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In The Golden Rule Jesus Wags His Finger At Both Legalists And Liberals

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9780310327134"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (Matt. 7:12)

These words of Jesus have been popularized in the so-called "Golden Rule." Whether people realize they're Jesus' words, they do tend to assert the first portion while leaving off the rest. This is a mistake, for what Jesus is doing in the Rule doesn't abolish the law but establishes it by instructing people to love God and love others, which "is what the law and the prophets are all about." (As NT Wright translates.)

In his new Sermon on the Mount commentary, an inaugural volume in an important new series, The Story of God Bible Commentary, McKnight says "Some find solace in the Golden Rule, though more careful consideration of the Golden Rule, which is a variant on the Jesus Creed (Matt 22:34-40), reveals that Jesus is not giving either the legalist or the liberal a pat on the back. He wags his finger at both of them."

Read the excerpt below to understand why, and how to live in a way that does to others what we want done to us.

Listen to the Story

Of the many ways to describe or articulate the Torah, two are pertinent in our text: one can either multiply laws so as to cover all possible situations, or one can reduce the law to its essence. Clearly the Bible shows the multiplication orientation in the Covenant Code (Exod 19 – 24, or 20 – 23), the Holiness Code (Lev 17 – 26), and the Deuteronomic Code (Deut 12 – 26). By the time of Jesus those codes expanded enormously: think Dead Sea Scrolls to the rabbis. Many Christians think multiplication means legalism, the perfect foil being rabbinic rulings,3 while the essence approach is closer to liberalism, this time the foil being the über-tolerant. Some find solace in the Golden Rule, though more careful consideration of the Golden Rule, which is a variant on the Jesus Creed (Matt 22:34 – 40), reveals that Jesus is not giving either the legalist or the liberal a pat on the back. He wags his finger at both of them.

In summary, many are uncomfortable with the legal texts of the Bible, but Jesus wasn’t. So Jesus reduced the Torah to two points — loving God, loving others (the Jesus Creed) — not to abolish the many laws but to comprehend them and to see them in their innermost essence. Jesus himself was law observant, but what distinguished his praxis was that he did so through the law of double love. To do the Torah through love is to do all the Torah says and more…

The law is a good revelation from God and is the premier example of an Ethic from Above. Jesus reduced the Torah to its basics in order to make the Torah more understandable and doable. So we are back to the Golden Rule to see that Jesus does not abolish law (5:17 – 20) but establishes it: loving God and loving others. Or, doing to others what we want done to us.

Explain the story

The Golden Rule (7:12a)

The first word of 7:12 in Greek is panta: “in everything.” The language is emphatic. When “all” is combined with “whatever” (hosa; cf. RSV), one gets perhaps more than a simple “all.”4 And if one ties this to 5:17 – 20, it is reasonable to translate “in all things” or even “the sum of the matter.” Twice Jesus probes into the essence of the Torah by appealing to self-love: here and in the Jesus Creed (22:34 – 40). As his followers were to love their neighbors as they loved themselves, so they as disciples were to do to others what they would want others to do to them. This principle is neither selfish nor narcissistic but expansive — we are to extend our self-care to others

Live the story

The Golden Rule sums up the whole ethic of Jesus: our calling as followers of Jesus, from morning to night, is to monitor our behaviors toward others in accordance with our own self-care. Jesus is not hereby encouraging selfishness but instead selflessness. This Messianic Ethic comes to us both as an Ethic from Above and Beyond.

Listen to Yourself

It may be against every grain in our bodies, especially if we are trained well in the theology of the Reformation to see ourselves as sinners and to know our need of grace, but we must learn that self-care is a grounding for how to treat others. Instead of being just self-care, however, this will lead to other-care. We must be willing to listen to ourselves first to make this happen. So when we see someone else in need, we have to ask ourselves “What would I want? How would I want to be treated?” Maybe the bracelet can be WWIW: “What would I want?”

Listen to Yourself at Home, in the Neighborhood, at Church

It is perhaps easier for us to do this in some contexts than in others, but when we tie the Golden Rule to the enemy-love teaching of Jesus in 5:43 – 48 and to the Jesus Creed in general, and when we see how Paul applied this in Romans 14 or James in James 2, we get the distinct mentoring focus that we are to listen to ourselves in all contexts. So we need to relate to our spouses and our siblings, our parents and our children, along the same line, learning to listen to the inner voice that says: “This is how I would want to be treated in this same situation.” We are to extend this as well into our neighborhood, as when we look after our neighbor’s grass or mail when they are gone, just as our neighbors (Jim and Julie) look after ours when we are gone — and Kris and I are the major receivers on this one because we travel more than do Jim and Julie.

We are to do this at work. I think here of how my colleagues and I interact with one another; we ask each other to read what we are writing, and it is a good rule for us to say, “How would I want my stuff to be read by a colleague?” …and basically I want them to make my piece better. But sometimes their suggestions mean I’m wrong or that I’ve got more work to do, and I think they want the same of me — but this is where the Jesus Creed and the Golden Rule become the genius they are: they ask us to love one another in such a way that we become better because of love and not just tolerated or accepted for whatever we want to be told about ourselves. We work with one another out of love, not competition or drudgery. We work with one another to make one another better.

The same applies in our churches. We need to think in the exercise of gifts of how we would want to be treated, and we need to treat others that way. Recently a former student came into my office and told me she was now working in an “über-charismatic” organization. They were a little too “in her face” about some things, and she asked my advice. We covered a few topics like learning to understand variety among Christians, but one of our solutions was that she needed to think about how she would want to treat someone or how she would want to be told if she were being a bit overbearing. So she agreed to think and pray about this and then chat with the person who had been a little too pushy with her. But the Golden Rule is of direct value in relationships in churches. It takes but a moment’s thought to think it through: How do I want to treat others? How would I want to be treated? (249-255)

Read more of McKnight’s commentary on Sermon on the Mount: Get the free eBook, Kingdom Vision


Sermon on the Mount, SGBC

by Scot McKnight

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