The Golden Rule is one of a few transreligious axioms, phrases that are recognized beyond the realm of Christianity. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is familiar to just about anyone in the West.
“In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 7.12, New English Translation]
Certainly, it is a good thing to treat others the way one would like to be treated; this is the very heart of justice. That said, between our self-enslavement to cliché and rote memorization, our commitment to micro-managing the text in a way that nearly obliterates the text’s meaning and context altogether and a general lack of attention to what the text actually says, we’ve missed a crucial point in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (which was probably not one long sermon, but a lengthy, theologically congruent anthology of his teaching points. Greatest hits, if you will.
I can’t take full credit here; the point I launched from wasn’t my point at all, but one from this Sunday’s message at church. In fact, had my pastor not done the Greek definition there at the pulpit–something I generally don’t care for, but, hey, I’m willing to not care in this case–I wouldn’t have picked up on what I believe to be the emphatic point Jesus makes in Matt’s gospel.
In a previous post, Worlds Apart, I noted that scriptural literalists–terms like ‘fundamentalist’, ‘progressive’, ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are utterly counter-productive–are only literalists insofar as their reading of a translation is concerned and within their own doctrinal presuppositions. What we have as ‘do unto others’ hinges on a single Greek word, poieo. ‘Do’ doesn’t do it justice, but in seeing the word used elsewhere gives us a clearer picture of why it was the word used for this concept.
The word is actually closer to ‘produce’, ‘show’ or ‘demonstrate’ than it is to a mere action or treatment of others. And, in other places where poieo is employed in the scripture, we see why: kindness can’t be faked. Compassion cannot be mimicked. There is no substitute for justice. The synonyms mentioned are vital because they imply that there is something within to begin with. If you want to be shown kindness, show your kindness. If you want to be treated fairly, show your sense of fairness. Long story short, put your money where your mouth is.
But that’s not all.
The common adage is simply the abridged phrase ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, neglecting the phrase at the end of Jesus’ line, ‘for this fulfills the law and the prophets.’ We tend to understand that fulfillment is something along the lines of satisfying completely with the intent of ending the need. Financially speaking, to fulfill our obligations is to pay our bills off. Fulfillment centers take requisition orders and finalize them by sending out what was ordered. Fulfilling comes with the connotation of ending the previous, so we take a line like the last part of the Golden Rule and assume Jesus is talking about the new covenant, breaking from the past, etc.
The text is clear, and even the earliest English translations–including the wretched afke, feeke, knocke King James!–get this right: the word ‘fulfill’ isn’t there. At all. The word is esti: ‘is’. Jesus is not implying in any way that what he calls for is breaking from the old, but that the Golden Rule is an overarching principle which the law upholds and the prophets prosecute.
Beyond that, even, there’s an echo of something else here. If Jesus says that we have to show what we want to be shown, and that this principle of fairness governs all the law and prophets, then we’re talking about a moral imperative that is specific to his immediate context and to his social location. He is not giving people anything new, in fact, the Golden Rule is something that would otherwise have been quite familiar to the people of the time and place.
“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name.'” [Genesis 12.1-3, NET]
The raison d’etre for the seed of Abraham is to be a blessing; to this end, and this end alone, they were blessed. The Golden Rule wasn’t anything revolutionary, it was Jesus brilliantly rearranging and restating what the people of Abraham already knew. A similar point can be made about another familiar phrase earlier in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Judge not, lest you be judged’ does not mean don’t judge as we assume it does, rather, it means exactly the same as the Golden Rule: if you bring it, expect it to be returned in kind. They are, in fact, bookends in the text indicating the beginning and end of a singular unit of Christ’s teaching, and this isn’t teaching as much as it is Christ speaking prophetically into that context.
So why are we still seeing ‘fulfill’ when there is no ‘fulfill’ in the source material? Because we want to believe that the New Testament is actually substantively different from the Old, when the original covenant was not cancelled by Christ, but rather reinforced and extended to all. We Christians are blessed to be a blessing, and we ought to be demonstrating that blessing in and for the world. This is the redemptive and restorative work God has called us to do, not to be partisan pricks or cheeseballs to be marginalized, mocked and ultimately ignored, but to be agents of compassion and justice.
It is not simply being polite to have politeness returned in kind; it is recognizing that we have been given a great blessing and it is our responsibility to demonstrate that credibly in order to see it manifested in the world.
It is not a call to do, but a call to be. The difference between the two is like the difference between pyrite and gold: one is found by fools, the other valued by all.