One sign of brilliance is the ability to take very complicated ideas, and summarize them in a way that is easy to understand. Jesus was a master at this. The “golden rule” is one of several instances in the Gospels where Jesus focuses us on the heart of the matter with laser-like clarity.
The golden rule comes at the end of a section in Matthew 7 that describes the character of our relationships with one another. Jesus describes times to point out the obvious faults in others (7:1-5) and times we are not to (7:6). We are able to be in relationship with one another like this only if we are imitating our Father in heaven, who not only answers our prayers but also gives us the very best (7:7-11).
Jesus sums up this passage and the entire ethical side of our faith with these familiar words: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). It is brilliant because it is so simple to understand.
We live in a day when simplistic answers to complex problems abound. Every pronouncement—from those made by presidential candidates to responses to local news stories made by a stranger with a smartphone—seems crafted to settle the debate in a Facebook meme or 140-character tweet, as if the usefulness of an argument is determined by the number of “likes” it receives.
Pronouncements like these don’t really solve anything. While Jesus was truly brilliant, it turns out that people generally are not—at least not as much as we think we are.
This is a very interesting time for the church. Our society is faced with extremely complex problems that need attention beyond that of political ads or social media pronouncements. They are the types of issues that Christian ethics speaks to with great clarity: how we are to be in relationship with “the other.” While the level of our public discourse is a problem, the issues facing us are ultimately ones of Christian mission.
On any given day, we hear stories about race relations, public safety, immigration (legal and illegal), and the threat of Islamic terrorism, to name just a few. The challenges presented in any of these areas are complicated, and require much time and patience to address. Reducing any of them to catch phrases such as “don’t resist arrest” or “a good guy with a gun” or “build a wall” simply does not help.
An important step in addressing the challenges of our day may come by listening to our own first response to any of them. Notice how often people respond to these issues by saying something like “I’m not racist” or “I’m not responsible for that.” Perhaps this is true. But our commitment to Jesus is not measured only by the things we don’t do. It’s as if we’ve been reading the golden rule in the negative: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” If that were the standard, we’d all pass the test of faith spectacularly. But it isn’t what Jesus said.
In many ways, the golden rule is a measure of our commitment to mission. It invites us to be actively engaged with all kinds of people around us because, if the tables were turned, we’d surely hope someone were paying attention to our struggles.
And so we might ask ourselves a few questions of how the golden rule is shaping our mission: What kinds of relationships do we have with people of a different ethnic group, nationality, or religion? What are the challenging social or ethical issues facing our own community, and what is our congregation doing to address them? How are those relationships and knowledge of those changing our prayer, Bible study, and outreach?
Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.