Is the Golden Rule really golden?

The text of a sermon, based on Luke 6.27-38, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Epiphany, February 20, 2022.

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“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”[1]

Ah, the Golden Rule. Dating back nearly 4,000 years to that ancient Babylonian legal text, the Code of Hammurabi.[2] A primary ethical principle of behavior in nearly every major religion and philosophy in the history of the world. Ideal, excellent, therefore, golden. And, from the mouth of Jesus, the heart of his moral teaching to his followers, to us. Calling us to treat others, all others as we desire to be treated and not to treat others as we don’t desire to be treated.

But there is an inherent, if not obvious problem with the Golden Rule.

This problem does not involve the differences in values and circumstances between and among people. That could be, would be a readily apparent concern. For if I treat you in accord with what matters to me and the concrete conditions of my life, that may not be (and, surely, in every case, won’t and can’t be) in keeping with what matters to you in the course of your daily living.

True! But that’s not what occurs to me. The intrinsic problem with the Golden Rule is found in someone closer to any one of us than any other one of us. Our individual selves!

Truth is (and, here, I speak always and only for myself) I don’t always know how I desire to be treated. For I don’t always know or do what’s in my best interests.

I’m not talking about conscious choices I’ve made that I knew might be harmful to me. Like driving too fast on a snowy, icy street. (And, as hazardous as that it, I’ve done worse things!)

I’m talking about the inescapable fact that I’m human. Therefore, innately imperfect. My experience, knowledge, and understanding are limited. Therefore, what I desire for myself may not be good. (Especially when I rely on my physical senses. For as my sainted grandmother Audia Roberts always advised, “If it feels good, looks good, smells good, sounds good, or tastes good, that doesn’t mean that it’s good for you!”) And if I act toward you in that same way, I, potentially, can, will harm you.

Now, I will universalize my point of view. For everything I said about me applies to you. For you are fully human, too.

Nevertheless, again, Jesus says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Thank God this word is placed within the context of another word that illumines its meaning: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.”

We are not to do to others as we would have them do to us. Rather, we are to do to others, all others – families and friends, strangers and enemies, and ourselves – as God has done to us with unconditional mercy.

Let’s define our terms. For often we humans use the words “grace” and “mercy” interchangeably. Yes, they are related. Yet they are not the same. Grace is all that God bestows upon us without our deserving. For example, in the words of the General Thanksgiving, “our creation, preservation…all the blessings of this life…above all (God’s) immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.”[3] Mercy is all that God withholds from us that we, in our sinfulness, do deserve: condemnation.

Therefore, Jesus commands that we, acting mercifully, judge not, condemn not any other.

As an olden saying has it: There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us that it ill behooves any of us to find fault in the rest of us.[4]

This does not mean that we cannot have moral judgments of others and ourselves. This does not mean that we cannot discern and, at times, decide that something or someone or we ourselves are right or wrong, good or bad.

Rather we dare not, never believe that our moral judgments are True with the capital “T” of God’s judgments…

Or that our moral judgments are the lasting word about another or ourselves as if repentance is not possible…

Or that our moral judgments are the final word of the eternal destiny of another or ourselves.

For God, who is the Alpha and the Omega (and everything in between!), has and is the first word and the last word about all of us. And God’s first and last word always is one word: Love!

© 2022 PRA


[1] Luke 6.31. Luke 6.27-38 is the day’s appointed gospel passage.

[2] The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi; composed c. 1755-1750 BCE.

[3] The Book of Common Prayer, pages 58, 71, 101, and 125

[4] This adage has been attributed, variously, to the writer and poet Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), the historian James Truslow Adams (1878-1949), and others.

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