Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Matthew 7:12 - 7:12

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Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Matthew 7:12 - 7:12

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The Golden Rule

All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets.—Mat_7:12.

1. Perhaps no days have been more ingenious and industrious than our own in the endeavour to discover working principles and methods for everyday conduct. One that aroused much interest was contained in the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” It is a noble question, but its defect for the purpose for which it is devised is that the answer is not always either easy or obvious. It is an old instruction in dealing with your neighbour to put yourself in his place. It is a less easy thing, if you come to think of it, to put somebody else in your place. And when that somebody else is one no less august and unique than the Lord Christ Himself, the problem is not simplified. It seems sometimes as if this eagerness for a new formula of conduct springs from despair of the old. But perhaps it would be truer and fairer to say that it springs from ignorance of the old, springs from failure really to grasp and clearly to investigate the content of the old. There is no need to discover any new formula for the regulation of conduct. All legal and prophetic, all casuistical and spiritual wisdom still stands summarized and complete in the Golden Rule. It is the pith and marrow of all ethics; and obedience to it is the final achievement of all religion.

2. The word “therefore” in the text would seem to give it a connexion with what precedes, and it will be instructive to inquire the meaning of this connexion. Now if we look at the context, we shall find that at the seventh verse of the chapter the Lord commenced a new division of His sermon, of which division the text is the conclusion. He is speaking of prayer. He says, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you”; and then He goes on to enforce the duty of prayer by reference to our own conduct towards our children, drawing the very plain conclusion that, if we with all our infirmities still answer our children’s prayers, much more will our Heavenly Father give good things to those who ask Him: up to this point all is clear and easy, but then follow apparently somewhat abruptly the words of the text, “All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets.” How do these words hang on to the preceding part of the discourse? We shall understand this if we observe that in the exhortation to prayer in the context our Lord is in reality only taking up a point in the former part of His sermon; it is in the preceding chapter that He first introduces the subject of prayer, and in it He not only gives directions concerning prayer in general, but utters that particular form of prayer which has been used by His disciples ever since, known as the Lord’s Prayer. Now if we look to this prayer, and then regard the clause of which the text forms the last verse as a recurrence to the same subject, we shall be able to understand why Christ began His Golden Rule with a “therefore,” and so made it to hang upon what He had already said: for our Lord teaches us in His prayer to make our own conduct towards our brethren the measure of the grace which we venture to ask of God: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them who trespass against us,”—forgive us so, and only so—and this being the ground upon which we ask for forgiveness of sins, it is not to be much wondered at that He who taught us thus to pray should also teach us to be careful, lest our own conduct should condemn us and prevent our prayers from being heard; in fact, if we pray to God to deal with us as we deal with others, it is a necessary caution that we should be taught to deal with our neighbours as we would wish them to deal with us.

The principle here enunciated is fundamental, underpinning the whole structure of human society. It is equitable, because all men are more nearly on an equality than might be inferred from a consideration of their outward circumstances. It is portable, “like the two-foot rule” which the artisan carries in his pocket for the measurement of any work which he may be called to estimate. The Emperor Severus was so charmed by the excellence of this rule that he ordered a crier to repeat it whenever he had occasion to punish any person, and he caused it to be inscribed on the most notable parts of the palace, and on many of the public buildings.1 [Note: F. B. Meyer, The Directory of the Devout Life, 179.]


The History of the Precept

1. The words of the text are old and familiar. We learn from our infancy to say, “My duty towards my neighbour is to love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me.” All Christians accept this as an elementary and fundamental maxim of their religion. But not only are these words not new to ourselves in this age of Chistendom; they were by no means altogether new to the world when our Lord spoke them. Parallels to them can be found in heathen philosophers, in the sacred books of other religions. The maxim may justly be regarded as human and universal, rather than as specifically Christian.

