The Golden Rule: Its Origins, Context and Claim
Part 2 of an article that began with The Nature of the Good
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? — R Hillel, Pirke Avot 1:14
The great Rabbi Hillel eloquently encompasses the tension between self- and other-interest, and the impulse to action that lies at the heart of all ethics. This rabbi is also credited with a version of the Golden Rule, about which more will be said below. But it is helpful to recall, before turning to Jesus’ teaching, that Jesus emerges from and was a part of a Rabbinic tradition, and it formed and informed his thinking.
Two preliminary observations on the Golden Rule (henceforth GR) must be made. First, it should not be thought that the GR is identical to Kant’s categorical imperative. Rather the categorical imperative stands in reference to any particular maxim in the same relationship that “A haiku is a three-line verse with a syllabic pattern 5-7-5” stands to an actual poem. The GR is not the categorical imperative, though it might be a maxim in accord with it. Secondly, it is at all costs necessary to avoid the slanderous, but still too-often-heard, allegations that the Old Testament displays a “love of Law” while the Gospel shows us a “law of Love.” As shown in the citation from Hillel, the GR is as a tree firmly rooted by the streams of Jewish tradition, and only bears fruit because it is fed with their waters.
The GR appears in Matthew 7.12 and Luke 6.31 in the Sermons on the Mount and the Plain respectively. In its general form it represents the “summary ideal maxim” tradition (explicitly in Matthew: “this is the law and the prophets”)(1) of Rabbinic Judaism. The Shema was held by the Rabbis to summarize the Decalogue under the rubric of unity, and love as the means to union. (pBerakhoth 1:5, 3c) Another example of this tradition (Makkot 24a) takes the 613 commands of the Torah and shows how they were summarized by David (to 11 commandments, in Psalm15), Isaiah (reduced to 6, Is 33.15-16), Micah (to 3, Mi 6.8), Isaiah again (to 2, Is 56.1) and — competing for one — Amos (5.4) and Habakkuk (2.4, echoed by the author of Hebrews, 10.38).
The most famous predecessor to the GR is Hillel’s “negative” version, which we will examine more closely below. Less well known is the bar on vengeance in Proverbs 24.29: “Do not say, I will pay back to others what they have done to me.” In short, this concise maxim grows from a tradition that was alive and well in Jewish culture and moral discourse, and Jesus marks the flowering of a stock that was only awaiting the coming of life-giving water to revive. (Job 14.8-9)(2)
Turning to the text
“In all things, whatever you want people to do to you, so you also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12)(3) Four observations about the GR are immediately apparent: it is inclusive, plural, imperative, and positive. It is instructive to compare it with its nearest kin (if we are to accept its Talmudic attribution) — Hillel’s response to the Gentile seeking to learn the whole of the Law while standing on one foot: “That which is hurtful to you do not do to others; the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” (Shabbat 30-31) In this form we are dealing with a commandment that is imperative, but singular and negative. Kant noted that it only governs harmful acts. (Groundwork, 68) Hillel’s maxim, which is subsumed in the GR, summarizes all of the “thou shalt nots” (restraint from wrong action) while the GR moves into the realm of positive action. The ethic of the GR, with its opening “in all things” does place all that one would find hurtful outside of one’s range of action, but it goes further, as we will see below.
The English word do does not have the same resonance as the Greek poien, the Hebrew ‘asa, the Latin factio, or even the French faire. All of these have an additional connotation of making, a robust physicality that only appears in a few English usages: “do up a lunch,” “do verse,” or, “do an essay.” When Jesus commands his followers (remember the plural!) to do we are dealing with a directive to concrete action for others, not inner disposition or sentimental pity for them. The ethic of the Gospel is clear: “being righteous,” particularly “individual” righteousness (with which the Gospel charges the Pharisee) is not what it is about, but doing righteousness in Jesus’ name in, through, and as the community of his Body. The GR is not simply a summary of the law but “of the prophets” — those witnesses to the call for charitable action rather than mere legal propriety: it is a call for the prophetic concerns for justice, equity, and fairness. The ones sent to the place prepared for the devil and his angels at the last judgment are not evil-doers, but those who have failed to do good to the koinonía of believers.(4) (Mt 25.41-43; see also James 2.15-16). Thus, the ethic of the GR does not permit innocent bystanders, nor detached disinterest (which some might consider better than self-interest, and which is the particular demon of “upright, decent, good citizens who mind their own business” when divorced from the works of mercy). The Rabbis define those who say, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours” as the type of the wicked city of Sodom! (Pirke Aboth 5) Contented bourgeois morality is not only inadequate, but condemned (to which the prophets bear witness). The GR moves beyond such passive disinterest, to other-interest, reflexively expressed in how one wants to be treated by them.
