Golden Rule

Excerpt from "Rabban Gamaliel" by Ralph V. Harvey

See also: The Greatest Commandment

In Mark 12, we find a discourse between Jesus and a scribe, probably of Hillel’s school:

And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

The Jews accredited the “golden rule” to Hillel and modern Christians think it originated with Jesus. But both our Lord and Hillel were quoting an obscure verse hidden away in Leviticus 19. It is sandwiched between warnings not to curse the deaf, trip the blind or to gossip. The chapter includes rules for sowing seed, sewing clothes and trimming the beard; and If you look closely, you also find the admonishment to love your neighbor as yourself.

It is interesting to note that Hillel’s Golden Rule was in the negative form, “Do not do unto another that which you would not want done to you.” Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which reflects the original text in Leviticus 19. Hillel recognized brotherly love as a fundamental principle of Jewish moral law.

Rabbi Hillel’s emphasis on brotherly love motivated several well-known European theologians of the early 19th century to contend that Jesus was a follower of Hillel’s teachings. But Jesus is actually reprimanding the Pharisees in this passage. He reminded them that there was a greater commandment, namely to love God first and foremost. Love of one’s neighbor must be transcended by love for God.

James called the golden rule the “royal law” and declared that it is basically a good rule, but then revealed the down side: But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin (James 2::8. 9). The Apostle Paul taught similarly in Galatians 5:14-16, For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.

Loving your neighbor as self is a fleshly thing, but we are to love each other with a godly love. So we see that the Golden Rule has its problems. We read about distraught mothers who kill their own children before committing suicide. They love their children as themselves. A drug addict once told me that he would share his last fix of heroin with a friend in need. Many marriages are dissolved on grounds of incompatibility even though both partners attempt to live by the golden rule. They love each other as they love themselves. You have perhaps heard the saying, “Marriage is a matter of give and take.” If it is only that, it may be doomed. A healthy marriage involves giving and receiving, but never “taking.” If one partner gives more than the other, there may be problems, but “love covers a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8; Proverbs 10:12). Agape love gives, expecting nothing in return.

In John 13:34, Jesus gave the “golden rule” a powerful new twist: A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. The “golden rule” was superseded by the new commandment or the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). We have seen that the Golden Rule has certain limitations, but the “new commandment” or the “law of Christ” gives mankind an entirely new precedent. And our Lord is absolutely consequent in his teaching, calling his disciples to follow that grand example: Just as the father hath sent me, so send I you (John 20:21).