Christ not only did not claim for the precept any originality, but He expressly disclaimed it; He gave this as the sanction of the rule, that it was “the law and the prophets,” that is to say, that all the precepts which had been given of old concerning our conduct one towards another were briefly comprehended in this one saying, that we should do to all men as we would that they should do to ourselves; the Lord gave this as a key to the whole, and would have us to understand that if we once master this great principle, and make it the real principle of our conduct, all particular duties will be easily, and as a matter of course, performed. And so St. Paul represents the matter. He says, “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” What Christ did, then, was to bring together scattered duties under one general head and supply a principle which should be applicable to them all.

In Confucius this Divine instinct of the soul began to break forth in history. He said, “You must not do to others what you would not they should do to you.” This was only a refrain. It was a rule telling us what to avoid doing. The grand old Plato went further, and in a kind of prayer says, in the eleventh book of his Dialogues, “May I, being of sound mind, do to others as I would that they should do to me.”1 [Note: D. Swing, Truths for To-Day, i. 34.]

A Gentile inquirer—so the Talmudic story runs—came one day to the great Shammai, and demanded to be taught the law, condensed to a sentence, while he stood on one foot. In anger the Rabbi smote him with his staff and turned away, and the questioner went to Hillel, and Hillel made answer, “Whatsoever thou wouldest that men should not do to thee, that do not thou to them. All our law is summed up in that.” And the stranger forthwith became a proselyte. The best of the Scribes went no further than this negative goodness in their approaches to the teaching of our Lord. He teaches that love cannot be satisfied with this cold abstinence from harm-doing. Active, energetic benevolence is the only true outcome of a character which has yielded to, and been moulded by, the Divine bounty. Frigid negatives satisfy neither Law nor Gospel.2 [Note: A. Pearson, Christus Magister, 261.]

2. Our Lord translated other men’s negatives into God’s positive. Hitherto, the Golden Rule among men had been in the merely negative form. “That which is hateful to thyself do not do to thy neighbour”; that is to say, if thou abstainest from certain gross injustices and iniquities, thou hast fulfilled the whole Law. It is not in such a saying as that that all the philanthropies and humanities of Christianity lie dormant. Those great beneficent systems and institutions with which Christian feeling has covered this land and so many others are not the outgrowth of a mere negative ambition to abstain from insulting or injuring one’s neighbours. It was Christ’s genius that translated the negatives of religion into the positives. With Him the “thou shalt nots” of the Decalogue became the positive constructive doctrine of the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount.

Each time that we turn to the Gospels we find ourselves awed, commanded, moved, as by no other morality. We know nothing deeper, nothing more universal, nothing more practical, than the laws of human conduct which our Lord clothed in language intelligible and impressive to His Galilean hearers. The gospel morality needs no championship; it only needs to be understood and felt. It has much that is manifestly higher than what human wisdom unenlightened by the gospel has ever suggested; but it also welcomes and justifies and exalts every good idea which has appeared to be independent of it.

By universal consent, if Jesus has any rival it is Buddha; by common consent also Sir Edwin Arnold is the man who went through all the Indian literature, sifted out the straw and the chaff, gathered up every grain of wheat he could find, and gave it to us in that poem, The Light of Asia. Then a few years later Sir Edwin re-opened his New Testament, and after a year published The Light of the World. And lo, the disciple of Buddha reverses his judgment! With poetic licence Sir Edwin Arnold represents the Wise Men of the East as Buddhists, who brought their gold and frankincense and offerings to the infant King, and left them, and journeyed back to the Ganges. Then, when two-score years had passed, one of the Wise Men, still living, retraced his steps, fascinated by that memory of the wonderful child. In his travels he meets Mary Magdalene, and hears the tragic story of the life and death of Jesus.

