This post is similar to others that I have written in the past about scriptural misinterpretation, but with an additional emphasis. This scripture is not only being misunderstood but mis or disordered. I will get to that but first an explanation of the principle at work and then on to the scriptural context.
The Golden Rule says: treat others as you would be treated. It is useful to appeal to this law because, in one form or another, it is found in many religious texts. I say “useful” because many people in our time appeal to this law as demonstrating the equality of religions in terms of ethical demands and even belief. Therefore Christians (or any other adherent of a faith) should not claim exclusivity to their faith when it is clear that there is little difference between what they believe and what others believe.
Indeed, it is thought, that Jesus taught something similar when he said: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). If Jesus understands this, why do so many Christians balk at it? Or, for that matter, fail to practice it?
Let us assume, for the sake of arguing, that essentially the same principle is found in every religious and ethical text, for all time. That being the case, it should strike us that, living in a time and place where truth is said to be relative, there is an ethic that can be agreed upon by most people even though it lies in a time wholly different from ours. When we are constantly being told that our conduct must conform to the realities of the 21st century, it is refreshing to hear we should live according to a teaching found in previous centuries. Perhaps it demonstrates that there is some underlying, universal truth that transcends our human experience.
At the same time it is not that simple, if for no other reason that the rule(s) has changed. The Golden Rule implies that I, the subject or actor, am the one to decide what I would want and then proceed to act in that fashion towards others. However, in today’s climate, we are told that we must treat others how they should want to be treated. For example, we must use female pronouns when addressing a biological male if they identify as a woman. But however offensive it is to others, I could not bring myself to speak of them in a way that acknowledges their chosen identity because I believe that is harmful to their person and, more importantly, to their eternal soul by affirming them in their sin.
Assuming, though, if my motivations are correct and that I am thinking the right way about the rule, does it truly mean that all religions or philosophies (essentially) teach the same thing? No. For the simple fact that they teach many things, that being one of them but not the only thing nor even, in many cases, the primary one. Certainly someone outside of these faiths can condense them all down to one, single teaching if they like but they have no authorisation to do it, either from those who believe it but hold mutually exclusive claims or the from the law itself. Consider, after all, that if the intent of the Golden Rule was to minimise differences amongst believers, it is self-contradictory. If you believed, for example, that following the Torah was the only way to truth and enlightenment, would you want someone else telling you that you should not believe that because they “know” the opposite themselves? At the same time, for the purposes of this illustration, if you were the doubter, you cannot be forced to concede that the Torah is the only way to truth and enlightenment. You would not accede to the demand to put your ethic of the Golden Rule aside for the sake of Judaism because that is not what you would want. And so on it would go.
Which leads us to the question of authority. The Golden Rule sounds like a grand gesture, a kind of neighbourly thing that any reasonable person would do, but it actually requires us to: 1) to submit to the well-being of others & (more significantly) 2) submit to the rule giver. Remember what I said towards the beginning of the post: “Perhaps it [ed. the Golden Rule] demonstrates that there is some underlying, universal truth that transcends our human experience.” Someone was the originator. And someone must be holding us accountable to the rule or it loses its force.
Of course, you might reply that is not the point. It is done out of love or some other vague and undefined notion. But if the rule is not in force (if not reinforced or revenged when violated) then it loses its cache. It is no longer a rule, but a suggestion. It cannot be Golden (which implies supremacy), rather it is just something that would be nice to do. And so too it forfeits any claim of superiority over any organised religion as some kind of universal law.
But note that law was the context in which Jesus presented it: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 -emphasis mine). We may view this as a particular reference to Leviticus 19:18 or, what I believe is more likely, a reference to the Old Testament law in general. Either way, according to the Lord, this is not a suggestion but something that was required of his disciples. After all, when tied to a law or a claim to revelation, an ethical bound obligates us to something all the more.
