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The Golden Rule

April 21, 2013

Sermon:  The Golden Rule
Text:  Luke 6:31; Matthew 5:38-48


I invite you to open your Bibles to our text for today, Luke 6:31, a passage that contains what is known as the Golden Rule. This law, which tells us how Jesus wants us to live, is also known as the Law of Love, the Law of Liberty in the books of Ephesians and James, and the second Great Commandment.  The Golden Rule, in its positive form, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” is the apex, the centerpiece, of Christian ethics.  This ethic of reciprocity also has a negative form, which is, believe it or not, more commonly used.  Often called the Silver Rule, the negative is usually phrased something like, “People should not treat others in ways that they would not like to be treated.”

We find variations of this rule in numerous very old cultures.  In ancient Egypt the rule is somewhat selfishly motivated:  “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him to do that.”  Ancient Greece offered several variations:  “Do not do to your neighbor what you would take ill from him,” “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing,” “What you do not want to happen to you, do not do it yourself either,” “Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others,” and “What you would avoid suffering for yourself seek not to impose on others.”  Ancient Rome offered this phrasing:  “Expect from others what you did to them.  It is not so, as you might believe, that one is made happy through the unhappiness of others.”

Almost every world religion incorporates the Golden Rule, though usually in the negative form.

  • Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty:  do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”
  • Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”
  • Confucianism:  It is said a student approached Confucius and asked, “Is there one word for the conduct of life?”  Confucius gave the Chinese word for reciprocity, offering, “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.  Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.”
  • Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man.  This is the law:  all the rest is commentary.”  We find this rule in the Talmud from the great teacher Hillel.
  • Islam:  “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”  The great misfortune is that in Islam, the rule applies only to people who are a part of the Islamic faith.
  • Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31).  We also find the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12:  “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  The wording in Christianity is noticeably different; it is expressed in a positive nature.  Jesus is the first to word the rule in this way.

Lawrence Kohlberg followed in the steps of Piaget, who developed a way of understanding cognitive growth, and Erik Erikson, who developed an eight-stage way of identifying psychosocial development.  Kohlberg developed six levels of moral development.  Though not a Christian, he found that the highest of those levels was living consistently by the ethics inherent in the Golden Rule.  Kohlberg said that in all of his research he had found only two people in history who had reached this highest stage of moral development: Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus.

Most of us know that this Golden Rule has been tarnished.  Though it is a part of every major world religion, many people do not live by it.  They are more likely to live by the self-serving maxim, “Do to others before they have a chance to do it to you.”  That view is motivated by “me first” and promotes hurting someone before that person has an occasion to do the same.

Why am I delivering a sermon on the Golden Rule this morning?  Last Sunday’s mission sermon about Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch focused on our ministry of sharing the gospel with others, one on one.    On Sunday night we had an opportunity to see that ministry cross ethnic and racial lines during the gathering called Come Closer held at Milestone Church.  Formerly named the Spartanburg Community Church, Milestone is a church we started almost seventeen years ago.  That gathering, which drew together a consortium of churches across denominational lines, encouraged us to love this city, to love the people of our own community.  Chris Pollard, who delivered the message, is the pastor of the Journey Church, another ministry we helped to start.

On Sunday afternoon, I attended a much smaller gathering of five people at a meeting of the Upstate Friends, the Quaker community.  The meeting lasted two hours, with the first hour spent in total silence.

That night after I returned home and ate supper, I went out into my backyard as I often do when the weather turns warm.  This is my Sabbath time.  There in my yard I sat, pondered, and reflected on the three worship experiences that day.  A common thread that concerns all of us linked those three gatherings:  How can we as Christians love people, and how can we make a difference in this world in which we live?  I pondered those questions, then went inside and sent, as I often do, an e-mail to the staff, announcing the sermon title and text for today: The Golden Rule and Luke 6:31.

Then came Monday.  Many of you watched, as I did, the events as they unfolded in Boston.

Clare and I lived in Boston for a time with our four boys.  We have an affinity for that city and loved being there, but we love being here in Spartanburg more.  We had ridden the subways and buses and walked those sidewalks at Copley Square where the bombings occurred.

As we watched the news broadcasts we were horrified, as were most Americans.  This terrorist act affects all of America, not just Boston.  I realized that it was no coincidence that I had selected this topic and Scripture for today’s sermon.  I can tell you that those bombings did not make preparing this sermon any easier, and I doubt they are going to make hearing this sermon any easier. Nothing could be timelier and more important for us today than to pay attention to Jesus’ command we call the Golden Rule.

