The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 7:12-14 where Jesus says:
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
I want to focus on the first part of what Jesus says here, what many have called "The Golden Rule". This is not a disconnected saying. The sentence begins with "so" or "therefore" connecting it back to what has gone before. The underlying logic is that if God the Father works for the ultimate good of all who seek him then his children must work for the ultimate good of others.
Jesus says that this one rule sums up the law and the prophets. This saying is very close in meaning to a statement in the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus often quoted: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). But this is one of the few, and perhaps the only place where this command was stated positively before the time of Jesus.
The command is stated negatively in numerous places. For example, in Psalm 15 and Tobit 4:16.
The story is told of two famous rabbis who lived in the first century BCE. Shammer was renowned for his stern and rigid commentary on the law. Hillel was better known for his graciousness. A Gentile came to Shammai one day and said, "I am prepared to be received as a proselyte on the condition you teach me the whole Law while I'm standing on one leg." Shammer drove him away with a ruler he had in his hand.
The Gentile went to Hillel and made the same offer. Hillel said, "I would be happy to receive you as a proselyte." So the Gentile stood on one leg while Hillel said, "What is hateful to yourself, do to no other; that is the whole Law, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn."
The negative of the Golden Rule is also found in other religions and cultures. Confucius said, "Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you."
There is also a Buddhist hymn that comes very near to Jesus' teaching:
All men tremble at the rod, all men fear death;
Putting oneself in the place of others, kill not, nor cause to kill.
All men tremble at the rod, unto all men life is dear;
Doing as one would be done by; kill not nor cause to kill.
Many other examples could be cited that show the similarity of Jesus' teaching to that of other great religious leaders in other cultures. And if Jesus teaches the same ethic as many other philosophers what is so surprising about that? As C. S. Lewis has said, "There never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world.... The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in."
However, one thing should be noted. The movement from Confucius' statement, "Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you", to Jesus' command "do to others what you would have them do to you" is a great advance.
Confucius' saying has often become the basis for law. Governments can pass laws against people doing to others what they wouldn't want done to themselves. But Jesus' teaching can never be enforced by human law. Governments can't effectively command people to be generous, to encourage the lonely, to forgive their enemies, to help the poor.
Or to give a more specific example: Governments can legislate that people who drive automobiles should do so in such a way that they do not injure people on the roads. But no government has ever legislated that one must pick up a tired pedestrian and give him a lift.
To carry out Confucius' teaching, to refrain from harming others, is not all that difficult; all it requires is inaction. The passive person may not do any harm to his fellow human beings, but does he or she help anyone?
On the other hand, such positive action as Jesus commands is extremely difficult to carry out; it requires self-sacrifice. It can't really be done in response to human legislation. The only way we can fulfill Jesus' Golden Rule is if the love of God burns in our hearts. As the Apostle Paul said, "For Christ's love compels us..." (2 Corinthians 5:14)