THE EVEREST OF ETHICS
So, then, all the things which you wish that men should do to you, so do you too do to them; for this is the Law and the prophets.
This is probably the most universally famous thing that Jesus ever said. With this commandment the Sermon on the Mount reaches its summit. This saying of Jesus has been called “the capstone of the whole discourse.” It is the topmost peak of social ethics, and the Everest of all ethical teaching.
It is possible to quote rabbinic parallels for almost everything that Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount; but there is no real parallel to this saying. This is something which had never been said before. It is new teaching, and a new view of life and of life’s obligations.
It is not difficult to find many parallels to this saying in its negative form. As we have seen, there were two most famous Jewish teachers. There was Shammai who was famous for his stem and rigid austerity; there was Hillel who was famous for his sweet graciousness. The Jews had a story like this: “A heathen came to Shammai and said, `I am prepared to be received as a proselyte on the condition that you teach me the whole Law while I am standing on one leg.’ Shammai drove him away with a foot-rule which he had in his hand. He went to Hillel who received him as a proselyte. He said to him, `What is hateful to yourself, do to no other; that is the whole Law, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn.'” There is the Golden Rule in its negative form.
In the Book of Tobit there is a passage in which the aged Tobias teaches his son all that is necessary for life. One of his maxims is: “What thou thyself hatest, to no man do” (Tob.4:16).
There is a Jewish work called The Letter to Aristeas, which purports to be an account of the Jewish scholars who went to Alexandria to translate the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, and who produced the Septuagint. The Egyptian king gave them a banquet at which he asked them certain difficult questions. “What is the teaching of wisdom?” he asked. A Jewish scholar answered, “As you wish that no evil should befall you, but to be a partaker of all good things, so you should act on the same principle towards your subjects and offenders, and you should mildly admonish the noble and the good. For God draws all men unto himself by his benignity” (The Letter to Aristeas 207).
Rabbi Eliezer came nearer to Jesus’ way of putting it when he said, “Let the honour of thy friend be as dear unto thee as thine own.” The Psalmist again had the negative form when he said that only the man who does no evil to his neighbour can approach God (Ps.15:3).
It is not difficult to find this rule in Jewish teaching in its negative form; but there is no parallel to the positive form in which Jesus put it.
The same is true of the teaching of other religions. The negative form is one of the basic principles of Confucius. Tsze-Kung asked him, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” Confucius said, “Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
There are certain beautiful lines in the Buddhist Hymns of the Faith which come very near the Christian teaching:
“All men tremble at the rod, all men fear death; Putting oneself in the place of others, kill not, nor cause to kin. AU men tremble at the rod, unto all men life is dear; Doing as one would be done by, kill not nor cause to kill.”
With the Greeks and the Romans it is the same. Isocrates tells how King Nicocles advised his subordinate officials: “Do not do to others the things which make you angry when you experience them at the hands of other people.” Epictetus condemned slavery on the principle: “What you avoid suffering yourselves, seek not to inflict upon others.” The Stoics had as one of their basic maxims: “What you do not wish to be done to you, do not do to anyone else.” And it is told that the Emperor Alexander Severus had that sentence engraved upon the walls of his palace that he might never forget it as a rule of life.
In its negative form this rule is in fact the basis of all ethical teaching, but no one but Jesus ever put it in its positive form. Many voices had said, “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you,” but no voice had ever said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”
THE GOLDEN RULE OF JESUS
Matt. 7:12 (continued)
Let us see just how the positive form of the golden rule differs from the negative form; and let us see just how much more Jesus was demanding than any teacher had ever demanded before.
When this rule is put in its negative form, when we are told that we must refrain from doing to others that which we would not wish them to do to us, it is not an essentially religious rule at all. It is simply a common-sense statement without which no social intercourse at all would be possible. Sir Thomas Browne once said, “We are beholden to every man we meet that he doth not kill us.” In a sense that is true, but, if we could not assume that the conduct and the behaviour of other people to us would conform to the accepted standards of civilized life, then life would be intolerable. The negative form of the golden rule is not in any sense an extra; it is something without which life could not go on at all.
Further, the negative form of the rule involves nothing more than not doing certain things; it means refraining from certain actions. It is never very difficult not to do things. That we must not do injury to other people is not a specially religious principle; it is rather a legal principle. It is the kind of principle that could well be kept by a man who has no belief and no interest in religion at all. A man might for ever refrain from doing any injury to any one else, and yet be a quite useless citizen to his fellow-men. A man could satisfy the negative form of the rule by simple inaction; if he consistently did nothing he would never break it. And a goodness which consists in doing nothing would be a contradiction of everything that Christian goodness means.
When this rule is put positively, when we are told that we must actively do to others what we would have them do to us, a new principle enters into life, and a new attitude to our fellow-men. It is one thing to say, “I must not injure people; I must not do to them what I would object to their doing to me.” That, the law can compel us to do. It is quite another thing to say, “I must go out of my way to help other people and to be kind to them, as I would wish them to help and to be kind to me.” That, only love can compel us to do. The attitude which says, “I must do no harm to people,” is quite different from the attitude which says, “I must do my best to help people.”
To take a very simple analogy–if a man has a motor car the law can compel him to drive it in such a way that he does not injure anyone else on the road, but no law can compel him to stop and to give a weary and a foot-sore traveller a lift along the road. It is quite a simple thing to refrain from hurting and injuring people; it is not so very difficult to respect their principles and their feelings; it is a far harder thing to make it the chosen and deliberate policy of life to go out of our way to be as kind to them as we would wish them to be to us.
And yet it is just that new attitude which makes life beautiful. Jane Stoddart quotes an incident from the life of W. H. Smith. “When Smith was at the War Office, his private secretary, Mr. Fleetwood Wilson, noticed that at the end of a week’s work, when his chief was preparing to leave for Greenlands on a Saturday afternoon, he used to pack a despatch-box with the papers he required to take with him, and carry it himself on his journey. Mr. Wilson remarked that Mr. Smith would save himself much trouble, if he did as was the practice of other ministers–leave the papers to be put in an office `pouch’ and sent by post. Mr. Smith looked rather ashamed for a moment, and then looking up at his secretary said, `Well, my dear Wilson, that fact is this: our postman who brings the letters from Henley, has plenty to carry. I watched him one morning coming up the approach with my heavy pouch in addition to his usual load, and I determined to save him as much as I could.'” An action like that shows a certain attitude to one’s fellow-men. It is the attitude which believes that we should treat our fellow-men, not as the law allows, but as love demands.
It is perfectly possible for a man of the world to observe the negative form of the golden rule. He could without very serious difficulty so discipline his life that he would not do to others what he did not wish them to do to him; but the only man who can even begin to satisfy the positive form of the rule is the man who has the love of Christ within his heart. He will try to forgive as he would wish to be forgiven, to help as he would wish to be helped, to praise as he would wish to be praised, to understand as he would wish to be understood. He will never seek to avoid doing things; he will always look for things to do. Clearly this will make life much more complicated; clearly he will have much less time to spend on his own desires and his own activities, for time and time again he will have to stop what he is doing to help someone else. It will be a principle which will dominate his life at home, in the factory, in the bus, in the office, in the street, in the train, at his games, everywhere. He can never do it until self withers and dies within his heart. To obey this commandment a man must become a new man with a new centre to his life; and if the world was composed of people who sought to obey this rule, it would be a new world.
Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Back to: Barclay’s Commentary