Chapter 12: The Golden Rule

The Sermon on the Mount
by Roger Shinn

Chapter 12: The Golden Rule

From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 7:12. For the parallel passage see Luke 6:31. To follow up the theme look at Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:34-40; John 13:34-35.


Life is difficult enough that people often wish they could find some slogan that would always guide them. The modem yen for getting everything in a cellophane-wrapped package is not entirely new. Long before there was any cellophane, the human race learned to love neatly packaged goods. People have wanted even their religions to come in packages -- all in one container, no loose ends, no puzzling leftovers, nothing unsure. So they have longed for rules, proverbs, slogans -- to save thinking and praying.

But the idea won't work. No rule can do our thinking for us. In Christian faith no rule can take the place of the personal encounter with God. Nor can any rule take the place of the Christian gospel.

Two slogans we often hear, as though nothing else were needed: "Let your conscience be your guide," and "Follow the Golden Rule." Each of these, when used in the light of the whole Christian faith, can be helpful. Each by itself lacks something.

Look first at conscience. Huckleberry Finn once found himself quite without his intention, helping a runaway slave to escape. His conscience bothered him about disobeying the law, and his conscience bothered him when he thought about obeying the law and turning the slave in. So he complained: ""It don't make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person's conscience ain't got no sense, and just goes for him anyway. If I had a yaller dog that didn't know no more than a person's conscience does I would pison him. It takes up more room than all the rest of a person's insides, and yet ain't no good, nohow." (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Chapter 33.)

No doubt Huck should have been more grateful for conscience, but what he says has its truth. Conscience approved the crucifixion of Jesus. When Paul accepted Christ, he had to retrain his conscience which had been educated by the strict Jewish Law. When conscience urges us to do right, it reflects the God who created us. But when it tells us what is right, it reflects also our social conditioning. That is why conscience alone is not enough; it needs the whole Christian faith.

In the same way, the Golden Rule needs the guidance and direction of whole Christian faith.

The Golden Rule in Human History

One reason the Golden Rule is so popular is that it seems to require no specific faith and no specific religious beliefs. Men may argue over many questions, but often they can agree on the Golden Rule. Religious teachers all over the world, many of them long before Jesus, taught one form or another of the Golden Rule. Look at a few examples.

1. The Hindu Mahabharata teaches: "Men gifted with intelligence and purified souls should always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated."

2. A Jainist writing, also from India, says: "A man should wander about treating all creatures in the world as he himself would be treated."

3. When Confucius was asked for a single word to sum up the rules of life, he answered: "Is not reciprocity such a word ? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."

4. The Taoists taught: "Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain, and regard your neighbor's loss as your own loss."

5. In the generation before Jesus a man asked the great Rabbi Hillel to teach him the Law while standing on one foot. Hillel answered: "What thou thyself hatest, do not to thy neighbor. This is the whole Law. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it."

Not only the great religions have framed this rule. Some philosophers, unwilling to accept the Christian belief in God's revelation in Christ, have worked out principles of conduct much like the Golden Rule. Thus Immanuel Kant tried to base his ethics simply on the principle of logical consistency. He decided that rationality demands that he act on principles that he could will all other men to act upon.

Now we see why Martin Luther could say that the Golden Rule is part of the "natural law" -- the moral law which men can recognize without any Christian teaching. It is in the New Testament, he said, but even the Turk, who is warring against Christianity, understands it. Luther was right. Although the Golden Rule is not in the Koran, another Islamic writing says: "No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself."

In chapter 7 we noted that the Emperor Severus included Jesus among the gods in his chapel. This same emperor inscribed the Golden Rule on his palace walls. Maybe it seemed to him a good illustration of his religious tolerance.

But the Golden Rule is not enough.

The Golden Rule Without the Gospel

Look carefully at the next sentence and see whether you agree. The Golden Rule without the gospel can be (1) a cheap standard of conduct and (2) a source of frustration. Let's examine both ideas.

