 314.
[ii] Sarah Hamaker. Washington Post. On Parenting. “7 ways to nip narcissism in the bud.” March 19, 2015.
[iii] Barclay p, 317-318.
[iv] New Interpreters Bible. Matthew.
[v] Barclay p. 317.
[x][x][x] Ibid. p. 319.