The Golden Rule

Last week, Glen preached on the story of The Rich Young Ruler and one of his points got me thinking.

Basic rundown: a young man asks Jesus how to obtain eternal life. Jesus quotes some commandments, but also the command to love your neighbor as yourself. The ruler responds, “I have done all that, what do I still lack?” Jesus responds, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man then became sad and went away.

Jesus does something very interesting here. Initially, he quoted some of the well known commandments, honor your parents, do not murder, etc. All of which are easily measured. Have you ever killed someone? If no, then yes you have kept the commandment “Do not murder.” Then He quotes a commandment from another part of the Law: love your neighbor as yourself. If you quantify it, becomes very revealing. And that’s just what He did: he quantified it for the rich young ruler by telling him to give his own possessions or their value to the poor. Literally, to love his neighbors as he has loved himself – by lavishing his possessions on others.

That’s the point that got me thinking. We cite the golden rule as something like “Treat others how you would like to be treated.” The golden rule is about how you expect or want to be treated by others, and that has the potential for a great many cultural constraints, or could encounter problems if you have psychological/reality issues. For example, in Little House on the Prairie, Pa does not “want to be beholden to anybody” so he expects, and arguably wants, to be left alone, even in need. So, in applying the golden rule, he essentially would not help anyone else in need. This is probably not the spirit in which this saying is commonly used, but it makes me think twice about the concept.

But, Jesus (quoting Mosaic law) said something different: “Love your neighbors as [you love] yourself.” Jesus’ commandment is about how you treat yourself, and then applying that to how you treat others. It does not matter about how you want others to treat you. Even in Pa’s case, if he were in need, like the time he was stuck in a snow drift, he helped himself, even if it meant eating his daughter’s Christmas candy. That’s the same way we are commanded to treat others, as we treat ourselves in all situations.

A simple thought experiment: say you are in need of a new computer. If you had the money, you would probably buy it for yourself, eventually. Now, say your friend is in need of a new computer but has no means to obtain one, and you do. The golden rule takes into account how you would feel if your were that friend. Would you be too embarrassed to accept it, so then you think you would embarrass your friend by giving her that gift? This projects yourself onto another person, which may or may not be true. Or perhaps you are in an culture that does not condone helping others, so you never expect that someone would help you, so you consequentially, would not help your friend.  Jesus takes that whole part about how you think about relationships out, and tells you to just do. If you love yourself, and you are in need of a computer, you buy it. If your friend is in need, and you love her, and have the means, then it follows that you would help her buy it, according to what Jesus said.

Now, admittedly, this could be an awkward situation for most of us. It’s a big purchase, even for us who have the means. We just don’t do that. But, it certainly makes me think about how I treat others, especially those with less than me. Would I share my oatmeal and yogurt with my hungry friend, even though my larder is running low? Would I give up my “me time” to help a friend move? Am I really loving my neighbors as myself, and taking myself out of the equation?

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