7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 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! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
I was really tempted to preach from one verse, no, one part of a verse today. Matthew 7:12b, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” This was probably one of the first verses I ever learned, likely because my poor mother raised three boys and had to quote this passage of scripture to us on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, we only half listened. I remember my older brother doing what I might call “paraphrasing” this passage when he took my candy and misquoted Jesus by saying, “Do unto others before they can do to you.”
That was last weekend.
This memory — which actually did happen, but when we were much younger — got me thinking about the different forms that this passage of scripture has taken on over the years and across different religions. Of course, we commonly know this teaching as the Golden Rule.
It has been said that every religion has some form of the Golden Rule in their holy book and teachings.
Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”
Confucianism: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”
Hinduism: “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self.”
Islam: “What you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them.”
The thing that I notice in these versions of the Golden Rule, thanks to Bruxy Cavey (The End of Religion), is that they are all in the negative or at least the passive form. Don’t do to others the things that you wouldn’t want have done to you.
So if you don’t want someone else to hurt you, don’t hurt someone else. If you don’t want someone else to steal from you, don’t steal from someone else.
The way that the Golden Rule is written in the New Testament is different. Again, from Matthew 7:12b, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”
Jesus’ words make this an active process (as do some of the other religions of the world). In Jesus’ words it isn’t enough to just not do harm to someone if you don’t want them to not harm you and it isn’t just enough to not steal from someone else if you don’t want them to steal from you. In Jesus’ version of the Golden Rule, if you don’t want someone else to harm you, you must actively do something to persuade them to keep them from harming you. For example, loving those that hate you and giving gifts to those that might steal from you.
The thing that I found interesting when I read Bruxy’s commentary of the Golden Rule in the negative, is that he said to not do something to someone else is great, but that you have only achieved the ethic of a stone or a rock, an inanimate object. Rocks don’t hate, rocks don’t steal. They don’t gossip and they don’t lie. Rocks don’t do unto others the things that they wouldn’t want others to do unto them.
Bruxy tells the story of taking his daughters to a day camp one summer. This was a pretty unique and beautiful camp. This camp intentionally included campers with physical and mental disabilities along with other children with no discernible disabilities, and included activities in which all could participate.
All week long, every morning as Bruxy dropped off his daughters at this day camp, he reminded them that it wasn’t enough to just not make fun of the other children who were not like them. Again, in doing so they would have achieved the morality of a rock. Instead, Bruxy asked them to try to be an encouragement and show love to the other campers. And they came up with a family slogan, “Rock on!” as a way to remind their selves to do unto others as they would have them do unto them.
Rock on. Don’t stop at the ethic of an inanimate object. Go further and actively seek the well-being of others.
If you have been a part of this congregation for any amount of time, you know that I feel strongly that it is important to understand scripture in its larger context. Matthew 7:12b is a great passage, but what is Jesus specifically talking about here?
The entirety of verse 12 looks like this: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
We in the English-speaking world don’t usually start a fresh conversation or line of thought with the word “so.” You wouldn’t just walk up to a stranger and say, “So, it sure is a nice day, isn’t it.” “So” isn’t a word that we use to start a new conversation. It is a word that identifies that the speaker is about to reach a conclusion.
Other versions of the New Testament translate the first word of verse 12 as “therefore,” which is an even more awkward way of starting a conversation. Jesus isn’t just throwing in this phrase about doing to others as you would have them do unto you. This is the summation of his teaching. And Jesus tells us exactly what is being summed up: the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew chapter 7 is the conclusion of a long continuous speech given by Jesus, a teaching that we often call The Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount begins in chapter 5 with the beatitudes, those “blessed are the…” sayings.
In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says this confusing thing: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Jesus goes on to give a series of antitheses, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” Jesus names a law or a teaching from the Hebrew Bible and then redefines how that teaching should be lived out, in many cases upping the ante a bit. Then he looks at how some of the teachings have been lived out and he says, Do not pray like the religious leaders, do not fast like the Pharisees, do not judge like the hypocrites. Jesus is repeatedly redefining how these laws are to be lived out. He doesn’t abolish them. He fulfills them by showing the true intention of the Law and he redefines how we relate to others, how we relate to God, and how we relate to ourselves.
Then, as he is concluding this long teaching, he says, Therefore, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And in doing so, you are getting to the actual point of the Law and the Prophets.
Let’s get practical here and look at some true stories. Last weekend I was able to spend some time in Ohio as we passed through on the way to Indiana. And for some reason a memory from about twelve years ago came back to me.
It was the fall of 2001 and I was a student at Ohio State. I was coming home on a Friday afternoon and I was about two miles from my parent’s home when I saw a tractor pulled funny alongside the road. I pulled over to see what was going on only to find the driver down an embankment with a man wearing a motorcycle helmet, lying in the ditch. His motorcycle was a few hundred feet the other way.
