Why the Golden Rule Is Unique

J. E. DyerIt has become a commonplace for the college undergraduate to learn, probably in a core philosophy course, that the Golden Rule enunciated by Jesus (Mt. 7:12) is merely one version of a universal idea about human relations. A key example frequently cited is the Confucian axiom from the 5th century B.C.: "Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you."

Students of philosophy and religion call this the "ethic of reciprocity." In the texts of most religions, the idea is a negative one: do not do to others what you regard as hurtful. One or two religions explicitly shift the idea of reciprocity to the positive side, as in this ancient Egyptian text: "Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do."

But the Golden Rule is miscast as a rule about reciprocity. It is not one: it is not intended to make us think narrowly or pragmatically about avoiding the infliction of harm, nor is its purpose to induce reciprocal behavior from others. The Golden Rule is not about managing human relations or social outcomes. It is about aligning our own hearts with the basic relational attitude of God the Father.

It is instructive to look at the context in which Jesus stated the rule. Matthew 7:7-12 reads as follows (all citations NIV):

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

It is clear from this that the Golden Rule arises not from the idea of reciprocity but from the idea of the gift—the gift given from a fount of goodness, love, and beneficence, not from the hope of reciprocity. Jesus says nothing about the Golden Rule producing a social effect. Our obligation to observe it derives from our position as the recipients of God's unstinting gifts. We are not in a position to reciprocate what He gives us. The model of giving represented by His unreciprocated bounty is the relational model on which Jesus bases the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule is about trusting God's economy of unreciprocated bounty. We may live by it in some situations for decades without seeing any visible reciprocation, as attested by human dramas the world over: unhappy spouses, survivors of childhood abuse, alienated neighbors, victims of ethnic hatred, persecuted Christians. In other situations it may quickly work wonders, but that is not to be our motivation for living by it. The harvest belongs to God; He gives to us as often in ways we don't anticipate as in the ways we were hoping for. We can't make human relations in God's economy into a system of predetermined variables and analytically obvious outcomes.

Nor is it the purpose of the Golden Rule to eliminate all the harm we may do each other. The ethic of reciprocity is based on an accounting mechanism, a tally sheet of deeds harmful and good, but the Golden Rule does not even address doing harm to others. What it does apply to is forgiveness for the harm done to us. As the Father forgives us freely—showering on us a grace we cannot reciprocate—so we should forgive others (see the Lord's Prayer, Mt. 6:12). Forgiving others is often the most important thing we can "do unto them," but the least recognized.

God has provided for every form of harm ever done by man to be forgiven. He already puts our sins as far away from Him as the East is from the West (Ps. 103:12) and remembers them no more (Is. 43:25). The Golden Rule is not a provision for reducing sin and harm; it is a provision for increasing love: love given freely out of a bounty modeled by the Father. I believe this is what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 5:20 when he said "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

The Golden Rule is not about reciprocity. It is not about arriving at the Last Judgment with the shortest list of sins committed against others. It is about ceasing to weigh and measure these things, and taking as our standard instead God's measureless munificence.