We all know that “Two wrongs don’t make a right” and “A stitch in time saves nine.” These and other handy proverbs provide nutshell explanations of broader concepts. Even in first century Israel, people wanted short clarifications of complex things. In their pre-internet, pre-printing press era, Israelites exchanged information and got their educations by questioning Jewish Teachers, or Rabbis, in formal gatherings.
As a Rabbi, Jesus constantly fielded questions, even from know-it-all religious leaders (Mt 22.34-36). The Israelites had numerous rules, Mosaic Law and Talmud, while Gentiles had little if any familiarity with the Old Testament, and neither knew what to do.
So, when a crowd gathered on a hill in Galilee, Jesus took the opportunity to clarify the essence of the Old Testament in his Sermon on the Mount. Condensing his sermon further, Jesus said:
“’Do for others what you want them to do for you. This is the teaching of the laws of Moses in a nutshell.’” (Mt 7.12, TLB)
When a Gentile asked the renowned Rabbi Hillel, “Teach me the whole Torah while I am standing on one leg,” the Jewish Teacher replied:
“Do not do to your neighbor what is hateful to you. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary,” he replied.[i]
Did you catch it? Hillel said, “Do not do.” His nutshell of the Torah took the negative stance, instructing, “Restrict and withdraw yourself to avoid harming others.” His interpretation inferred things God never said (see also Mt 5.43; Lev 19.18). He convinced Jews that by not harming others, by using their own willpower to restrict, they fulfilled the law themselves. It was self-righteousness.
Jesus said, “Do.” He took the affirmative stance, empowering people by saying, “Be yourself as you go about helping others.” His interpretation revealed things God had always said. His was a more accurate interpretation of love, as well as demanding expectation of its outworking. It required imputed righteousness.
In our day, sermons are short and sweet enough to tweet, but often lacking meat. So when the Holy Spirit cracked open the “golden rule” and revealed its pithiness, I began to understand that these words are more than a clever rhyme scheme or meme.
The “golden rule” actually IS the Word – its essence, its very spirit. It shows me what life in the Kingdom of God looks like: forgiving, meeting needs, welcoming outcasts, sharing burdens, granting dignity, cultivating unity. And it reveals “the type of person ready to possess that Kingdom, in company with the Lord Jesus Christ.”[ii]
With souls reborn, minds being renewed, and hearts being transformed, we can love others and receive love. God’s Spirit and Scriptures are implanted within, so expressions of love that fulfill the law and the prophets become increasingly intrinsic.
“Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.” (Prov 3.3, NIV)
How are you interacting with the Golden Rule this week?
[i] R.T. France The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007), 282-284
[ii] Zane C. Hodges “Possessing the Kingdom,” The KERUGMA Message 2:2 (Winter 1992):5.