The golden rule…

Jesus said,

‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’

The early Church grew, not by holding great public mission events, not by holding worship that was accessible to newcomers or attractive to teenagers – but just because people could see that Christians lived lives that were really different from every around them. And people wanted to know more about the God, known in Christ, who could make such a difference to the way people live. People could see that Christians were forgiving, were peacemakers, that they behaved in surprising and gracious ways…

Jesus repeated many of the things that religious teachers had often said. He was a faithful Jew and he wasn’t concerned with being original or creative, but with being attentive to the eternal will of God. But there was something about Jesus that inspired people who’d heard it all before to hear it in a way that meant they could begin, at last, to do it – and to live differently. Today, we are looking at one small verse, recorded as part of Jesus’ teaching – to see how God might speak to us as though for the first time.

The verse in question is a familiar one,

‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ Luke 6: verse 31

Sometimes it is called The Golden Rule. It is so familiar that you may not even have realised that Jesus said it. It isn’t original or exclusive to him. Confucius said it. Buddha said it. And you’ll find it in many a secular professional good practice guide. ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’.

President Kennedy once appealed to the Golden Rule in a speech he made during the enrolment ceremony at the University of Alabama when, for the first time, black students were included. He asked the white students to consider what it would be like to be treated as second-class citizens because of the colour of their skins. He asked them to imagine what it would be like to be black and to be told that because that because they were black they couldn’t vote, go to the best colleges, eat in some restaurants or sit at the front of the bus. He said, ‘the heart of the questions is whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.’ The Golden Rule asks us to imagine ourselves in someone else’s place and to treat them as we would want to be treated. So, you won’t steal a bicycle because you wouldn’t want your bicycle to be stolen. Or you will treat others with kindness, fairness and sympathy because that is how you would want to be treated. Its seems quite simple – and in many ways it is.

But there are some questions raised by with the Golden Rule that thoughtful people have pointed out. If you take the Golden Rule absolutely literally you could find yourself in trouble. For example, you could not treat your doctor or your dentist in the way you want them to treat you. If you want the doctor to remove your appendix, then you don’t first remove the doctor’s appendix! Or, for those in a particular relationship – like parent and child – a simple, literal interpretation of the Golden Rule will be unhelpful. It simply wouldn’t work for us to treat our children just as we want to be treated – their needs are different. To avoid these problems you have to say that we should treat others as we would want to be treated if were in their situation – or if we were them. This is what requires imagination and what President Kennedy was encouraging the white students to do. But there’s another problem too. Supposing you are a judge and you have to pass sentence on a convicted man. You might imagine that in his place you would want a light sentence or even a pardon. But that might not be the right thing to do. In fact, you would be betraying the trust of the community if you acted against morality and law. And the Golden Rule does not help if you are trying to decide a dispute between two people – because you just can’t treat both people as you might wish to be treated in their place. So, we have to interpret the Golden Rule a bit more – and to say that we don’t necessarily simply treat people as we would wish to be treated if we were in their place, but as we would have to regard as just, fair and reasonable if we were in their place. The Golden Rule presupposes that we know – or have some idea – of what justice is – before we think imaginatively about being in the other person’s shoes.

Some people say that the value of the Golden Rule is that prevents us acting simply out of self-interest. If we can imagine ourselves in the other person’s place and imagine how in their situation we would think ourselves fairly treated – then we might begin to act with justice ourselves. The call for this kind of imagination before we take a decision or an action is common to many cultures. Native Americans urge us not judge anyone until we have walked a mile in their moccasins. And there’s a traditional African proverb which goes,

‘One who is going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.’

And I think this is good advice. We all know that the most terrible evil and cruelty begins to happen when people can no longer imagine what it’s like to be the other person – when a Nazi cannot imagine ever being in the place of the Jew. So, if we’re going to live with this golden rule then we have to develop the capacity to imagine what it is like to be in the place of someone else – and so to recognise their need and to respond to it.

But there is another problem too. Some people have argued that although, when it is well used, it does promote goodness and justice, it still seems to be based – not on altruism, but on self-interest. ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’. It could sound as though you treat others with goodness and gentleness and justice, simply because that’s how you want to be treated. As though it’s a kind of calculation. As though doing good is just something you do in order that good is done to you. As though you decide for justice and love, not because you want to practise it, but because you want to experience it. Sometimes we might have told our children, ‘If you want me to be kind to you, you’d better be kind to me’.

But this is where Jesus comes in – and where we learn a particular way of being in the world. Because if we look at the other teachings of Jesus – the ones that surround the Golden Rule in the Gospels – we see how his approach to goodness is completely different from anything based on self-interest. Jesus tells us to do things that are not in our own interest at all. He tells us to do things which – if we started from what we want – we would never get to ourselves. Jesus tells us to do things which mean we quite forget about ourselves altogether. Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies’. He says, ‘Do good to those who hate you’. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you spitefully. He says, ‘If anyone takes your coat, let him have your shirt as well.’ (and that’s whether or not he even wants it or you could imagine he might want it!). Give your ‘self’ away, says Jesus. Forget about yourself. Far from saying that we should do such good as we could imagine others might want or we might want in their place, Jesus says, ‘Do unimaginably good and generous things, even unnecessarily good, even more than could be expected of you, even more than you could ever expect back from others. Forget your self, forget your self-interest, do good unreasonably, abundantly, wanting nothing in return for it. Don’t be calculating, but be generous! Don’t have an eye to what people might do back to you – just do what is good now!’ This is Ethics part 2, this is love not duty, this is not simply justice or even goodness, but grace. A theologian from the time of the Reformation, called Zwingli, once said that,

‘Christ has sugared the command of nature with love.’

Jesus gives the Golden Rule his own special and remarkable spin. He offers us a way of life which is beyond the ‘give and take’ of common sense morality, which is different from our instinctive trust in a sense of fairness and quid pro quo – which challenges us to let go of our inevitable interest in ourselves. ‘Love your enemies’, Jesus says. ‘Give to anyone who asks you’. ‘Bless those who curse you’. ‘If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other one also.’ Maybe he sets us an impossible standard. Maybe it is more than any of us can do. But what we can do is to take a moment to look with gratitude and amazement upon the cross – to see there the one who truly did love his enemies, who gave his life and who blessed his persecutors. And looking upon him, what else could we do but follow in the hope that we might one day – with God’s grace – be able to live as he lived and as he taught.

From time to time there is a story in the news about someone who does manage, even for a moment in their lives, to live out this astonishing and inspiring teaching of Jesus. Remember the man called Gordon who forgave those who planted the bomb that killed his daughter. Remember Nelson Mandela who spoke peace with those who had imprisoned him on Robben Island for all those years. Remember the Polish priest Max Kolbe who took someone’s place in the queue to the gas chamber at Auschwitz. And today, in our own country, we are being challenged about how we should treat someone like Shamima Begum – what is a Christian response in her case?

It is hard, in this life, to do always what is right. It is even harder to do what is truly good. It requires the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit to go even beyond goodness and to live a life marked by the overwhelming graciousness and generosity that is in the nature of God. Yet, it is to this life that we are called. Jesus speaks the sermon in Luke’s Gospel to us today as plainly as he did then. And he speaks it to us most profoundly of all as he holds out his arms to us from the cross – loving his enemies, forgiving those who tortured and abused him, blessing the ones who cursed him. Moved by such a love as the love we have received, and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, I pray that we will, even little by little,  go further in goodness than nature could demand. Amen.