I want to direct your attention to Matthew 5:38-48, where Jesus addressed the crowd during the Sermon on the Mount.  We will use Scripture to comment on Scripture, Scripture to interpret Scripture.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Verse 38, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,’” presents an ancient law known as the Lex Talionis.  If the Golden Rule is the law of reciprocity, the Lex Talionis is the law of retribution.  We find this very law spelled out, first of all, in the Code of Hammurabi, written nearly 4000 years ago in ancient Persia.  That law said that if one person injured another, the injured person had the right to hurt the offender in the same way. Why was this law written?  Believe it or not, the law was the beginning of mercy.  Its purpose was to limit retaliation and vengeance and to keep conflict from escalating.  The Code of Hammurabi basically said, “If you knock my tooth out, I can knock out only one of your teeth.  If you put my right eye out, I can put out only your right eye.  I can only return the harm that you do to me in equal portion.”

You should know that the Lex Talionis was not for private use, not to be taken as a personal prerogative.  It did not grant permission to punish someone, to take the law into one’s own hands.  The prevailing judicial system, which always dictated the punishment, did not carry out this legal code in a literal way.  The court administered the law by requiring the offender to make restitution, which was usually done monetarily.  The court considered five cases of libel: the injury, pain involved, cost of treatment, time lost, and indignity suffered.

The precepts of Lex Talionis, common throughout the entire world, have driven blood feuds and vendettas.  We see this retribution happening between families like the Hatfields and McCoys in the mountains, between crime bosses protecting their turf in big cities, and between neighbors arguing when they get at odds with each other.  This law of retaliation says, “You hurt me, and I will hurt you.”

This law appears in the Old Testament three times:

  • Exodus 21:23-25: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, strike for strike.”
  • Leviticus 24:19-20:  “If a man causes the disfigurement of his neighbor, so shall it be done to him.  Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement to another so shall it be done to him.”
  • Deuteronomy 19:2:  “Your eye shall have no pity.  Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

Mahatma Gandhi perhaps offered the best comment about this code: “If this is the way we live – an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye – the result is that everyone will be blind.”

We must not think that the Old Testament’s only ethical teachings about how we are to live resemble the Lex Talionis.  We see other teachings that resonate with the first version of what Jesus called the second Great Commandment in Matthew 22:39, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  Leviticus 19:18 offers, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” We also read, “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” in Leviticus 19:34.  One of my favorite passages appears in Micah 6:8:  “He has shown you…what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?  To do justice and love mercy…”  Micah tells us that we find the balance between mercy and justice when we, “…walk humbly with your God.”  Jesus, in Verse 38, pointed out his audience’s familiarity with the legal code, “You have heard this said…”  Of course they had heard it said.  We have all heard it said.

Notice that Jesus offers four illustrations about how we are supposed to live in Matthew 5.  Verse 39 says, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also.”  This is not just a slapping game; this is also about insult.  Assume a person slaps you on the cheek with the back of the hand.  Being slapped in that manner was considered a double insult, far greater than being slapped with the palm of the hand.  Jesus is saying here, “When a person insults you, do not retaliate in kind through insult.”  We have all heard the childhood chant “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”  That chant has no truth; some of the greatest insults we suffer are those that people speak.

The second illustration occurs in Verse 40:  “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic hand over your cloak as well.”  After the early service several lawyers came to me and said, “This second example is a tough one.”  Yes, it is tough.  If someone took your tunic, it was like losing the shirt off your back, but almost everyone had at least two tunics.  A person’s most valuable garment was a cloak, that warm outer wrapping used for protection from the elements in the daytime and as a covering for warmth at night.  Jesus is saying, “If you give a man your tunic, you are fine because you have another one.  You must go beyond what is expected by giving your cloak also.”

Jesus teaches in Verse 41:  “If anyone forces you to go a mile, go with him two miles.”  You have all heard of “going the second mile.”  Since the Roman army occupied the land, a soldier could compel a Palestinian or Jew to carry his pack for one mile.  A person had an obligation to carry it one mile, but Jesus supports the notion of carrying it a second mile.  Obligation carries with it with some bitterness, some resentment.  Voluntarily carrying the pack a second mile, which goes above and beyond an obligation, can cause a more positive attitude.  Think of Simon of Cyrene, pressed into service to carry the cross of Jesus, a burden that was not his.

