Matthew 7:12 quotes Yeshua in what has become known as the Golden Rule, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them.” While that pronouncement is of course particularly significant, as well as challenging, it is not unique to Christianity. In fact, there are quite a number of similar phrases embraced by other religions, some which date well before Jesus’ day. Yet, when we connect the dots to the Jewish background of this saying, there is revelation of it’s unique application.
First, let’s look at the face value of Matthew 7:12. It is the opposite of the concept of every man for himself. Many of us agree our modern day society is caught up in this principle of looking out for yourself. Let’s face it, that is pure selfishness.
There’s an old somewhat sarcastic saying, “I always follow the rules, as long as I determine the rules.” Or how about, “It’s my way or the highway.” Selfishness! Personally, I unfortunately know this attitude well.
Years ago at a seminar on personal relationships, a psychologist offered a sobering definition of compromise. He said for many people, it is a willingness to do whatever it takes to get what you want. Even criminals use an extension of that logic. The need for money, the need for instant gratification, as well as other factors, lead to acts of selfishness with no regard for the harm done to others. Police will tell you the perpetrators often say they had nothing personal against their victims, but those who suffered loss of property, or even lives, were simply collateral damage. Basically, their thinking is, “What I want is the most important thing.” Jesus is imploring us to reject this notion, and that’s not how they want to be treated anyway.
As noted earlier, the Golden Rule model pre-dates Yeshua. One of the best known was offered around 500 B.C. by Confucius. He wrote, “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” However, there is an important difference. The saying of Confucius calls for restraint, as in hold back from taking revenge if you don’t want revenge taken on you.
Contrarily, Jesus calls for us to be pro-active. We are to do something, as opposed to avoid doing. It’s a classic paradigm shift: do the right thing vs. don’t do the wrong thing.
Hillel, a renowned rabbi in the several decades before the birth of Messiah, was influential in developing the Talmud. In that document there is a story of a Gentile man who asked Rabbi Shammai, head of a different school of thought than Hillel, to explain to him the Torah while standing one foot. Shammai dismissed the man. The story continues, the man then asked Hillel the same question. The famous reply was, “Whatever is hateful and distasteful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go learn.”
Once again we see the call for restraint.
To fully understand the difference in Yeshua’s objective, let’s look at His full statement in Matthew 7:12. “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Referencing the Law and the Prophets meant the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures. Similar to Hillel’s simplification of the Torah, Jesus was summing up the entire Tanakh with the Golden Rule.
This is amplified in several of the Gospels, including Mark 12:29-31, when a Jewish man who was knowledgeable of the Scriptures asks what is the first commandment. “Jesus answered him, ‘The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’”
This answer was a particularly Jewish answer since it quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5, and Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Paul, the Jewish Apostle, echoed this in Galatians 5:14, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Here’s the connection. Loving others as yourself is the same as treating others as you want to be treated. Furthermore, the “Do unto others” Golden Rule is the sum of the Tanakh, as is “Love your neighbor.” In other words, the truly pro-active doing the right thing must be couched in love.
When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus demonstrated that the God kind of love doesn’t know boundaries, by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This was a powerful example since Jewish people would have no dealings with Samaritans.
Messiah further embellished the Golden Rule/love connection in Luke 6:31-32, but with an additional focus on real love. “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.”
That emphasis is furthered in Matthew 5:43-44, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
Paul appropriately echoed that directive in Romans 12:14 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”
Watch how this all fits together when we take into account the Jewish underpinning.
Yeshua proclaimed the Golden Rule as an expression of fulfilling the Tanakh. In the same way He affirmed loving our neighbor as fulfillment. As opposed to the other wise sayings of various religions which are similar, but call for restraint, those of Messiah call for action. Yet the New Testament also tells us to have restraint, to bless and pray for those who are against us.
Here’s the kicker. The full commandment in Leviticus 19:18 reads, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Both restraint and love in one verse. It is the basis for the total understanding of the Golden Rule.