The “Golden Rule” is commonly referred to in Western society, although it is commonly misused. Cynics substitute statements like “He who has the gold, rules” or “Do unto others before they do unto you” for the words of Jesus. Others see it as a universal ground for ethics and treatment of others which is a little closer to the mark, but misses the point. Some think so long as they hold to the most generic and pragmatic application of their understanding of the rule that they are in good standing before God as though all one has to do to go to heaven is to try to be considerate of others.
Exposition of the Text
If we look at the “golden rule” from Jesus and compare it to other ancient teachers, we will see that what He says is not so unique. Even the Pharisees had a saying that one should not do to others what one considered unpleasant to have done to one’s self. In this, they are saying the negative of what Jesus says here. There, the individual, not God gets to determine what proper treatment of others is. Suppose one was a masochist who believed in hurting himself or herself. Then hurting others from that perspective would be perfectly justified by his or her own view. Since all people are different, trying to establish anything other than a vague statement of being considerate is impossible as far as conduct is concerned. When everyone does what is right or wrong in his or her own eyes, then chaos results. One only need look at the Old Testament book of Judges to see this.
The key to the interpretation of this passage is the word “therefore” in verse 12. Not all English translations from the Greek have the “therefore”, but it is there in Greek. As has been said, when there is a “therefore” we should examine what it is “there for”. “Therefore is a word which sums up or concludes a previous argument. So at least verses 7-11 have to be read into the “therefore” or which the “Golden Rule” in verse 12 is the conclusion. I personally think it goes further back than this, but at the very least, we must see the “ask, seek, and knock” of verses 7-11 as being instrumental to verse 12.
Starting in verse 7, Jesus defines the true disciples of Jesus as those who hear the words of Jesus (God) and out them into practice. The present imperatives in the Greek hear indicate habitual practice of the believer as one who practices prayer. The three imperatives, “ask, seek, knock” are of increasing intensity. The believer’s life consists of fervent prayer, which James says avails much in the sight of God.
True prayer is based on a trustful relationship with God who is looking out for the good of His people. There is no hope in any other kind of prayer. It is the single-minded prayer of faith. In the Lord’s Prayer earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, the prayer of the believer is directed towards the Fatherhood of God, that He is the Father to the believers. Here Jesus reminds them of the goodness of God by comparing God to even the common sinner man. Arguing from the less to the greater, if wicked men know how to treat their children right, how much more will God do right by His children? Earthly fathers do not mock their children by giving them a stone when they are hungry for bread or offer a serpent instead of a fish.
In many ways, this passage also serves as an indictment against the Scribes and the Pharisees, the people whose righteousness must be exceeded if one is to enter into heaven. In what is called the “two way theology” which Jesus employs throughout the Sermon on the Mount as well as elsewhere, The Pharisees are set as the wicked who sit in the seat of the scornful of Psalm 1. They are those who are condemned to perish, whose example is not to be followed. This is set against the “blessed” of Psalm 1 who delight in the Law of the Lord and do not follow the example of the wicked. When one considers that the Sermon on the Mount begins with “Blessed”, we can almost see Jesus ’sermon here as a commentary on the 1st Psalm. The Pharisees saw God as the destroyer of the wicked, in other words, those who did not see things the way they did. They entered into hypocritical judgment.
Instead, it is the Pharisees and Scribes who stood in the condemnation to the measure they desired upon the Gentiles, tax collectors, and commoners. By portraying God as hateful and vengeful, rather than the seeking God who invites all who will come to come to Him, they were in a sense making themselves more righteous than God. Not only this, when they accused Jesus of doing His miracles through the power of Satan, they were in effect saying that Satan was more loving and compassionate than God. Instead of Father, the God the Pharisees claimed to serve was an ogre, one who gave stones for bread and serpents for fish. The Pharisees of course gave good gifts to their children, even though they were evil. But their god could not and would not. No wonder Jesus was so harsh with them and warned them of the unpardonable sin of claiming that the spirit of the devil was working in Jesus rather than God. This was blasphemy of the Holy Spirit which was unforgivable.
Now we can begin to see why the “therefore” is important because it sets the context of understanding the “Golden Rule”. Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount for the good of His true disciples and the detriment of the false ones characterized by the Scribes and Pharisees. The “Golden Rule” was never intended to be a universal statement on ethical relations between people and nations. Its specific application is that the true disciple first of all recognized his and her dependence on the grace and goodness (lovingkindness, Hebrew “chesed”) of God. God himself sets the example of the treatment of others. The Father has revealed His reconciling grace in His Son Jesus Christ of which the believers on Jesus have received through faith. The true disciple knows what it is like to be forgiven. Not only this, but the true disciple also knows how to forgive rather than to judge and condemn. Reconciliation is one of the main themes of Jesus in Matthew which He again and again enjoins. He has already done so in this sermon in His comment on the Lord’s Prayer that if we do not forgive others, then the Father won’t forgive us.
The vertical relationship with God determines our conduct to others and is at the center of the “Golden Rule”. Without a proper vertical relationship with God, this rule is impossible and meaningless. The “Golden Rule” has never brought world peace and harmony and never will until the vertical relationship is fully restored and God’s will is done on earth as it is already being done in heaven.
The believer in his or her reconciling behavior is reflecting the behavior of the Heavenly Father. Here the idea of “like father, like child” is true. Christians are to resemble their father. It is axiomatic as well as a teaching of Jesus in John 8 that there is a distinct similarity. The conduct of the Pharisees was like that of Satan; therefore, Satan was their Father. We should realize like Paul did that God has not given us a ministry to condemn sinners, no less those who are not like us. Rather it is one of reconciliation. As God seeks the lost, so must we. This does not mean that all will hear, believe, and obey the gospel. We are as ones who cast the dragnet into the sea. God will sort out the clean and the unclean. We are to make disciples of those who are “Gentiles” to us. This is what the Great Commission of Matthew 28 tells us.
When the world sees us, do they see a resemblance to the Heavenly Father in our conduct and our attitudes? If not, it would do us well to reconsider the character of God again and remember the great mercy He has shown on us sinners. Whenever we rise to condemn the tax-collectors and sinners of today’s society, who are we really resembling? We need to consider again the life of Jesus. What did Jesus do helps to model the behavior and attitudes of what we should do in response. We need to constantly remind ourselves of this and realize that it is by the grace of God through faith that we stand and continue to stand. He alone is the righteousness which exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees. And the church as is body is righteous only in His righteousness which extends down from Jesus who is the head of the church down to the body.
The cynical rule of “He who has the gold, rules” is true enough in this world. We have a far better “Golden Rule” because we will rule and reign with Him in the Kingdom.