Summary: Our Lord reframes an ancient code, moving it from passive compliance to active obedience. He calls us to go to practice an unselfish standard of fairness/righteousness. This is what He did. And this is what He empowers us to do.
James Cash Penny started a general merchandise store in Kemmerer, Wyoming in 1902, which he built into a multi-billion dollar enterprise on the guiding principle of the Golden Rule. For years J.C. Penny stores were called “Golden Rule stores”. It was Mr. Penny’s belief that success would come by treating customers as he would want to be treated. This extended to how he treated his employees, whom he preferred to call “associates.” He knew by helping them to prosper, his own success would be assured. When he died in 1971, J.C. Penny’s was the fifth largest department store in America with over 1,700 outlets--the Golden Rule stores.
“Do unto others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Critics point out that this statement did not originate with Jesus. It had been around for centuries, as far back as the Code of Hammurabi, 1780 BC. It wasn’t called the “Golden Rule” until the late 1600’s. Nearly every world religion has some form of this rule. As a teacher, Jesus often reminded his audience of truth; all truth is God’s truth. This wasn’t a new concept but an old truism that needed reinforcing.
Notice the context: Jesus has just been talking about prayer, how God generously blesses us in spite of our sin, even though we hardly deserve His favor. We’re to take that same grace and extend it to others. Do you want mercy? Then be merciful. In fact, make a list of ways you like to be treated…then make that list your plan for how you treat others.
What is unique about the version Jesus presented is how He turned this notion around from passive to active. The Golden Rule, prior to Jesus stated: “Do not treat others in ways you would not like to be treated.” In other words, discover what brings you pain and resolve not to inflict such pain on anyone else. This was the form the rule had until Jesus, who gave it a positive focus--that of proactively seeking good for others, not merely avoiding harm. Saying “I haven’t hurt anybody” isn’t enough. Have you helped anybody? It is relatively easy to not hurt others, yet much more challenging to find ways to help others.
Passive faith doesn’t meet God’s standard. Bring up the nasty subject of sin and people will claim, “Hey, I’m not such a bad person; I haven’t killed anyone or robbed any banks.” OK, but what have you done? It’s not enough to avoid wrong-doing; what positive things are you accomplishing? “What on Earth are you doing for Heaven’s sake?” Our Lord’s version of the Golden Rule expects more than passive compliance; it expects active obedience. The pious (self-righteous) religious leaders felt confident in their conduct because they hadn’t murdered or robbed anyone…then Jesus explained that the spirit/intent of the Law of God includes hatred and coveting, which nearly everyone is guilty of.
The Golden Rule is best seen as a guiding principle of consistent fairness; a standard of beneficence, kindness, compassion, and mercy. If we live the Golden Rule, we're following a standard of concern for others which lies at the core of ethical conduct.
A companion principle is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18), which has been called the “Royal Law of God’s Kingdom”. The Apostle James refers to this in cautioning us not to show favoritism but treat all people with respect. We don’t “do unto others” just because of what they might do for us! This rule has no quid pro quo. We reach out to others, even when we have nothing to gain.
Lately the Golden Rule seems to have lost some of its luster. In today’s competitive world, cynics have restated the Golden Rule: “Those with the gold make the rules.” Money talks…it also can corrupt and consume. Just ask Ebenezer Scrooge. Or even worse: “Do unto others before they do unto you!” Jimmy Hoffa warned, “I do unto others what they do unto me--only worse.” You don’t have to cheat or fight back or put self-interest first in order to win in life…but that’s a tough-sell in today’s dog-eat-dog world.
I suspect Ayn Rand didn’t care much for this rule. The author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead held a viewpoint she called Objectivism, which dictates that we should put self-interest first. Rand expressed contempt for those who couldn’t help themselves. She stated: “My philosophy is the concept of man attaining his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” The idea of laying down one’s life for others has no place in self-centered worldviews like Rand’s that only “look after #1”.
This rule might be just slightly adjusted: “Do unto others as they’d prefer it done unto them.” I think that’s the intent of the rule. I happen to enjoy opera, but I know enough not to inflict my musical taste on others! The notion behind the Golden Rule is that we don’t do what others wouldn’t like, even though it’s what we’d like. I had a commander who was a very bottom-line person. You wouldn’t want to give him tons of detail. Out of consideration (and because he was my boss) I kept my briefings brief. He once complained of another officer: “Ask him what time it is and he’ll tell you how to make a watch!” The principle is all about being sensitive to the needs of others.