Sermon on Matt. 7:12; April 6, 2014; Lent 5, Year A
When I was a child we used to get a magazine for children called Highlights Kids. I always looked forward to the hidden picture puzzles. There would be a hand drawn picture using black ink on a white background, which included a dozen or so easily recognizable objects hidden in plain sight. The goal was to find them all. They could be anything from a hammer to an ice-cream cone, from a toothbrush to a fork, all there to be found and colored.
Things hidden in plain site is what this “Golden Rule” text is like. Right here, towards the finale of the first teaching of Jesus that launches his public ministry, the way Matthew tells it, is this perfectly plain and simple teaching:
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”
It is not just a simple and good idea; for Jesus, this is the boiled down essence of everything the whole story of God in the bible was all about. He said,
“for this is the law and the prophets.”
In which situations does it apply? He said, “In everything.” No limits, no exceptions.
In some respects, this is nothing new at all. In fact this is the exact implication of a teaching that goes all the way back to Moses himself, Leviticus 19:18
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In another place, Jesus called this the second greatest commandment, right up there with the first commandment:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
This simple teaching asks us to consider exactly one question as we interact with other people throughout our lives. There is no mystery, no moral confusion, no secret knowledge or philosophical sophistication required. We are to ask ourselves, WWIW. What would I want.
Some people wear the bracelets with the letters WWJD, to remind themselves to ask, “What would Jesus Do?” But for Jesus, it is even simpler than that: we only need to ask “What would I want?”
This is so simple and obvious, so “in plain sight” as a moral imperative, that neither Jesus nor Moses was the first to realize it.
If you were in Bible Study Thursday you heard as we read this same “Golden Rule” teaching, “do to others as you would have them do to you” or the same thing said in the negative, “What is hateful to yourself, do to no other” said by people around the world and throughout history.
In ancient China, Confucius said, [these quotes are from the Wikipedia page on the Golden Rule]
“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”
“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”
The ancient Egyptians have a text that says,
“That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”
In ancient Greece, Plato recounts Socrates saying,
“…it has been shown that to injure anyone is never just anywhere”
“expect from others what you did to them”
And yes, this teaching also appears in the Muslim’s bible, the Quran, written centuries after Jesus.
So if this is such a clear and simple teaching, why would I call it hidden in plain sight? In what sense is it hidden? Only in the sense that throughout the history of the church from its early days to the present, people have felt so free to ignore it.
I can illustrate it this way; most of our solid teachings of what is considered correct theology or “orthodoxy” are the result of theological controversies settled in ecumenical church councils.
We all know about the Nicene creed. This was agreed to as the result of the council of Nicea in 325. This council sought to end the “Arian Controversy” by affirming that Jesus, the Son of God, was “begotten” but not “made” and being of the “same substance” with the Father.
The church had split into factions over the issue of Jesus’ relationship to the Father, and whether he was of the “same substance” or only a “similar substance.” So great was the conflict in the 4th century that there were street battles between mobs of Christians on opposing sides who used violence against each other. [see: Hellenic Heritage and Christian Challenge: Conflict over Panhellenic Sanctuaries in Late Antiqity, by Amelia Robertson Bown, chapt. 25 of Violence in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Practices, edited by Harold Allen Drake]
The fact that neither Jesus nor the bible anywhere says anything about the essence of God nor of Jesus, and the odd question about how humans could ever know these things for themselves, should give us pause. The fact that Christians were willing to use political force, threats, intimidations, banishment’s and even mob violence over these esoteric imponderables should make us blush.
It was the Christian church, we will recall, that launched the inquisition, banned books and burned witches in its long dark history. And all of this in the face of such clear, simple, teaching of Jesus. Christian duty can be summed up simply as this:
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
There it is; hiding in plain sight.
What Would I Want?
Asking this one question: “What would I want?” in other words, “How would I want to be treated?” can eliminate the need for the commandments: “Thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness,” and even the positive commandment to “honor your father and mother.” Of course I would not want to be killed or stolen from, cheated on, or lied to. Of course I would want my children to honor my parental role.
