Perhaps you’ve read somewhere that Jesus was not very original when He gave what’s popularly called “The Golden Rule.” Apparently, Confucius, a revered Chinese philosopher, who lived some 500 years before Jesus said something similar. And, of course, throughout the ages, there have been many who were happy to accuse Jesus of plagiarism and being inauthentic.
However, while Confucius and Jesus sound similar on the surface, when you really read closely what Jesus says in Matthew 7:12, you notice a significant difference between the two. Let’s compare:
Confucius said, “Do not do unto others what you would not want them to do unto you.”
Jesus said, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”
Do you see the difference?
First, notice how Confucius uses the word “not.” He says, “Do not do unto others…” His version has a negative connotation and is passive. According to his philosophy all you have to do is avoid being a jerk to others, so that they won’t be a jerk toward you.
Confucius basically states what is common sense. It’s not very profound. After all, even children know by nature that if you leave people alone and don’t mess with them, they’ll probably leave you alone and won’t mess with you. At least, that’s typically the case. I suppose it works most of the time. However, we also know from experience that sometimes people hurt us and mess with us even without any provocation on our part. Just consider the current Russian invasion of the Ukraine as a modern example. The real truth is that in this sinful world, people might just be mean to you even if you’ve done nothing to deserve it. So I’m not really sure Confucius gives us much wisdom in his version of the Golden Rule.
But what do we make of Jesus’ version?
From a worldly perspective, I suppose you could say that Jesus’ rule, too, seems naïve and doesn’t work in the real world, because, experience teaches us again that just because I do good things to others, there’s no guarantee that they will do good things to me. So why should I go out of my way to do good if there’s no certainty of reciprocity? It’ be easier just to follow Confucius’ rule and merely stay out of other people’s business… it’s easy to do and it costs me nothing. All I have to do is leave other people alone and ignore them.
But you and I both know that this is no Christian way to live.
This is what makes Jesus’ rule so much harder and more costly. In fact, this is probably why Jesus uses the word wish. He says, “Whatever you wish others to do to you…” It certainly does seem like wishful thinking that other people will be good to us if we are good to them. So why follow Jesus’ rule at all?
Well, I guess there wouldn’t be much reason to do so, if we just read the golden rule as an isolated mantra for life–as some kind of Christian Karma. But that would be reading the golden rule out of context. Instead, we must read the golden rule as a part of the Sermon on the Mount. You can’t separate this rule from everything that comes before it. It’s a summary of everything that Jesus has taught thus far.
For example, consider how It helps us understand what Jesus says about prayer. In the preceding verses (Matthew 7:7-11), Jesus says, “Everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” Now, normally when we think of prayer, we think of all the conversations we have with God about all of our needs and our concerns and our troubles. But the golden rule turns this around. It teaches us that the best use for prayer might be when we pray for others, asking and seeking and knocking on their behalf, even as Jesus stands before the Father in heaven as our advocate (1 John 2:1-2) and the Holy Spirit prays for us even when we don’t know what we ought to pray for (Romans 8:26).
As a pastor, I have lots of people who pray for me, and I cherish those prayers, more than anything. What a genuine blessing to have godly people ask that the Lord keep me faithful to my calling, give me strength to refrain from sin to set a good example for my flock, and proclaim the truth of God’s Word.
Yes indeed… what a strange world it would be if everyone followed Jesus version of the Golden Rule. It’s a “go above and beyond” kind of rule for life.
Whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them.
At the end of the day, Christ’s golden rule reminds us of what a Christ-shaped life looks like; for when by faith and with love for Christ, we seek to live out this rule toward the world around us, we begin to reflect and imitate—even if very weakly and poorly—the same love that God shows us. He loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). He gave His Son with no chance of reciprocity from us.