Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Living the Golden Rule

Today's daily Eucharistic lectionary reading from the Gospel according to Matthew included the "Golden Rule":
“Always treat others as you would like them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12, REB).
This teaching is so well known that perhaps we pass it over without really thinking through what it means. So I was pleased to discover that I find William Barclay's take on the "Golden Rule" insightful and worth pondering. See what you think.





When this rule is put in its negative form, when we are told that we must refrain from doing to others that which we would not wish them to do to us, it is not an essentially religious rule at all. It is simply a common-sense statement without which no social intercourse at all would be possible. …

Further, the negative form of the rule involves nothing more than not doing certain things; it means refraining from certain actions. It is never very difficult not to do things. That we must not do injury to other people is not a specially religious principles; it is rather a legal principle. It is the kind of principle that could well be kept by a man who has no belief and no interest in religion at all. A man might for ever refrain from doing any injury to any one else, and yet be a quite useless citizen to his fellow-men. A man could satisfy the negative form of the rule by simple inaction; if he consistently did nothing he would never break it. And a goodness which consists in doing nothing would be a contradiction of everything that Christian goodness means.

When this rule is put positively, when we are told that we must actively do to others what we would have them do to us, a new principle enters into life, and a new attitude to our fellow-men. It is one thing to say, “I must not injure people; I must not do to them what I would object to their doing to me.” That, the law can compel us to do. It is quite another thing to say, “I must go out of my way to help other people and to be kind to them, as I would wish them to help and to be kind to me.” That, only love can compel us to do. The attitude which says, “I must do no harm to people,” is quite different from the attitude which says, “I must do my best to help people.” …

It is perfectly possible for a man of the world to observe the negative form of the golden rule. He could without very serious difficulty so discipline his life that he would not do to others what he did not wish them to do to him; but the only man who can even begin to satisfy the positive form of the rule is the man who has the love of Christ within his heart. He will try to forgive as he would wish to be forgiven, to help as he would wish to be helped, to praise as he would wish to be praised, to understand as he would wish to be understood. He will never seek to avoid doing things; he will always look for things to do. Clearly this will make life much more complicated; clearly he will have much less time to spend on his own desires and his own activities, for time and time again he will have to stop what he is doing to help someone else. It will be a principle which will dominate his life at home, in the factory, in the bus, in the office, in the street, in the train, at his games, everywhere. He can never do it until self withers and dies within his heart. To obey this commandment a man must become a new man with a new centre to his life; and if the world was composed of people who sought to obey this rule, it would be a new world.


William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume I, Revised Edition
(The Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 275, 276, 277.

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