Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:12

The "Golden Rule" reads: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)(NRSV)

Versions of the golden rule abound. No doubt you can share examples from several cultures. In the ancient Roman world, negative versions may be found in Tobit, Philo and Hillel. Jesus offers a positive version.

The negative versions seem to me to be akin to the old medical dictum: "Do no harm." That is, they call us to avoid hurting others. The rule of thumb becomes: "Don't do anything to someone else you would not want them to do to you." I admire the insight into human nature which lies in back of such formulations. Most of us, I suspect, have little trouble envisioning what others might do to harm us. Identifying and refraining from such actions provides the makings of a workable social order (assuming, of course, that we are healthy people in most respects).

Such a dictum finds particular expressions in the Ten Commandments ("Don't murder, etc) and the prophets (don't misuse the justice system to steal from the poor, etc.).
In short, the negative formulations of the golden rule, if applied, serve to regulate destructive human behavior.

Looking back, I find I've made use of the negative formulation in my personal life. To make a long story short, I grew up in a home dominated by an alcoholic father. A good bit of the first three decades of my life was shaped by a core idea: "Don't do to anyone else what my father did to me." Frankly, the commitment sufficed for a long time, though I must confess it was not sufficient for the long run.

Which leads me back to the positive, or as I prefer proactive, formulation Jesus offered. Taken seriously, it forces us to ask a hard question: "Just what would I really want others to do for me?" Some of us may well be inclined to say, "Nothing." In more nearly sane moments, though, I think we realize that's not so.

Assuming we are reasonably healthy persons, and taking into account "the law and the prophets" plus Jesus, I suggest most of us want at least the following from others.

...to be taken seriously, to be treated as if we matter
...to be "kept company" when life crashes in
...to be accorded opportunities to discover and use our gifts
...to be given opportunity to help others
...to be treated with dignity regardless of economics, health, race, gender or age
...to be offered friendship

Obviously, the list may be applied at the personal level. I think it provides a reasonable guideline at the societal level as well.

I do not regard the list as complete, and I'm keenly aware that such a list is conditioned by our living in relative economic security. A person in dire circumstances might well make a different list and include items such as food, clothing, shelter and the like. Still, having studied and experienced a variety of human cultures, I think the first list captures some of our deepest yearnings.

Jesus' formulation pushes his followers to be proactive toward others, to intentionally offer such gifts to one another. In his worldview, behavior restrictions are fine but not enough. From my perspective, he has much in common with several of the prophets at this point.

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