After long brooding upon Christ’s words, the aged Indian priest puts the Light of the World over against the Light of Asia. First, Jesus is infinitely superior, because, until Christ spake, “never have we known before wisdom so packed and perfect as the Lord’s, giving that Golden Rule with which this earth were heaven.” And, second, he finds that Buddha held life was one long sorrow; but “right joyous, though, is Christ’s doctrine, glad ’mid life’s sad changes and swift vicissitudes, and death’s unshunned and hard perplexities”; for over against the despair, the gloom and the pessimism that makes Buddha propose extinction and a dreamless sleep stands the piercing joyousness and out-breaking “gladsomeness of the life of Jesus.” And, third, the old Buddhist finds another round in the golden ladder; if Buddha wrapped the universe in darkness and gloomy mystery, “thy teacher doth wrap us round in glorious folds with mighty name of love, and biddeth us believe, not law, not faith, hath moulded what we are, and built the worlds, but living, regnant love,” for the fury of unharnessed, natural laws, the ferocity of fate, gives way before the advancing footprints of a Father of life and love. Then comes the priest’s final confession. “My teacher bade us toil over dead duties, and brood above slain affections, until we reached Nirvana; yours, to love one’s neighbours as one’s self, and save his soul by losing heed of it, in needful care that all his doings profit men and help the sorrowful to hope, the weak to stand.”

Oh, nearer road, and new! By heart to see

Heaven closest in this earth we walk upon,

God plainest in the brother whom we pass,

Best solitudes ’midst busy multitudes,

Passions o’ercome when Master-passion springs

To serve, and love, and succour.1 [Note: N. D. Hillis.]


Its Scope

1. The rule does not cover all behaviour and all conduct. It has nothing to say of a man’s private attitude and relation to God. It has nothing to say of our behaviour when we are alone—in those times when some men and women are conscious of least responsibility, because their thoughts, desires, or actions do not bring them into any sort of contact with other people. It is therefore not in the nature of spiritual discipline; it is not given to regulate the secret inner life of a man’s thoughts and feelings. It applies to a man’s dealings with his fellows, the multitudinous occasions when the orbit of his life intersects the orbits of other lives, and these other orbits intersect his; and thus it clearly contemplates that the life of the Christian will be a life necessarily rich in social duties and responsibilities and opportunities.

Froude, in his Erasmus, relates a curious incident in the life of Ignatius Loyola. Loyola, one day, met with a copy of the New Testament. He took it up, opened it, and began to read it. But after a short time he threw it down, because, he said, “it checked his devotional emotions.” Froude thinks it very likely did. He found here a religion taught the supreme expression of which was in absolute righteousness, truth, and charity. “If any man deemeth himself to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, is not just, fair, honourable, open, merciful, that man’s religion is vain.” Loyola said this sort of thing checked his devotional emotions! Well, if so, it was high time they were checked. For they were running to seed, and not growing, under due discipline, to flower and fruit. In the religion of Jesus, the ethical, the practical, is the ultimate. To keep the Golden Rule is to fulfil the Law and the prophets.1 [Note: C. S. Horne, The Model Citizen, 140.]

2. Like other general precepts, it will not bear to be taken slavishly in the letter. The worth of a precept is rather to suggest a temper or attitude of mind than to determine precisely what in a given case ought to be done. It is a superficial and therefore a bad morality, not merely defective, but unwholesome and misleading, that attempts to prescribe for conduct by precise regulations. Human life is too free and various to be governed by such methods. You may, without any great ingenuity, imagine cases in which it would be undesirable and wrong to carry out literally our Lord’s injunction, “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.” Perhaps the most obvious instance is flattery. There are tens of thousands of people who flatter their fellow-men because they like it and expect it themselves. And on the principle that you are simply to do to others what you wish them to do to you, it is unexceptionable. Clearly the criticism is that you ought not to wish for flattery yourself; in other words, to make the Golden Rule adequate and true, we must have some guarantee that what we wish to receive from others is what we ought so to wish.

But there is a far more difficult case for the application of the Golden Rule than this. Suppose that you have fallen into some gross sin, and incurred a very severe punishment, what may we assume you would wish that men should do to you? In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the answer would be, “Let me off the penalty.” Are we, then, to go on to assume that it is your duty to remit all punishment, however deserved, because of your sense that you would wish it to be remitted if you were in the wrongdoer’s place? The social conscience has said No; the Christian conscience says No. It is not a question of what you might happen to wish if you were simply an irresponsible and religiously uneducated being, but of what you would wish if you were subject to the spirit and discipline of Christianity. In this latter case you would wish that your sin should be punished, your offences corrected; and consequently you would not do to others an injustice and call it mercy, because you were weak enough to desire it for yourself.


