The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12)

Much of our behavior toward others is reactive. If someone sends us a gift for our birthday, we feel obliged to send them one for theirs. If someone speaks about us behind our back, we find opportunities to return the favor. And if someone slaps us in the face, our hand is already halfway toward that person’s right cheek before we even begin to wonder whether retaliation is such a good idea.

In Matthew 7.12, Jesus articulates a proactive ethic in what has come to be known as the Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Notice three things about this rule:

First, its scope: “everything.” All actions fall within the purview of this commandment. How we talk, how we express our emotions, and how we behave in joy and sorrow and success and crisis are all governed by the Golden Rule. There is never a time and no kind of circumstance when the Golden Rule does not apply.

Second, its positive character. The idea underlying the Golden Rule was not unknown before Jesus. In fact, the Rabbis taught a negative form of it: “Whatever you don’t want others to do to you, don’t do to them.” Jesus takes a positive, proactive stance. Here’s how the difference between Jesus and the Rabbis played out in terms of cursing and praise. According to the Rabbis, we should not curse others because we do not want to be cursed by them. But according to Jesus, we should praise others because that’s the way we want them to speak about us. Following the Rabbis might decrease the level of negative action in the world, but following Jesus increases the level of positive action.

Finally, its biblical basis. According to Jesus, the Golden Rule is simply a summary of “the Law and the Prophets.” All the “Thou shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments find their positive expression in this little rule. Interestingly, in Matthew 22.34–40, Jesus said that “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments,” namely, to “Love God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Golden Rule, you see, is simply the law of love.

What would it look like in your life if you followed the Golden Rule? What if you began speaking to your spouse the way you wanted to be spoken to? What if you treated your children with the same respect you wanted them to give you? What if talked about and to your fellow employees with kind words? How might our society change if we began to inject the Golden Rule into public discourse and community relations? If, for example, instead of shouting slogans at one another, we began to speak the truth in love—how might society improve?

We do not have to wait to find out the answers. We can implement the Golden Rule in our own lives today. So be proactive, not reactive.

One thought on “The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12)

  1. There are beautiful versions of the positive golden rule in many other religious and philosophical traditions as well:

    “A monk should treat all beings as he himself would be treated.” (Jaina Sutras, Sutrakritanga, bk. 1, 10:1-3 – c. 500 BC)

    “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain and your neighbor’s loss as your loss.” (T’ai-Shang Kan-Ying P’ien – 12th century BC)

    “Universal love is to regard another’s state as one’s own. A person of universal love will take care of his friend as he does of himself, and take care of his friend’s parents as his own. So when he finds his friend hungry he will feed him, and when he finds him cold he will clothe him.” (Book of Mozi, ch. 4 – writings collected between 8th and 3rd century BC)

    “One who regards all creatures as his own self, and behaves towards them as towards his own self attains happiness. One should never do to another what one regards as hurtful to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of righteousness. In happiness and misery, in the agreeable and the disagreeable, one should judge effects as if they came to one’s own self.” (Mahabharata bk. 13: Anusasana Parva, §113 – 400 BC or earlier)

    “As the virtuous man is to himself, he is to his friend also, for his friend is another self” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 9:9 – 350 BC)

    “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” (Mencius, Works bk. 7, A:4 – between 319 and 312 BC)

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