This is especially true when we think of whom Christ has in mind as the lawgiver: “your Father which is in heaven” (vs. 11). Matthew 7:12 is connected with this verse by the word “therefore.” God the Father gives good gifts to those who ask, so should we do the same with our fellow men. In Jesus teaching, though we are obligated to our fellow men, we are obligated especially because of our relationship to God. And though I believe this is required of all people, this is especially true for those who claim to be followers of Christ for these only are the children of their heavenly Father. In one sense, then, the Golden Rule is not a universal rule but a distinctly, Christian one. It does not exist to bring us all together in one big happy family but serves to emphasise the oneness of God as revealed in holy scripture.
After all, this text is incomplete without considering how or where Jesus’ placed our obligation to our neighbour in light of our obligation to God. If our duty to treat our neighbour is important, how much more important is our duty to treat our Creator rightly? When asked “which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus replied: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-38).
A number of important points can be drawn from this teaching: 1) the law is two-fold, respecting two persons that we are obligated to: God and man 2) like the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12, the law and the prophets can be suspended on or fulfilled in (the doing of) these rules and, most significantly for our purposes here, 3) the obligation to God takes precedence being “the first and great commandment.” At the very least, there is no way that Christ’s understanding of the Golden Rule can become the standard by which everything we say or do must be ultimately measured, not the least of which is due to the law and the prophets explicitly forbidding the recognition and/or worship of false gods. As such, Jesus upholds the rule as a rule but downgrades it to silver. The true Golden Rule is: God first.
Moreover, note how Jesus’ defines those who are obligated. Rather than thinking of people as good and wanting to do good (which is what the Golden rule seems to assumes), Jesus says “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children…” (vs. 11). He is not thinking of good people who want to do good to others and have others do good to them. Though they “know how” do good because their conscience (Romans 2:15) and natural law impress them so (Romans 2:14) and may even feel obligated due to natural ties (e.g. father & children), they are evil. According to Jesus, man is not good because only one is good, that is God (Matthew 19:17). In other words, the law is for bad people because their conduct tends towards bad behaviour. Therefore, along with what we discovered in the previous paragraph, the Golden Rule does not exist to increase our ecumenicity, but to curb it.
Despite all this, it might be objected that Jesus himself was conceding to the greater teaching or authority of the Golden Rule since he obligated his disciples through Moses (the law). It is true that this demonstrates that the law is older than Jesus but it is not above Jesus. First of all, he dis-obligates his followers to the law when its purpose has ended (as in the case of Moses’ writ for divorce: (Matthew 19:7-9). He also obligates his disciples through the prophets, but claims to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). Note too that Jesus’ version of the Golden Rule comes in the context of the Sermon on the Mount which ends by saying: “he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:29). Even when he affirms legal (authoritative) and prophetical (revelatory) claims, he does so in his own name.
True, the Golden Rule has legal or moral precedence in the history of mankind, and may even precede Moses himself. But the law, as most laws of God have, has been twisted into something it was never meant to be. It is not, at least according to Christ, a means of bringing everyone together in some ecumenical soup. By its very nature and intent, it points us back to the Creator who requires that we treat others not as we are (fallen) but as we were created to be: made in the image of God and made for God. Each person (whether of faith or not) realises what they are in the God of Scripture. And essential to this is realising that no one has kept the neither the Golden or Silver Rule as they should. It is not just the rule that has been tarnished and mis-ordered. So are we. And it is only in Christ, as redeemer, that men can be delivered from his disobedience and begin to obey the commandment as God intended: “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” 1 Peter 1:18-19
1. Noting, however, that by doing so I am ignoring, if not trampling, on the ways in which this law or rule for life was applied according to customs and traditions which differ widely from our time.
2. In some meaningful fashion.
3. Being not just conformable to the law but to prophets as well (cf. Micah 6:8).
4. See also Jesus’ statement in Matthew 11:25-27: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hadst revealed them babes. Even so Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (emphasis mine).
5. Note too that Jesus does not speak of loving God, but “the Lord thy God.” Compare to Jesus use of the Shema (Hebrew for “Hear” – see Deuteronomy 6:4) in Mark 12:29-30: “And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment” (emphasis mine).
6. The real, Golden Rule of our time.
7. When considered in terms of his birth and taking on of flesh.
8. The prophets, including John (cf. Matthew 11:13), having prepared Jesus way (Matthew 3:3).
9. Lukewarm no doubt.