Its Standard of Duty

1. The Golden Rule surpasses all formulas of justice by bringing the case before our loving, trembling, sensitive self, and begging that it be tried in the light and justice of all this light of self-love, self-joy, and self-agony. We know how near and dear a thing one’s own self is. The moment we step away from our consciousness we lose our mental grasp upon the phenomenon of right or wrong. We can look upon a suffering man, sick or wounded, with comparative peace, because our knowledge will not travel away from our own consciousness. We may say, “Poor man, poor child, we pity you,” but we are so cut off from his pain that an infinite gulf lies between our feelings and the sufferer’s agony. But let that pain, that sickness, that dying, come to self, and how quickly the heart measures all the depths of the new sorrow.

It was reported that one of the victims of the Cuban massacre offered a million dollars if the savages would spare his life. The death of others, the common calamities of life had not filled with tremor that heart naturally brave; the grief of death at large had been, as it were, spoken in a foreign language not to be understood by him, but now the grim monster was coming up against self, it was his heart that was to be pierced with balls, not yours, nor mine, but his own, bound to earth, to friends, to country, to home and its loved ones; his was to pour out its blood and sink into the awful mystery of the grave. This was the vivid measurement of things that made the hero try to buy sunshine and home and sweet life with gold. When it comes to any adequate measurement of life’s ills or joys, the only line which man can lay down upon the unknown is the consciousness within, the verdict of this inner self.1 [Note: D. Swing, Truths for To-Day, i. 39.]

2. It has consequently been alleged that this precept falls short, as a rule of morality, of what the inspiring principle of a good man’s life ought to be, and what the best men, in their better moments, have really aimed at. It puts, to a man’s heart and conscience, his fellow-men only on the same level as himself. It seems to start from a regard for self, to recognize the claims of self. It is a nobler morality—this is what has been alleged—that calls upon men to love their neighbours not merely as well as, but better than, themselves. To live for others, quite suppressing and subordinating self, may be the high ideal, the inspiring principle, of a good man’s efforts. Such a man should think, not “How should I wish my neighbour to behave towards me?” but “How can I serve my neighbour? How can I do most good, regardless of my own pleasure or interest, to those around me?”

Of course the general feeling is that the laws of conduct laid down in the Gospels are only too high, too exacting; that they require to be toned down and qualified before they can be applied to the practice of ordinary life. The morality of the Sermon on the Mount has been regarded as something exceptional, something ethereal, that might have suited the first disciples or the saints in later ages who have retired from the world, but “too good for human nature’s daily food.” And Christian expositors have generally felt called upon to show that the laws of the Kingdom of Heaven, as laid down by the Lord Jesus in these discourses, were essentially such as men might act upon and ought to act upon, though they may seem to enjoin an almost romantic or chimerical suppression of self and superiority to the world. Still, it is possible to argue that to love my neighbour as myself and to do to him as I should wish him to do to me, is a rule which assumes that I am caring for myself, and which does not aim at doing more than placing my neighbour on a level with myself in my estimate of his claims upon me.

The answer is that the disciple of Jesus Christ is not only to love his neighbour as himself, but to love the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. And this latter commandment, the first and great one, has much to do with a man’s relations to his fellow-men. It would, we might almost say, be enough of itself, if the second were not, for the sake of explicitness, added to it.

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” is the first and great commandment. Nothing comes before first, and nothing can get before this—nothing can take its place. The second commandment is, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour”; but you cannot get to the second until you have taken in the first. The essential thing in religion is loving God, loving God in Jesus Christ. Religion begins here. A gospel of love for men, with no antecedent love for God, is a gospel without life. But the second commandment must always follow the first. Both are essential. As love for man counts for nothing if there be not first love for God, so love for God, if there be no love for man, is not genuine. The fountain of religion is always the love of God in us. But if there be the fountain, the well of water springing up in us, there will also be streams of water pouring out, rivers flowing forth, to cheer, refresh, and bless the land.