The tractor driver had pulled out of a field and not seen the motorcycle rushing toward him. Thankfully the guy on the motorcycle did see the big John Deere pulling out and the skid marks on the road pretty well explained what happened.
It could have been a lot worse if the motorcyclist had not tried to brake, but there was still a collision. The tractor is going to win 10 times out of 10. The motorcycle kept going forward and the man was sent sideways down the embankment where we found him, bloodied, beaten, but still very much alive.
I was glad that I had my first cell phone to call for help and I am also thankful that an EMT lives just minutes away. But I was among those who went down into the mud to hold the man, who was clearly in agony, to keep him from moving and possibly injuring himself worse.
It seemed like ages until the ambulance arrived and we rolled him onto a backboard and we carried the large man up the embankment and put him in the ambulance.
As the ambulance pulled away, the other responders and I looked at one another. We were muddy and covered in a stranger’s blood, and I was in my fancy, preppy college clothes and new shoes.
I could have kept driving that day when I saw that tractor sitting funny beside the road. I’ve driven by plenty other disabled vehicles in my life. And in doing so, I am not doing harm to anyone. I am not committing an act of violence against someone else. But we are called to do more. We are called to rock on.
On our trip last weekend I had a chance to catch up with my friend Mark, who moved out there about a year ago. Last year at about this time Mark invited me to help him lead a grass-roots organization reminding Christians across the United States to participate in a different kind of politics, reminding people that even in the midst of the presidential election season we must give our primary allegiance to Jesus Christ and his kingdom. As hurtful, and I might even say hateful rhetoric was being thrown around, as names were being called and lines were being drawn, we attempted to remind people that even if the people on the other side of the political spectrum are enemies, Jesus gives us pretty clear directions on how to treat our enemies.
So we invited all Christians to come together on Election Day 2012 to participate in an act of unity, the Lord’s Supper. We expected pushback and we anticipated many would disagree. We were right. But there was one person who took a special objection to our project. He posted long, inflamed comments on our website and didn’t hold back in calling names and making accusations.
I considered posting some of his quotes verbatim from the website, but to be honest, in re-reading them I found much hurt that I don’t wish to rehash. Perhaps it is enough to say that he noted that anyone participating in the Lord’s Supper as we were asking them to do on election night was turning “the Lord’s Supper into a table of demons.”
When I feel misunderstood or accused of wrong-doing, my first response is to get defensive and return accusation for accusation and misconstrue the thoughts of others in the same way that I feel they misconstrued my own. That’s the fight or flight instinct kicking in.
The other option was to just ignore the man. We could even block him so he couldn’t post any more on the website. But that seems to be more of the “passive” approach, which is again, the ethic of a rock.
Thankfully I was working with a friend who is wiser and more pious than I am and we talked through our options and we attempted to respond in a loving and caring way. We tried to explain our position and Mark even invited the man to sit down and join him for a cup of coffee (and invitation that he rejected).
That experience didn’t turn out exactly how I would have like it to have, but I think we responded exactly as I would have like for someone else to have responded if our roles were reversed. Rock on.
Finally, I think it is safe to say that on our minds today is the possibility of the US attack on Syria. Obviously, this is a little more complicated than whether to stop your car for a disabled vehicle or how to respond to a verbal attack online.
For some time the situation in Syria has been escalating with threats of civil war and nuclear attacks. Recently the number of refugees from Syria seeking help from the United Nations has topped 2 million with another 4 million that have been displaced by violence or the threat of violence and another 1 million dead. And just this week British officials were able to identify chemical weapons that were used by the Syrian government against its own citizens. Against. Its. Own. Citizens.
So what should the response of Christians in the United States be? I am rather surprised at how many people are asking their government officials to discourage an attack on Syria; surprised in a good way. I am a professing pacifist and I don’t believe that violence should ever be the response of a Christian. But even the people that have a different perspective than I do have asked that there be no “boots on the ground.”
But what does the Golden Rule tell us? We are to do to others as we would have them do to us. This is an active statement, not a passive statement. So to those that say we should not have boots on the ground, I disagree.
There is a difference between pacifism and passive-ism. If I were in a Syrian refugee camp, I would hope that Christians around the world would work together to provide humanitarian aid to those without food to eat and water to drink. I would want Christians to send clothes and blankets to help us to keep warm during the long, cold nights outdoors. And I would want Christians to speak out against those in positions of power who are abusing that power. I would hope that the United Nations could bring charges of war crimes against those who have enacted violence against my people.
We need boots on the ground. We as Christians are not called to be passive during this time. Being passive is the ethical equivalent of a rock. No, we are called to be active. We are called to not only avoid doing what we wouldn’t want done to us. We are called to actively seek the well-being of others, just as we would hope others would do for us. We are called to rock on!