Verse 42:  “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”  The intention of this imperative is to help.

My dad recalled a time when his Sunday School class decided to help a family whose kitchen had been destroyed in a house fire.  The class considered making a down payment on all the appliances the family needed in the kitchen.  My dad suggested, “Wait a minute.  That plan will not help this family.  They would be better off receiving one appliance rather than making payments on many.”  Be mindful, please, that when we give to people with true generosity, we want to do so in a way that helps, not hurts.

Jesus goes on to make a statement that really makes us uncomfortable in Verse 43:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  If you want to eliminate your enemies love them.  Pray for them.  If someone has compelled you to do something you do not want to do, if someone has insulted you or imposed something on you that seems totally unfair, love that person.  This does not mean that you are obligated to love in the same way you love your nearest and dearest.  Loving and praying for your enemy with the spirit of Jesus will actually change the way you think of that person.

What is the purpose of all of these illustrations?  Does Jesus want us to be nice people?  Look at what Jesus says in Verse 45: “…you will be children of your Father in heaven.”  At the end of this passage Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  The Greek word is telios.  “Be complete as your Father in heaven is complete.”  These examples show us how God treats people.  Jesus tells us that God sends the rain and the sun on the just and the unjust.  Do you think God loves people who disappoint Him, people who hurt Him?  God loves everyone equally, and He continues to love them.  Jesus teaches this lesson so that we can become like God.

Matthew, who is writing for a Jewish audience, goes into great detail with Jesus’ lessons.  Luke, in writing for a Gentile audience, rearranges and compacts this same material.  Luke 6:27 says, “To you who are listening I say, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”  Then in Verse 36, he adds, “You are to be merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful.”  Though the two Gospels clearly have similarities and differences, the intent is the same.

Yesterday during breakfast I sat with people who planned to work on homes in the community.  One fellow said, “I guess now we’ll need background checks on people buying pressure cookers and ID’s for everyone who wants to buy nails.”

How will we live in this world that is full of terror and violence?  How many laws do we need?  Will tougher laws solve the problems?  How much weaponry do we need?  How much defense is enough?  Should we place armed guards in every school?  Many people are talking about Second Amendment rights.  I learned a long time ago that with every right comes a corollary responsibility.

Following the Lord’s Supper, according to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples got up from the table with plans to go to the Garden of Gethsemane.  When one of the disciples told Jesus, “We have two swords,” Jesus responded, “Enough.” (Luke 22:38).  Was Jesus saying that two swords were enough or was he saying, “Enough of this talk about swords”?

The Gospels reveal that later at the garden Simon Peter cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest.  In the midst of all the confusion, even his own arrest, Jesus took time to heal the man’s ear.  He made the comment, “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword,” (Matthew 26:52) meaning, “If you live by hate and fear, you will die by hate and fear.”

We need laws, but I am going to leave that job to the lawmakers.  The one law that supersedes all others is the Law of Love, which tells us to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. We need weapons, but Christians are to use the only offensive weapon, the Bible.  Ephesians 6 tells us that we are to put on the full armor of God and defend ourselves with love and prayer.  No amount of bullets will straighten out this hard, dangerous world in which to live; but Jesus tells us to use love and prayer, which are available to us.

I want you to stop and look at the cross.  Look at the one on the cross, the one who taught us to live this way.  They persecuted Jesus, not just once but repeatedly.  They beat him.  They spit in his face.  They insulted him.  They ripped his tunic and gambled for his cloak.  They humiliated him and mocked him.  They compelled him to carry a burden, his cross, along the Via Dolorosa until he fell, too weak to carry it further. The choir sang these words this morning: “He paid a debt he did not owe; He paid a debt that I owe.”  Look at the cross, at the one who taught us to live without retaliation.  There he cried out, “Father, forgive them.”  Then as he breathed his last breath and bowed his head, he said, “Telios,” which means “It is complete.  It is finished.”

Perhaps you know this prayer ascribed to St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.  Amen.

Can you live the way that Jesus calls us to live?  If you have never accepted Jesus, could I invite you to make him the Lord of your life today?  If you have already acknowledged Jesus as your Savior, perhaps you need to make some other decision.  We invite you to respond.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2013

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