"So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." – Matthew 7:12

Years ago, my wife and I were serving on the south side of Chicago for the summer with a ministry called Athletes in Action. We were runing sports camps for kids and serving several solid urban ministries and churches. One night four of us — Marcus, Marcus a.k.a. "Cream," a grad student named Sinqui, and myself — were playing spades deep into the evening. We dispatched Sinqui on a food run/mission as he was telling us about some legendary chicken place called Harrolds[1]. When he returned he proceeeded to tell us the story of a bit of an altercation that took place while he was waiting in line. Finally, after many minutes of talking, my friend Marcus interupted him and said “Give me the down-down; you’ve talked us all around this room and back and still haven’t given us the story.” What we need was a summary, a concise statement of the story so we could understand and remember it well.

The Down-Down

Now, Jesus was not giving a meandering, unending sermon in the Sermon on the Mount, maybe like lesser preachers like myself might do, but he does acknowledge and will demonstrate the immense value of a good summary. Summaries are helpful for several reasons. Summaries are memorable, clear, and transferrable, allowing for learning at various levels of understanding.

Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives a summary, a summation of deep biblical truth. He gives us the down-down on the Bible and on the way to follow him and to live as a citizen of his Kingdom. Jesus’ summary is memorable, clear, and transferable and can be taught to young and old alike. And as a summary? It…Is…Gold.

"So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

Whatever You Wish

When Jesus said “so whatever you wish” he uses a word that means to have a strong desire, wish or want.[2] Whatever you wish others would do to you, whatever you would have them to do you, you should do also to them. This has come down to us as “The Golden Rule.”

Many have noted that this sort of teaching is not unique to Jesus and have cited many "golden rules” from various faith and philosophical traditions. For example, in the Udanavarga, a writing in the Buddhist tradition, we read the words “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”[3] The Confucian tradition of China brings to us “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself."[4] Finally Hilel, the highly regarded first century Jewish teacher, taught “What is hateful to you, do not do to you neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn."[5]

Such formulations, as found in many traditions tell us to NOT do the stuff you wouldn't like done to you.  As such these have been called the negative version of the golden rule or sometimes "the silver rule." While many religious and ethical teachers say such in the negative, Jesus says something a little differently, something that I do think is unique. His call is not simply to not do something but rather to desire something, even imagine something, and DO THAT. The late Dr. Robert Mounce said, “In its negative form, the Golden Rule could be satisfied by doing nothing. The positive form moves us to action on behalf of others.”[6]

Jesus calls us to think about how we would want to be treated and then treat others that way. It is indeed a call to loving action. This, quite frankly, is world-changing when implemented because we then begin to live lives of empathy and love. Jesus is asking us to engage our moral imagination, to think about situations and our actions and then do something based upon how we would like to be treated. He is not, however, calling us to live in any way we would like and want others to do the same. He is not calling us to “imagine” a world made in our own image where people live in the way we would like them to and somehow create some sort of utopian reality. Let me illustrate by calling us away from what I call "Michael Jackson theology."

Michael Jackson Theology

It would be easy to simply start with the man in the mirror and ask him to make a change. But what should that man in the mirror change into? Into what image shall he transform? We all know that we need to change the way we treat others and even who we are, but I’m not so sure we realize what we should do and become. Again, it is fine to want to heal the world and make it a better place…for you and for me and the entire human race. Or to quote John Lennon we can use our moral imagination to ask how we would wish others to treat us, but is the human imagination alone enough to heal the world, make the world better and fix the man in the mirror. We cannot look at ourselves as the source of a new imagined self or a new imagined world or a new imagined way of treating others. When we look only at ourselves we realize that there are many men, many mirrors, and many ways to imagine of how we ought to live. There is a way we might wish to be treated if we had the ideology under ISIS or Iceland[7], and there is a difference.

W.D. Davies and Dale Allison Jr. make this clear about the golden rule when commenting on Matthew 7:12. They write, "Verse 12 is not a formula for justice or making the world better, but rather a call to exceptional benevolence."[8]

In other words, we don’t start with ourselves and what “we” wish our world to be; rather, we come to God for his instruction and then extend love and benevolence to others!

Remember, the Golden Rule of Jesus is a summary and he makes clear in the latter part of verse 12. It is the King that sets forth the path for us, for the Golden Rule sums up “the Law and the Prophets.” When Jesus was delivering the Sermon on the Mount, he had already said clearly “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”[9] Later on in Matthew’s gospel he also taught us what the greatest commandments were in the law by saying

…“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” [10]

Law and the Prophets is short hand for the Old Testament, the Holy Scriptures and the scope of revelation in Jesus’ time.

So what is the down-down for Jesus? We should follow the one who fulfills the teaching of the Scriptures and then teaches us how we are to live as his followers: We are to love God and love our neighbor and we are to do to others as we would have them do to us. This is the way of God and the way he would have us to live. It is the foundation of our moral imagination. The Word of God shapes both how we wish to be treated and how we would treat others. The Golden Rule both engages the moral imagination in specific circumstances and is grounded firmly in the Word of God.

[1] For the record the chicken was fantastic and I highly recommend Harold’s to anyone visiting or living in Chicago metro

[2] θέλω thelō will; wish BDAG  wish to have, desire, want; will, wish, want, be ready; like; maintain

[3] Udanavarga 5:18

[4] Confucius, Biography, https://www.egs.edu/library/confucius/biography/

[5] Quoted in Scot McKnight, The Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan) 251.

[6] Robert Mounce, quoted in Craig Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary

[7] To be honest I know very little about the ways and current worldview of Iceland.

[8] Davies and Allison, Matthew – A Shorter Commentary, (London, New York: T&T Clark) 109.

[9] Matthew 5:17 ESV

[10] Matthew 22:37-40

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