When Jesus Christ was born, the most eminent rabbis in Judea were Hillel and Shammai. They approached Torah — Old Testament law — differently. Hillel typically interpreted Torah leniently, Shammai strictly. The Talmud records stories about the debates between the men.
One of the stories concerns a Gentile who desires to become a Jew. He approaches Shammai and says, “Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot.” Shammai chases him away with a stick.
So the man approaches Hillel. Hillel converts him, then teaches him the entire Torah with this sentence: “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.”
Shammai and Hillel epitomize two ways of approaching ethics. Shammai complexifies matters. For him, the issues are difficult, so it is not easy to explain what we should do in any case. Hillel simplifies matters. He identifies the overarching principle that explains what we should do in every case.
Arguments can be made for either way. When you consider the range of ethical dilemmas we face today — abortion, climate change, racism, sexuality, etc. — you can see the appeal of Shammai’s point of view.
And yet, integrity requires that we take a consistent approach to resolving ethical dilemmas. This doesn’t mean denying the diversity of challenges we face. However, it does mean finding the overarching rule rather than multiplying new commandments, like Hillel did.
Or perhaps I should say, “Like Jesus did,” for He too approached ethics simply.
Jesus’ Simple Rule
We see Jesus’ simple rule in Matthew 22:34–40, where Jesus answers the question, “What is the greatest commandment in the law?”
Jesus responds, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (quoting Deuteronomy 6:5). This is our greatest spiritual duty. Then he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (quoting Leviticus 19:18). This is our greatest moral duty. Together, these two duties constitute the Great Commandment.
In Jewish tradition, Torah contains 613 commandments, 365 negative and 248 positive. Love of God and love of neighbor are greatest because they are more important than other commandments. However, they are also greatest because they are explanatory of other commandments. This is what Jesus means when He says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Two other passages in the New Testament give us criteria for knowing whether we actually love our neighbor. The first is Jesus’ 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” (Matthew 7:12).
Notice, by the way, that Jesus’ Golden Rule is both like and unlike Hillel’s statement to the Gentile convert. They are alike because both align our behavior with what we expect of others. They differ because Hillel’s focus is negative (“do not do to another”), while Jesus’ focus is positive (“do to others”).
The second passage is Romans 13:10, which articulates what is known as the Harm Principle: “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Taken together, the Great Commandment, the Golden Rule, and the Harm Principle comprise Jesus’ simple rule for living in a complex world.
And His simple rule is obviously good. It is easy to state (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) and has clear criteria for knowing what love requires. It is positive (“Love,” “Do”) and proactive (“as you would have them do to you”). It is universal in scope (“in everything”), and it is fair in application, requiring a single rule for both you and them (“as yourself”). Finally, it is virtuous and beneficial, arising from love and seeking to help, not harm.
“Easy peasy lemon squeezy,” as my daughters say. Right? At the intellectual level, sure! Simple rules are easy to apply. But take a look around — or better yet, take a look within — and notice how often Jesus’ simple rule is disregarded and disobeyed. Why does this happen, and how do obey Jesus better?
What to Do Now
As I reflect on Scripture and my own struggles to follow Jesus’ simple rule, five action items come to mind:
1. Act reflectively, not reflexively. When I visit the doctor for my annual physical, he tests my tendon reflexes by tapping my knees with a small hammer. My foot kicks forward every time without my thinking about it, and that’s a good thing.
Sometimes our emotions are like that too: They respond without us thinking about them. That’s not always a good thing. What if your neighbor taps you with your anger mallet and you kick him right back? That’s reflexive … and bad.
We need a reflective response — that is, thoughtful, intentional —rather than a reflexive one. So, next time someone treats you badly in word or deed, stop, count to 10, and ask whether your response is how you would want to be treated, as well as whether it will harm the other person.
2. Act self-referentially, not selfishly or selflessly. Some people act selfishly, as if they’re the only person who matters. Other people act selflessly, as if everyone matters but themselves. Selfless people are the doormats selfish people wipe their feet on.
Jesus doesn’t want us to act selfishly or selflessly, however, as if we’re everything or nothing. Instead, He wants us to act self-referentially — to love others “as yourself.” Ephesians 5:28–29 offers a picture of what that this looks like in a marriage relationship: “He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body.”
This is how Jesus treats the Church, and how we should treat others.
3. Think long term, not short term. My youngest daughter lives fully in the present. She wants it all, and she wants its right now, especially if it’s candy. While she’s delightful 99% of the time, she throws epically undelightful fits when she doesn’t get her way.
I know too many adults who act like my daughter. If a child’s fit isn’t pretty, just imagine how ugly an adult fit is. In saying, “I want it all, and I want it now!” we make petulant children of ourselves, treat others like means to our ends, and harm them in the process.
“Love is patient,” Paul writes (1 Corinthians 13:4). So if you love others, remember to think long-term. As the old saw puts it, “Good things come to those who wait.”
4. Imitate and model. A great deal of learning is imitation. That’s why parents want their kids to have “good kids” for friends. That’s why parents shy away from spending too much time with other adults who aren’t good “role models.” So, if you want to love your neighbor as yourself, form relationships with people who do it well. “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ,” Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 11:1).
More than having a good role model, be a good role model. Nothing so straightens you out as knowing that others are watching what you do.
5. Ask the Holy Spirit for The previous action steps are basically self-help. They don’t necessarily assume a spiritual point of view. Instead, they assume we can fix a problem once we’ve identified it.
But what if we can’t? What if the cause of our failure goes deeper than ignorance? What if our problem is a defective heart? In other words, what if we don’t love others because we don’t want to or because we like to hurt them?
If our heart is defective, no amount of self-help will help. We need a heart surgeon. We need the Holy Spirit.
Ole Hallesby defines prayer as “asking Jesus into our heart.” We typically use that language to describe conversion. “Come to the altar and ask Jesus into your heart,” the preacher says at the end of a worship service. Hallesby recognized that because we have a heart problem, we need continually to ask Jesus into our hearts.
And here’s the good news: Jesus always answers that prayer! According to Paul, Jesus does that this way: “God’s lovehas been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
Our times are complex. The moral problems we face are outnumbered only by the solutions proffered. But if Jesus is not only our Savior but also our Teacher, then one thing is needful: To love our neighbors as ourselves. May that simple rule guide us always!
P.S. I wrote this article for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here with permission.