While I love my God the most, I deem

That I can never love you overmuch:

I love Him more, so let me love you, too.

Yea, as I understand it, love is such,

I cannot love you if I love not Him;

I cannot love Him if I love not you.1 [Note: J. R. Miller, The Blossom of Thorns, 224.]

(1) In the first place we notice that this standard imposes upon us the duty of doing justice to our neighbour. The desire for justice is so universal that we may call it an instinct of human nature. What is history, as we find it in every age, but one long series of efforts to obtain justice? These efforts have been among the strongest of all motive powers towards moral, social, political, and religious progress. To-day we are often told that we are living in the midst of a social movement of almost world-wide scope, and we are also told that the chief cause of this movement, the force of which is the principal factor in its momentum, is “a passionate desire for justice.” This is probably true; but it is also true that apparently many of those who are taking a leading part in the movement have by no means a clear idea of the exact nature of justice, and that they have a still less clear conception of the conditions which must be fulfilled in order to obtain it. History teaches us that far too often justice appears to mean the redressing of any injustice which people themselves may suffer, by inflicting some injustice upon others. Thus the object is defeated by the means employed to attain it.

To dispense justice one must be possessed of the cultivated attributes of manhood. A kind heart and a desire to do good are a very insufficient equipment with which to take our neighbour’s affairs into our own hands. We require far more equipment than these, if we are to treat him with the justice which is his due. What we must remember is that the text requires a very strong qualification, one doubtless assumed by Christ, and one which must not be forgotten by us. Thus it should be read, “All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you (if you were equipped with full knowledge to perceive and skill as perfect as possible to decide what was best for you), even so do also unto them, for to enable you to do this is the purpose and the object of the whole course of Divine revelation.”

The one divine work, the one ordered sacrifice is to do justice; and it is the last we are ever inclined to do.… Do justice to your brother (you can do that whether you love him or not), and you will come to love him. But do injustice to him, because you don’t love him, and you will come to hate him.1 [Note: Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive, § 39 (Works, xviii. 420).]

When Napoleon, with his companions, was climbing the steep defile of St. Helena they met a peasant with a bundle of faggots upon his head. The aide-de-camp signalled to the peasant to step aside. But Napoleon rebuked his officer, exclaiming, “Respect the burden! Respect the burden!” It was the sense of justice that was voiced in these words of the soldier, for Napoleon had been himself a peasant boy, and he wished to do to a burden-bearer that which he had asked others to do for him when as a child he carried his bundle of faggots down the mountain side.2 [Note: N. D. Hillis.]

(2) But, in the second place, the Christian must not draw the line at justice; he must exercise mercy and forbearance. God has made us neighbours of hundreds and thousands in this land—the poor, the degraded, the unattractive; the crippled and the handicapped, the diseased and the infirm; children sufferers, adult sufferers; lives suddenly broken, seemingly spoiled and ruined by accident, lives suddenly menaced by internal disorder, bright lives blighted, strong lives emaciated. We think of some for whom life has suddenly resolved itself into a condemned cell, with nothing to look forward to but dying; the great army of the incurable waiting, some with smiles of brave anticipation, some with sobs of weakness and despair, the inevitable hour. Yes, God has made these our neighbours. And if we were in their place! If we were the condemned, the pain-stricken, the crippled, the diseased, and they were here to-day in our places, in health and hope, what should we wish that men should do for us? The question answers itself. We should long that all that skill and care and comfort and kindness can do should be done for us in our lamentable lot. If a man lives a dissolute life, and nature begins to exact her penalties and wrecks the physical frame, we maintain a costly staff of physicians and an expensive system of hospitals to stand between that man and the direct consequences of his evil living. Logically, that is indefensible. But there are higher principles in life than the merely logical. And we have concluded that life is so sacred, and its opportunities are so precious, that we will direct all our skill and all our care to enlarging and extending life’s opportunities for every man, even for the worst.

