It’s been called the golden rule, largely because every society seems to have had it somewhere in their tradition. But have they? As I thought about the golden rule this week it struck me that few people in our society actually understand it. Do you really understand the golden rule, or is your rule made from pyrite (fool’s gold, like in the image to the left)? I have a lot of friends who tell me that they don’t like much of Christianity, but they agree with the golden rule, and point out it’s widespread acceptance. But I suspect we don’t really understand what the golden rule actually says. I suspect most people understand the golden rule to say something like this: be careful to make sure that whatever you do to people is only something that you’d be happy for them to do to you. We hear different ways of saying the same thing: if it doesn’t harm anyone else, then why shouldn’t I be allowed to do it? Another way to conceive of it is as a form of reciprocity: I’ll only do things to you that I want you to do to me.’ In that sense it creates a kind of social contract where people voluntarily restrain antisocial behaviour on the belief that it will build a better society. In this form it can be found in ancient Babylon, China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. It can be found in the religions of Baha’i, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam, Sikhism, and the list goes on. But is that what the golden rule in the Bible actually says and means?
We find the golden rule in a number of places in the Bible, but I want us to focus today on Luke 6:31.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
The first thing to notice is the lack of the word ‘only’. This is not a rule that restrains action. It is not a restriction. It is a command. It’s a command to do something. What? Do to others what you would have them do to you. It expects deliberate action. In other words, it’s a command to be radically other-person centered. It’s a command to be obsessed with serving others rather than yourself. How can we be so sure? Look how Jesus continues on from the golden rule:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” (Luke 6:32-35)
The golden rule does not sit in a hermetically sealed container. It comes in the context of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus unpacks for us the golden rule. Love people who don’t love you. Wouldn’t you desire to have your enemies come and love you and reconcile with you? Of course. Well do it to them first. Wouldn’t you love people to give you things that you don’t deserve? Of course you would. Well then, do it to them first. The golden rule, when pushed to its limit ends up like this: love your enemies (both Luke 6:27 and 35). Now, how many of us do that? Let me be the first to raise my hand and confess that I do not live a life radically centered on serving others. That’s not something I’m proud of. It’s something I want to do, but fail at continually. It’s something that I confess to Jesus and come on my knees begging his forgiveness every day. The great news is that Jesus offers forgiveness to people such as me and you precisely because he obeys his own golden rule. Even to us who are selfish and undeserving, Jesus offers love. The golden rule is a crushing weight that none of us can claim to have kept, and yet Jesus did, and offers to take that weight off our backs through his free forgiveness.
How far has our society departed from the golden rule? It struck me this week that we can see it clearly in the drug debate. Is it ok to smoke cannabis? About a quarter of all Australians think it should be legalised. Few Australians would think more deeply about the morality beyond asking this question: is it hurting anyone? But that is a long way from the golden rule, at least as far as Jesus taught. The question isn’t, ‘does it hurt anyone?’, but rather ‘does it serve anyone?’ If not, then why do it? It’s pure selfishness. If I get wasted and am no use to others, isn’t that selfishness? But hang on, why take issue with cannabis at this point? Doesn’t this happen among a significant portion of our youth every Friday and Saturday night using alcohol? (Not to mention a growing proportion of more ‘mature’ parts of our society). The problem at heart isn’t with cannabis, it’s with hedonism: that life is primarily about my own happiness and enjoyment. Few in Australia would dare to challenge such a statement, and yet it is here that Jesus makes his stand. Jesus says a very loud ‘NO!’ Life is about serving God and serving others. Ironically, the scientific research into happiness points out that the happiest people in society are those who dedicate themselves to serving God and serving others. So not only is our modern society morally bankrupt but foolish as well.
So which golden rule is it that you follow, the one made form gold or pyrite?