Who are these “others”? Jesus has already given us one answer, “those who believe in him.” But Jesus expands the range of agapé. In order to eliminate the possibility of self-interest through repayment, he calls upon his followers to do good to those who cannot repay the kindness: the poor, the lame and the blind. (Lk 14.12-14) Still the range of others is not exhausted: the only way to mirror the perfect and self-giving Father (Mt 5.48) is to do what the Father did in sending Christ to die for those who were his enemies (Rom 5.8). While Jesus affirms that there is no greater love than to die for ones friends (Jn 15.13), he dies for us “while we are yet sinners” (Rom 5:8), and beyond that for the sins of the whole world (1Jn 2.2), a world that to a large extent has rejected him. The “others” towards whom the Christ-conscious person is to act in the same way-she-would-be-done-by are not simply her friends and brothers and sisters of the household — for doesn’t anyone do that? — but her enemies (Mt 5.44-47). This open-handed generosity to all others is echoed in Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) The “other” may be very other indeed. (The application of this principle to the non-human others upon whom we depend for our existence raises very serious questions. Our solidarity with “all that has breath” and even the hand-clapping trees, mountains and hills, should give us pause as we regard our treatment of the non-human world.)
Finally, two other “others” are implicitly present in this commandment: God, and the self-as-other. This broadens the application of the maxim to such acts as blasphemy or self-destructive behavior: there is no act that is not social, however individualistic and isolated it might appear. This also correlates with the “greatest commandment” as requiring us to love God with our whole being. We are not mere modules; all is in relationship, for all stems from Love.
Love in potential
The opening phrase of this maxim describes a nonexistent: it is “what you want people to do for you.” As already made clear in the foregoing concerning doing good to the poor and to one’s enemies, this is not about repayment. The text does not say, “as they have done to you,” but nor does it say, “so that they will do the same to you” or even “in the hopes that they might do the same to you.”
The ultimate freedom — and responsibility — implicit in this text is staggering. The GR liberates from rigidly constructed categories of good and evil, or right and wrong, which are ultimately unknowable, as Bonhoeffer asserts in his Ethics, and as the Rabbis taught.(5) The individual is clearly forbidden from doing harm under this maxim, but is free to understand harm within the context of particular circumstances and in the light of intention and consequence, not as an absolute or a taboo that reduces human agents to mere objects. The GR liberates the Christian from the elemental spirits of such legalisms and false asceticisms. (Col 2.20-22) The individual is free — and challenged — to give of herself to the utmost without any expectation of return, simply on the basis of how she would like to be treated. The focus of the moral act is no longer located in reward or desert, but in the intent to do as one would be done by — whether so done by or not.(6) The “sheep” in the powerful allegory of Matthew 25 are not rewarded because they served Christ (indeed, they were ignorant of the fact that they were serving him) but because they did the common acts of mercy they would have wished done to themselves — for who would not want to be clothed if naked, fed if hungry, visited if sick? The blessed in this allegory simply have the imaginativeness of spirit, the empathy, to see themselves in others, and turn their hearts to serve them, in the process serving Christ.
Sadly, with this freedom presented to us in Christ, many in the church at this time seem to be turning their back on this challenge, retreating into the false security of sitting in Moses’ judgment seat, as Christ charged the Pharisees with doing. This will be examined in the final section of this essay.
Note 1. The Summary of the Law is also given this tag at Matthew 22.40. This shows that the GR and Summary of the Law are cognate summaries, both of them seen, in Matthew, as somehow encapsulating “the law and the prophets.” I prefer to examine the GR here because of its formal simplicity, and because it represents Jesus’ most concise summary of the legal and prophetic witness.[^]
Note 2. Both “Summary of the Law” and “Golden Rule” are editorial titles that do not appear in the text itself. The passages usually called “Summaries” are actually responses to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” Mark 12:29-31 probably preserves the original answer to the question, keeping things in the context of the commandments themselves.
Luke puts the answer in the mouth of the lawyer, and ends with his practical question to which Jesus provides the tale of the Good Samaritan. But Matt 22:36 brings in the “law and the prophets” and applies this dependency to the “Summary” (much as it is applied to the Golden Rule in Matt 7).
There is more, of course: Jesus adds the “love of neighbor” law from Leviticus to his rehearsal of the decalogue in Matthew 19:17-19. And, in a general sense, Romans 13:8-10 speaks of love as the “fulfillment” of the Law. James 2:8 refers to the commandment to love neighbor as self as the “royal law.” There is perhaps an echo of all of this in 1 John 2:10-11; and Galatians 6:2 embodies a similar principle of reciprocity. In short, this ethic informs the moral world of the early Church, deriving from Jewish roots.[^]
Note 3. For some reason, modern translations, such as the NRSV, tend to invert the sequence: Do to others as you would be done by. This seems to represent a slight shift in emphasis, but I am not sure it is wise to make too much of it. It has the virtue of brevity.[^]
Note 4. Although there is a long and valuable tradition of reading the passage from Matthew 25 as a charge to the church to perform charitable work, the original text and context appear rather to suggest its being addressed to the as yet converted “nations” to alert them to how they ought best receive Christ’s ambassadors (his brothers, the apostles and evangelists).[^]
Note 5. If the Torah had been given in fixed and inimitable formulations, it would not have endured. Thus Moses pleaded with the Lord, “Master of the universe, reveal to me the final truth in each problem of doctrine and law.” To which the Lord replied: “There are no pre-existent final truths in doctrine or law; the truth is the considered judgment of the majority of authoritative interpreters in every generation.” (pSanhedrin 4.2)[^]
Note 6. I am grateful to Br Thomas Bushnell BSG for his essay on Abelard’s moral thought in the regard of intent and desert.[^]