There are vessels on our seas that bear an ill name, and have an evil notoriety. But let the worst of these run upon the rocks, and the men of your lifeboats will not stay to haggle about character and deserts. They will do for the worst what they would do for the best. Such is the inspiring influence of our Christian conception. Christ Himself died for an evil world that was in peril of shipwreck.1 [Note: C. S. Horne, The Model Citizen, 148.]

3. It is not too much to say that the spirit of the Golden Rule created a new atmosphere for the world. But it needed to be illumined and reinforced, and this our Lord proceeded to do. If the Golden Rule is the high-water mark of the other teaching, it is the lowest round in the ladder which Christ begins to climb. Where the other teachers stopped on the hill of aspiration and difficulty, Jesus begins, and rushes on and up to hitherto undreamed-of heights. At the beginning of His ministry He said, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” After three years of self-abnegating service He parted the curtains, and showed them the heights where perfect love had her dwelling-place, from which she beckoned men out of the low plains of selfishness up to the realms where perfect truth and beauty have their dwelling-place. “A new commandment I give unto you”—that abrogates that lower Golden Rule—“that ye love one another, as I have loved you.” The Golden Rule was a mere embodiment of absolute justice; Christ proposes to break the alabaster box of love unmerited and undeserved. “As I have loved you”—what word is this? For three years He had shown them the pattern of earth’s most glorious friendship. Jesus has not done unto the Twelve simply and alone what He would have the Twelve do unto Him. He has done more. Peter denies His Master, and Jesus stretches forth His hand and draws Peter up out of the abyss, and gives the sceptre of power and the keys of influence into Peter’s hand.

The solid blocks or tables on which the Ten Commandments were written were of the granite rock of Sinai, as if to teach us that all the great laws of duty to God and duty to man were like that oldest primeval foundation of the world—more solid, more enduring than all the other strata; cutting across all the secondary and artificial distinctions of mankind; heaving itself up, now here, now there; throwing up the fantastic crag, there the towering peak, here the long range which unites or divides the races of mankind. That is the universal, everlasting character of Duty. But as that granite rock itself has been fused and wrought together by a central fire, without which it could not have existed at all, so also the Christian law of Duty, in order to perform fully its work in the world, must have been warmed at the heart and fed at the source by a central fire of its own—and that central fire is Love—the gracious, kindly, generous, admiring, tender movements of the human affections; and that central fire itself is kept alive by the consciousness that there has been in the world a Love beyond all human love, a devouring fire of Divine enthusiasm on behalf of our race, which is the Love of Christ, which is of the inmost essence of the Holy Spirit of God. It is not contrary to the Ten Commandments. It is not outside of them, it is within them; it is at their core; it is wrapped up in them, as the particles of the central heat of the globe were encased within the granite tables in the Ark of Temple.1 [Note: A. P. Stanley, History of the Church of Scotland, 8.]

The Golden Rule


Balmforth (R.), The New Testament in the Light of the Higher Criticism, 108.

Bonar (H.), God’s Way of Holiness, 104.

Chadwick (W. E.), Christ and Everyday Life, 103.

Davies (J. Ll.), Social Questions, 97.

Fox (W. J.), Collected Works, iii. 155.

Goodwin (H.), Parish Sermons, iv. 196.

Horne (C. S.), The Model Citizen, 136.

Meyer (F. B.), The Directory of the Devout Life, 179.

Pearson (A.), Christus Magister, 249.

Rutherford (J. S.), The Seriousness of Life, 97.

Sadler (T.), Sermons for Children, 93.

Secker (T.), Sermons, vii. 243.

Smith (W. C.), The Sermon on the Mount, 292.

Snell (H. H.), Through Study Windows, 27.

Swing (D.), Truths for To-Day, i. 31.

Talmage (T. de W.), Sermons, v. 144.

Christian World Pulpit, xiii. 12 (E. W. Shalders); xliv. 329 (E. A. Lawrence).

Church of England Pulpit, xlviii. 13 (J. Reid).

Churchman’s Pulpit: Sermons to the Young, xvi. 472 (C. E. Kennaway).

Twentieth-Century Pastor, xxxii. (1912–13) 130 (N. D. Hillis).