Beyond the Golden Rule
There are so many things to talk about in the passage Barbara just read with us. Beautiful things, intriguing things, and difficult things. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek. Give to everyone who begs from you. Too many things to consider in one day. For the moment, let’s focus on one specific saying, regarded as perhaps the most universally embraced of all rules for ethical living: Do to others as you would have them do to you. We call it “the Golden Rule”—and for a reason: It is simple, concrete, elegant, and easy to understand.
That saying was already commonly known by the time Jesus offered it in the Sermon on the Plain. About 20 years before his birth the two most prominent rabbis in the Palestinian region, Shammai and Hillel, were approached one day by a Gentile who offered them a challenge: “Summarize the teachings of your religion while standing on one foot.” Shammai immediately dismissed him: “You don’t know what you’re asking.” Hillel, on the other hand, was open to the challenge. Lifting one foot off the ground, he said, “Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole law, and all else is commentary.” Essentially, he had recited the Golden Rule.
That rule is good for living in family, good for community life; a congregation. Good for public policy, international relations, humanitarian initiatives, business ethics. The field of athletic competition. The playground. We could almost call it the sum and substance of the Christian religion. Almost.
As prominent as the golden rule is, it is not the sum and substance of the Christian religion. For that we need to go to another saying of Jesus recorded in this passage: God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. This is not the golden rule. This is something else; something that goes by a name that I believe is the most important idea in Wesleyan theology and the most cherished experience in the Christian life: grace.
Grace has many meanings, many facets, many expressions. In this context, a simple definition of grace might be this: to give someone a goodness they don’t deserve. In this instance that behavior is attributed to God, whom Jesus tells us is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Not merely tolerant; not looking the other way; not restrained in determining a punishment for bad behaviors. Not “let’s teach them a lesson first, then allow them back into the fold.” None of these. Instead, kind—to any, and to all. God is indiscriminately kind.
Immediately we’re faced with a predicament: the unreasonableness, the unfairness, even the irresponsibility of such a way of relating. It extends too far; overlooks too much; sacrifices moral principles; renders meaningless the rules we rely on to keep an ordered society, an accountable community, a disciplined personal life.
Kindness extended to unkind people, ungrateful people, wicked people—at a very basic level this just seems wrong. And yet . . . it is the story we tell about Jesus of Nazareth, whom we seek to know and love and follow, and yes, imitate. Jesus lived a life of kindness toward all kinds of people—the appreciative, the calloused, the receptive, the jaded, the trusting, the cynical, the gentle, and the harsh.
He was eventually arrested by some of those he had loved and taught, fed and nurtured, as well as those who took offense at his teachings, or found them threatening. He was taunted, insulted, mocked, beaten; raised onto a middle cross and ridiculed further by onlookers below and even by a criminal hanging from a cross beside his own.
Luke tells us that Jesus looked upon that crowd of people—the mockers, the cynics, the orchestrators of his Kangaroo court of a trial, his bogus conviction, his severe sentence, and his gruesome punishment. The suffering Christ looked upon them and said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Early in the church’s existence the cross became its central symbol for what I believe are two reasons: it represents vertical reconciliation and relationship with God; and horizontal reconciliation and relationship with others. God love and grace extended to us; and then through us. The basis for Christian faith and practice is not a golden rule, but a wooden cross.
Now let’s back up and take a closer look at the sentence in Jesus’ teaching that gives us such trouble. God is kind to the ungrateful. The Greek word translated “ungrateful” is actually graceless. And who needs kindness more than the graceless—those without an experience of grace flowing to them, and only then through them?
God is kind to the graceless and to the wicked. That Greek word, translated “wicked,” derives from the word for pain—suggesting the wicked are those who are pained, or who cause pain—or both. Who needs kindness more than those who, often as a result of having no experience of grace in their lives bring pain to others? After all, hurt people hurt people.
When you see that cross—here, or on a wall, or a necklace, or a desk, let it be a prompt to ask these two questions: Where am I in my relationship with God today? And where am I in showing kindness, particularly toward those who need it most—the graceless, and the hurting.
Have you ever known grace in your life at a critical moment? Been through something anguishing, in which you felt vulnerable or powerless or frightened or alone; and then extended a kindness, a courtesy, some understanding, a rescue, a path to a better place, a friendship, a gift beyond your deserving? Have you ever known the healing of a deep hurt? Been wounded, ill, traumatized, betrayed, and then slowly moved toward mending, slowly begun to discover how to live again, how to experience trust, gratitude, even joy?
If so—and live long enough and your answer will be yes many times over to one or both of these—then maybe this golden rule is our rule for life—given new meaning by those words that follow right after about God’s kindness, and those words of forgiveness spoken by Jesus from the cross: Do to others—especially the graceless and those who hurt; do to others, do to these what God has done for you.