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“The Golden Rule”

"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)

The Golden Rule is one of the simplest ethical guidelines for our behavior. It is easily understood and its virtue is self-evident; the world would be a better place if we all lived by it. But this teaching of Jesus is not completely unique to him. The Rule is also found in similar forms in other ancient texts and traditions predating Jesus' use in the Sermon on the Mount. 

Among Jews, for example, it is stated negatively in the apocryphal book of Tobit, which says, "Do not do to anyone what you yourself would hate." (Tobit 4:15) There is also a story in the Talmud about the great rabbi Hillel, who is said to have told a would-be proselyte who asked to be taught the entirety of the Torah while standing on one leg, "What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. That is the whole law; all the rest is only commentary; go and learn it." (b. Shabbat 31a)

Forms of the Rule are also found in the wider Gentile world. Confucious is credited with having said, "Do not to others what you would not wish done to yourself." It was also a theme in Greek and Roman philosophy. Followers of Socrates, and the later Stoics who drew much inspiration from the Socratic method, had a similar maxim: "Act by everyone, in the same manner as if you supposed yourself to be him, and him to be you." (Hierocles, Fragments) Other Stoics, such as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, applied this ethic in various ways. In discussing the master-slave relationship, Seneca said, "But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters" (Seneca, Letters, 47) To the Stoics, it was only logical to regard oneself and others as brothers and sisters, even as limbs of the same organism. 

Modern physicians apply a negative form of the Rule in the Hippocratic Oath, "First, do not harm," a phrase our culture has adopted as its own guiding moral standard. If the actions of one do not harm another, then it is believed that those actions are right and proper.

While similar to Jesus' teaching, all these iterations of the Golden Rule fall short of his wording. The form it took in rabbi Hillel's teaching was negative and rather grudging ("Do not do to others what is hateful to you") whereas the Socratic application of the Rule was sterile and settled for not imposing suffering on others while also preserving class distinctions ("inferiors" and "betters"). Still more vanilla is our modern, neutral take on the Rule - "It's fine as long as it's not hurting anyone." 

But Jesus states the Rule in its most emphatic, positive and selfless form ("treat others as you would want them to treat you"). Even this may sound like a pretty low moral bar until we understand that Jesus' version of the Golden Rule is really another way of stating the command to love one's neighbor as oneself (Mt. 22:39).

Love always implies self-giving action (Mt. 5:44; Jn. 3:16). Whereas hatred is negative in nature, seeks another's harm and leads to activity against that person, love is positive in nature, seeks another's good and leads to activity for that person. Therefore, Christ frames the Golden Rule as positive ("do unto others") because love always takes the iniative (1 Jn. 4:10) and is always active (Mt. 5:44).

This exalted, pure love was perfectly modeled by the self-sacrifice of Jesus who "laid down his life for us" (1 Jn. 3:16). Where the unbelieving world is content with living by the drab, neutral maxim, "Do no harm," Christians must live by Jesus' challenging, positive maxim, "whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Mt. 7:12; cf. 22:39).

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