(1) The Golden Rule can be a cheap standard of conduct. Let's be grateful that it also may be, whether inside or outside Christianity, a high standard; but it is not always.

For example, suppose you are a person with plenty of ability, well able to look out for yourself. You may say: "I am tough. I believe life is a dog-eat-dog struggle, with everyone out for himself. I ask no mercy and I give none." You can still live by the letter of the Golden Rule. You want no love or forgiveness; you do not extend it to others. The chances are that some day you will awaken to realize your dependence on others; but for years you can live by cheap standards, all the while quoting the Golden Rule.

Or take the case of Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century. He may have been a better man than his theory; but if we take him at his word, we find a crude theory of morality. He believed that all men are moved by the restless desire for power. This makes us bitter competitors, each endangering the other. Without some political power controlling us, life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Every man naturally has the right to anything he can grab, including the lives of others. But to save our own skins we decide to limit our grasping. We make agreements with our fellowmen. We'll not kill them if they'll not kill us. So Hobbes comes around to quoting the Golden Rule from Jesus. And all for frankly selfish reasons.

Or say that you find in business that the Golden Rule "pays off." So, again selfishly, you may live up to it as strictly as the businessman next door who honestly loves his fellowman.

Or, to take a last example, a moral pervert might use the letter of the Golden Rule to justify involving others in his evil ways. He would gladly have men encourage him in vice, and he will so encourage them.

All this is simply saying what the Sermon on the Mount has been saying to us week after week: No external form of action, no rule is enough.

The Golden Rule cannot be applied legalistically anyway. The child cannot do for the parent what he wants the parent to do for him. The patient doesn't do for the doctor what the doctor does for the patient. The Golden Rule requires the imagination to put oneself in the place of another and see his needs. It requires love.

(2) The Golden Rule can be a source of frustration. Even though, as we have seen, it is not always a very high ethic, it often rises above our normal conduct. Frequently we praise the Golden Rule, then live by some lower code. Someone says, "I'll treat him the way he treated me -- tit for tat." (It reminds us of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.") Or someone tries the popular slogan, "Do unto others what they would like to do to you, but do it first."

Someone has said, "The Golden Rule works like gravitation." But it doesn't. Gravitation is natural, independent of us. We can't argue with it or disobey it. We do disobey the Golden Rule. History records countless acts of disobedience to it. Our inclinations are to make exceptions of ourselves, to claim privileges -- maybe "just this once" -- which we do not give. The person of insight knows that often he does not live up to the Golden Rule. Any rule hanging over us, especially a rule that we disobey, is frustrating. To try to obey it and not succeed is even more frustrating.

The Christian gospel is not a set of rules. It is God's gift to us, a gift that awakens a new spirit in us. The spirit takes the frustration away. With the spirit we want to guide our conduct by the Golden Rule. "The written code kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6).

The Golden Rule Within the Gospel

Within the gospel the Golden Rule can become a pathway of life. When the words convey the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, they become a helpful guide in many a situation. In Luke's Gospel the Golden Rule concludes the paragraph which starts, "Love your enemies." Love, mercy, forgiveness, the spirit of the Beatitudes -- here we find the spirit in which Jesus meant the Golden Rule.

Compare the Golden Rule with the other summaries of Jesus' teaching in the Bible readings at the beginning of this chapter. With them it carries light. If we try to put it in place of them, it becomes less than Christian.

The New Testament tells us that what we most truly need is to love and be loved. If we do not love, life can become as agonizing as for the woman who committed suicide and left the note, "I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being in all my life." If we are not loved, no other gifts can replace the one thing missing. Clinical histories are full of case studies of crushed personalities of children in privileged homes, given every advantage of life except genuine parental love. Giving or receiving, "the gift without the giver is bare."

In earth's highways and byways the Golden Rule means many things. In the gospel it means, "Love your neighbor as yourself."