It even answers questions like “How should I treat the environment? What kind of condition should I leave the world in for my grandkids?”
So, this is a call to have an active imagination. All that is necessary to know how God calls us to live is to simply imagine what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes – or moccasins – yes, the native Americans also had this concept.
The Original Position and the Veil of Ignorance
What is true for personal issues is also true for public concerns. A famous American philosopher, John Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves in the “original position” of getting to make all the rules for how humans will relate to each other; the rules of justice. We get to decide everything about the rules for what is just and right, but with one condition: we will have to be a character, living in the world whose rules of justice we make, but we are not allowed to know anything about who we will be. We decide justice behind the “veil of ignorance.”
So how will we write the rules for this world, if we cannot know in advance if we will be a rich person or a poor person? What rules will we make if we do not know if we are going to be in the world as a man or a woman? What will justice be if we do not know in advance if we will be able-bodied or disabled, or mentally challenged, or diseased, or aged, or Congolese or Chinese, Muslim or Catholic, straight or gay?
The reason this imaginative exercise is so brilliant is that it simply asks us to do the same thing Jesus asked us to do: consider how the world would look if you were in another person’s skin.
Let’s try it.
An African boy
You are an 8 year old boy, full of energy and curiosity, both naive and mischievous, born into an African family in a village near the coast of Senegal in 1785. How does justice look to you when the salve traders sweep into your village and capture your parents and your sister, leaving you watching from up in the mango tree?
A Pritchard girl
Or, you are a 13 year old girl, who did not ask to be, but who was born to an unwed, addicted mother who was still in high school in Pritchard, Alabama. You watch how the string of men who come and go from the house look at you, and it scares you. You already know that even if you are among those who stay in school until graduation, almost no one goes to college. No one, besides fast food restaurants maid services and Walmart, ever hires people like you. And when they do, even working full time you will still be poor enough for food stamps.
A woman I know (true story)
Or, you are a professional woman with a college degree and a good job working in the technology division of a bank when suddenly you have a car accident that leaves you with a traumatic brain injury. Now, even the slightest thing makes you filled with unbearable anxiety and fear. Your impulse control part of the brain was damaged in the accident and so you say things you shouldn’t. Nobody wants to be your friend, so you spend your days in loneliness and aimlessness. You threaten suicide and while you are locked up in the mental hospital you miss a rent payment. Upon release, you discover that they have changed the locks of your apartment, having cleared out all your belongings and put them somewhere in storage. What would you want to happen next?
In every case, the simple act of imagining ourselves in other people’s positions, asking “How would I want to be treated?” tells us what we should do.
But what about exceptional circumstances? What if someone else strikes the first blow? What if someone says something insulting or offensive, or intentionally hurtful to us? What if their behavior is simply inexcusable? What if they did wrong? Then are we free to respond in kind? Then does this mandate go away? Then are we off the moral hook? Well, how does it sound to you?:
Spiritual Maturity Defined
This, then defines spiritual maturity. This is the test of our true condition. Every time we treat others the way we would want to be treated, we demonstrate our true character.
This teaching expects us to be the adults in the room, even when others are behaving badly. No double standards; one rule for everyone; ourselves included. We are the ones who absorb instead of returning the wrongs. In this, we are called to imitate Jesus himself, as Paul tells us:
“Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” (Romans 15)
So we have gone from the personal to the public and now back to the personal realm. In the kingdom of God, it is a seamless cloth. We are to walk in this world, in both our personal lives and in our public and political lives as those who understand, believe, and put into practice the essence of the Jesus—kingdom—love ethic:
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”
This, then, is an act of trust in God. If there is a score to settle, we leave it with God. If there is a price to be paid in order to accomplish justice, then we trust that after we have paid it, we will still have enough, so it is okay to part with it. If there is moral courage, patience, and strength we need, God, through the present Spirit will supply it in full measure.
Let us assert our trusting commitment to bring this command out into the light. Christians, this is our calling:
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”