Complexly Simple

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For this is the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 7:12

Mt. Marcy from Mt. Skylight, July 2019.

The “Golden Rule” is undoubtedly the most recognizable teaching of Yeshua/Jesus, even if it is not directly attributed to Him. This “rule” is the high point of the Sermon on the Mount, its Mt. Marcy we might say (the highest peak in New York State). Nevertheless, it is not meant to stand on its own as we might assume, as Yeshua attaches the “Law and the Prophets” to this simple ethical reduction. Why? What is expected is that one either knows the Law and the prophets, or one will “go and learn” from the Law and the prophets – more on this in a moment.

The Golden Rule is simple, particularly to grasp intellectually; but difficult to live. A simple directive, “Therefore (in light of all I have said), do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (emphasis and amplification added). However, Yeshua adds that observing this “rule” is the “Law and the prophets;” in other words, implied by these few words is the fullness of the ethical and moral commands given by God. 

Consider for a moment the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 13:8-10, “Owe no one any matter except to love one another, for he who loves another has filled the Torah. For this, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other command, it is summed up in this word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does not evil to a neighbor. Therefore, love is completion of the Torah” (emphasis added). It is really as simple as Paul is explaining? If you understand Paul’s background, yes and no.  

When people quote the Golden Rule, especially if they have some background in comparative religion, they will often point to Hillel the Elder, a first-century Jewish sage who passed away shortly before Yeshua’s birth, or to Confucius, Isocrates, and Aristotle. To Hillel this saying is attributed, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else; this is the whole law; all the rest is commentary.” I offer the words of Confucius as a non-Hebraic example: “Do not do to anyone what you yourself would hate.”

Hillel’s quote is one of the best-known references from the Talmud, and I utilize this in order to help us better understand Matthew 7:12, the Golden Rule. There is more to this quotation than meets the eyes. Hillel’s words are actually a response to a demand by a Gentile:

“A pagan came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a proselyte, but on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot!’ Shammai drove him off with the builder’s measuring rod which he had in his hand. When he appeared before Hillel, the latter told him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it!’” Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a.

There is an historic tradition in Judaism of summarizing into a simple phrase, verse or parable, complex biblical concepts as accessible reminders for living – the most well-known example being “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Perhaps the earliest example of this is found in the Apocryphal book of Tobit in the third century B.C.E. which says, “What you hate, do to no one” (Tobit 4:15).

Numerous examples of this tradition are found in the Apostolic Writings as well, note Romans 13:8-10 above; for instance, take 1 John 4:19-21 and Galatians 5:14.

            1 John 4:21, “And we have this command from Him, that the one loving God should love his brother too.

            Galatians 5:14, “For the entire Torah is completed in one word, in this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In Hillel’s formulation, as well as Yeshua’s, and those of Paul and John, we find simple phrases or biblical verses easily applicable to everyday life. How many of us have used or thought in the recent past, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” in an ethical situation (by the by, every interaction with the human other is an ethical situation: family, friends, strangers, coworkers, enemies, etc.)?

An abbreviated expression or saying is not the negation of all that came before it – as Hillel said at the conclusion of his formulation, “Go and learn it” (“Zeal Gamar” in Aramaic). Or as Yeshua said at the conclusion of the Golden Rule, “For this is the Law and the prophets.” To His Jewish audience the meaning of this would have been known, but to Gentiles its should cause the question, “How is this the Law and the prophets?” Paul gives his Gentile audience a brief answer to this question in Romans 13 and then gives his ethical reduction, which is to simply quote “Love your neighbor as yourself.

When we consider the Golden Rule, especially with the extra-biblical sources referenced, we can reach the conclusion that the statements of Tobit, Hillel, Confucius and Yeshua are exactly the same. The sayings of Tobit, Hillel and Confucius, however, are not what Yeshua is saying at all; as these three statements are put in the negative – “Don’t do,” while the Golden Rule is in the positive, “Do unto.” The Golden Rule is not simply a refraining from doing, it is an imperative to do. As Michael Eaton writes of the Golden Rule, “It is a one-sentence rule of thumb that will give us what to do in a thousand complicated situations.” 

Meditation on, and application of the Golden Rule should arrest an urge, or inclination to self-centered love – although we must love and care for neighbors and strangers as we love and care for ourselves – implying that we must provide self-care. We are directed by Yeshua to give before the need, to be generous of spirit, to be kind, to be courteous, to be genuine, to be gentle, to be gracious, to seek the good, and to express gratitude (I Cor. 10:31). R.T. Kendall explains, “The Golden Rule is never to wait for the other person to do the right thing first. I say, beat him or her to the draw! Go first. Become vulnerable.” When we choose to not treat others as we desire to be treated, it is an opening, or an opportunity for sin in our lives. As the apostle James writes, “To him, then, who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).

When we consider the Sermon on the Mount, in its entirety as an interpretative correction of the Torah (Matt. 5:17), Yeshua has given us the highest ethical way, the fruit of which should be humility, not arrogance. What good can come from walking in this way? In Luke 6:38, a parallel verse of Matthew 7:12, Messiah says, “Give, and it shall be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” 

A simple drawing showing the ternary framework of the Golden Rule.

To conclude, the Golden Rule is not a stand-alone command, but rather, a simple one sentence formulation that can be easily recalled and applied in countless situations – the meaning of which is supplied in the thousands of ethical verses found in the Law, the Prophets, the Writings and the Apostolic Scriptures. Now, we must go and learn. 

Shalom. Be well.    

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