the shape of leadership

Moving From the ‘Silver Rule’ to the Golden Rule

It’s not enough to not do something bad

Matthew 7:12 contains one of the most well-known passages of Scripture: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

We commonly refer to this as the Golden Rule It’s pretty straightforward. If there’s one verse that seems easy to understand, this is it. Whether you follow Jesus or not, most people would consider this solid, reputable advice.

But Jesus’ words stand apart from much of the historical religious teachings that say something similar. For example, the Jewish rabbi Hillel said, “What is hateful to yourself do not to someone else.” Confucius taught, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” And the Apocrypha teaches, “What thou thyself hatest, to no man do.”

At first glance, these sayings seem similar to the Golden Rule, except for one subtle difference: All the statements are negative. They focus on what you don’t want someone to do to you. Some have dubbed this approach the “silver rule.”

But Jesus’ words have a powerful focus on the positive. Look again at what He said: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Greek Scholar William Mounce observed, “In its negative form, the Golden Rule could be satisfied by doing nothing. The positive form moves us to action on behalf of others.”

Simply put, to fulfill the Golden Rule, you must not only not do something bad; you must intentionally do something good.

An amazing example of this is Michael Weisser. A Jewish leader in his community, Weisser endured harassment and repeated threats from a man named Larry Trapp, a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. But in 1992, Trapp renounced the KKK. Why? Because Weisser had welcomed him into his home, caring for him as Trapp was dying of kidney disease. Trapp said, “He showed me so much love that I could not help but love [him] back.”

Weisser didn’t just not do something bad; he intentionally did something good, something truly loving. He practiced the Golden Rule with someone who deserved it least.

At the end of the Matthew 7:12, Jesus said, “for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” The Ten Commandments were the Law, but there were also 613 specific commandments that focused on how to practically live out the Ten Commandments. That’s an awful lot of commandments.

Jesus simplified everything. The Golden Rule condensed the Law into a single command.

Then, in Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus took it one step further and essentially summed up the Law in four words: love God, love people. Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

When we truly “do to others,” it always costs something.

Notice something important in this passage. Jesus didn’t tell us to just love some people. He said to “love your neighbor.” Why is this such a big deal? Because the Jews viewed their neighbors as being fellow Israelites (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus, on the other hand, removed the exceptions through both His teaching and example.

This didn’t set well with a religious leader, who asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). This leader was looking for a loophole. Jesus responded by telling the story of the good Samaritan.

In short, a Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he encountered thieves who beat him and left him for dead. The route he traveled was a 17- to 20-mile road that dropped 3,600 feet from start to end. It was a dangerous, narrow, rocky path. Bandits would hide along the road, and then attack and rob travelers.

Jesus went on to describe how people responded to the injured man as they walked along the path. First, a priest walked by, crossing to the other side. After all, if he touched a dead man, the priest would be considered unclean, and therefore lose his place in line to serve in the temple. Simply put, the priest’s status was more important than the suffering of the Samaritan. Then a Levite passed by, following the lead of the priest.

Finally, Jesus shocked the religious leader when He said, “But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have’” (Luke 10:33-35).

When Jesus said this, it was like a slap in the face to the religious leaders, because the Jews despised Samaritans. In their minds, Samaritans were heretics. They were professionals at breaking the Law. In fact, when Jews traveled from Judea to Galilee, they often wouldn’t even pass through Samaria (even though it was a faster route). Instead, they would bypass Samaria by crossing over the Jordan River.

But the Samaritan was different. He did for others what he would want done for him. The Samaritan didn’t try to define “others.” He didn’t make any exceptions to “others.” The Samaritan loved — period. To the thieves, the man was a nemesis. To the priest and Levite, the man was a nuisance. But to the Samaritan, the man was a neighbor.

Then Jesus made His point clear and concise: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). I don’t know whom you consider to be your neighbor, but Jesus didn’t classify who was and wasn’t a neighbor. If they are breathing, they’re our neighbors.

That co-worker who gossips behind your back is your neighbor. That person who voted differently than you is your neighbor. That family member who belittles you is your neighbor. That person who won’t mow the lawn next door to you is your neighbor. The immigrant who just moved into your community is your neighbor. The poor and broken people you served on a mission trip this summer are your neighbors.

When we truly “do to others,” it always costs something. It might cost time, a listening ear, a compassionate act or even a generous gift. It’s not enough to not do something bad. We must intentionally do good to our neighbors.

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