The Golden Rule.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 February

Matthew 7.12, Luke 6.31.

“Do as you’d be done by.”

That’s C.S. Lewis’s wording. It’s probably the briefest form I’ve found of the “Golden Rule,” as it’s called. I grew up hearing it as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—and it actually doesn’t come from the King James Version, which has it, “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Lk 6.31 KJV I tried tracking down the other wording, and the earliest I’ve found it is 1790.

My translation of the two different ways Jesus taught it:

Matthew 7.12 KWL
“So as much as you want people doing for you, you do that for them:
That’s a summary of the Law and the Prophets.”
Luke 6.31 KWL
“Just as you want people doing for you, do likewise for them.”

It’s “the Law and the Prophets,” as Jesus put it—meaning the bible of his day, the Old Testament. (Yes the OT consists of Law, Prophets, and Writings. But back then, when Sadducees and Samaritans insisted the bible only consisted of the Law, you only had to suggest there were more books in it than just those of Moses, and people understood you meant Prophets and Writings were included.) The entire moral teaching of the scriptures could be distilled into this one concept.

As seen in other religions.

The Golden Rule is a simple idea, one found in pretty much every religion. But the way Jesus put it is a little different than the ways other religions have it. In Christianity it’s an active command: Do as you’d be done by. Other religions make it passive: Do not, as you’d not be done by. Or as Kong Qiu (Latin “Confucius”) put it in the 500s BC, “Never impose on others what you wouldn’t choose for yourself.” Analects 15.24

The Pharisees of Jesus’s day had also figured it out. Yeah, Christians nowadays assume the Pharisees were just a bunch of hypocrites who spent all their time debating the finer points of the Law instead of actually obeying it… and y’know, they did do that. So do we. But the guys who founded the Pharisaic tradition actually did want to follow God. Some of ’em wanted to make God’s commands easier to follow, not by using every loophole they could invent, but by summarizing them.

This is the mindset of the story of Hillel the Elder in the Talmud. Goes like so.

On another occasion, a certain pagan came to Shammai and told him, “Make me a convert, but on one condition: Teach me the entire Law while I stand on one foot.” Shammai smacked him away with the measuring stick in his hand.

Next he went to Hillel, who told him, “What’s hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor. That’s the whole Law. The rest is commentary. Go learn it.” Gemara on Shabbat 2.5

I don’t know whether Jesus knew this story at all, or whether the Hillel story was plagiarized a bit from Jesus. Doesn’t matter. Hillel’s version is still a passive-form Golden Rule, and Jesus’s is active-form: Do.

And Jesus actually isn’t the only guy to teach an active-form Golden Rule. There were others! They’re rare though.

  • The Chinese philosopher Mozi (ca. 470–391BC), who put it, “One would do for others as one would do for oneself.”
  • Muhammad ibn Abdullah, founder of Islam (570–632) who, according to Shiite tradition, put it, “As you would have people do to you, do to them.”

Everybody else seems to have simply found it easier to forbid evil than encourage good.

Active good, not passive.

So, same as Jesus taught, we gotta have other people in mind when we act. Think about their wishes. Think about what’s good for them. Think about them.

Don’t think of other people as obstacles, roadblocks to move aside, or pawns to manipulate when they get in our way. They’re not that. They’re God’s children. They’re people with hopes, dreams, desires… some good, some bad, some we consider silly. But again: It’s not what we want. It’s about them.

“Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you,” George Bernard Shaw cynically wrote in his 1903 play Man and Superman. “Their tastes may not be the same.” Shaw wasn’t entirely kidding: We have a bad habit of projecting our motives, wants, and attitudes upon others. “I like this,” we figure, “therefore she must like this.” But that’s not truly thinking about them. That’s projected selfishness. Let’s not commit that. Let’s find out what they really want before we do for them.

“Do as you’d be done by” forces us to emerge from our self-centered universe and think about others for once. And since the starting-point of sin is the exact opposite—looking out for number one, regardless of all others, including God—that suppression of our self-interest in favor of someone else’s point of view is indeed the starting-point of rightness.

It likewise reflects God’s behavior. He does stuff for us, and you’ll notice all the stuff he does, he’d kinda like us to do back to him. (And, for that matter, do for everyone else.) He loves us. He’s infinitely forgiving. He’s patient, kind, puts up with all things, believes and hopes and endures all things, demonstrates joy, peace, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He wants our best. We should want his best.

When we spend some time meditating on just exactly what the end-result would be of really following Jesus’s Golden Rule, we’re gonna find ourselves coming to conclusion after conclusion that mirrors what we find throughout God’s commands: His profound concern for others, his order to the universe, his ideal way of life. We’re gonna see God’s love, and we’re gonna grow in our love for God. ’Cause it’s all there, hiding in plain sight. So think on it.