The Golden Rule
- Main Text: Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29
- Accompanying text: Psalm 37:16-18
What this passage means to us
There are many passages in the New Testament about how the Spirit of God changes the believer, and the Sermon on the Mount is one of them. Throughout his book Matthew contrasts Old Testament expectations of behaviour, the things that should not be done or that should be done, to how, in the New Testament, perfection is the process of the Spirit of Jesus within us. Matthew 5:48 tells us to be (or better, “become”) “perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. This is impossible for us to be or do by and of ourselves. There’s only one way, Matthew wants us to understand, and that is by knowing Jesus, the Messiah, the only fulfilment of the prophecies of the King and Saviour to come. We put Jesus ahead of all other ideas and would-be messiahs. His sayings and his words are the way forward, and we have to live them, not just to learn them or recite them or know where to find them. They need to become part of us. Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:23-24). This encapsulates much of the central teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Just as Christ explained to his hearers that his teachings are to become part and parcel of who they are, so Jesus says the same to us today.
Context and story-line
In Matthew 7 the Sermon on the Mount comes to a climatic and shocking conclusion. Matthew shows how Jesus picks up the pace and delivers one of the most powerful messages his audience is likely to have heard. His listeners were stunned by what he said from the beginning of the Beatitudes to the Lord’s Prayer, and now, his authority and directness amazed them more as he concluded with ideas and words that turned their religious and spiritual worlds upside down. Who did he think he was to challenge the status quo and, seemingly, even to call into question some of the words of Moses? The answer had been supplied by the voice of Father at the Baptism of Jesus — Jesus was none other than the very Son of God. John the Baptist had directed the people to him. The writer of Hebrews would go on to explain so clearly — “Jesus has been found worthy of greater honour than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honour than the house itself” (Hebrews 3:3).
Luke’s version of Matthew 7:1-6 about judging others is more extensive, and it flows better in that it is positioned immediately after the “love your enemies” section of Matthew 5:43-48. Jesus says “He (God Most High) is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”, and then he proceeds to expound merciful thinking more by explaining, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:35-37). If we zero in on the speck of sawdust in someone’s eye (a minor fault, an irritation) while ignoring the plank of wood that more or less blinds us (a major problem of our own), how helpful is that? Paul’s words to the Roman Christians were similar, and he goes on to write that, when we judge others, we “show contempt for the riches of his (God’s) kindness, forbearance and patience”: it is the “goodness of God” that changes people, not our judging them (Romans 2:4). If we judge others in such an hypocritical way, it’s like discarding the treasure of God’s mercy within us, like throwing that precious pearl to pigs. What’s more, if you are a merciful and loving parent, surely you don’t respond to your children by giving them something as useless as a stone or as harmful as a scorpion. Why then, when God’s children need our mercy more than our judgment, do we cause unnecessary harm by judging others? Don’t we know that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13)? When we ask things of God, does he give us bad things in answer to what we need or ask? As we grow in God’s grace and become less self-centred, the things that we want or desire or ask for change. As you “take delight in the Lord”, “he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). God is greater than any human parent, and, with God, he “gives us more grace” always (James 4:6). “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17), and so let it be with us, that God’s gifts flow through us to others.
Surely, we should do to others what we’d like others to do to us. We would like to receive mercy, so let’s give mercy to others. We’d like to be forgiven, so let’s forgive. When Jesus refers to what many Christian teachers call the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), he turns a well-known phrase around. The Jewish community would have recognised the phrase from the apocryphal book of Tobit, “Do that to no man which thou hatest” , and the Rabbi Hillel had said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah” . Jesus takes negative phrases and turns them into a positive statement, one that sums up all he has been saying in his sermon. Luke puts his version of it, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31), right in the middle of the “love your enemies” section. In Matthew 7:12 Jesus introduces the statement by the word “therefore”, implying a summation of all he has said so far. He is giving his definitive view. The Law in its highest form is not about what you don’t do, it’s about what you do. If you’re looking for spiritual meaning in the Old Testament, it’s about mercy and loving your enemies more than it’s about all the jots and tittles that the scribes and Pharisees treasure. These were strong words, and Jesus was not finished yet.
It’s so much easier to follow sets of physical laws or patterns of religion than it is to practice the sayings of Jesus. His words are like the narrow way whereas most faith and non-faith traditions are broad in comparison. In Matthew 7:24 Jesus tells his audience clearly that his words are meant to be put into action. If you want the best foundation on which to build your spiritual life, there’s only one, and it’s Jesus. “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 3:11). The comparison here is clear. The words of the teachers of the Law provide a weak foundation for life. While there’s no rain, their ground might seem good enough to build upon, but come the rains and problems of life, the buildings will be washed away. Whereas with Jesus and his words, your house is safe because the foundation is strong. It is Jesus who is the Rock on which we stand secure. “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29).
- Luke 6:35-40
- Romans 2:1-4
The Church’s One Foundation; On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand
Footnotes and references
- Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, (London, UK: SPCK, 2008). 287.