The Sermon on the Mount refreshes the mind and the spirit by summarizing the teaching of Jesus.

With the golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount summarizes itself and moves toward its conclusion at the end of Matthew chapter 7.

Here is the golden rule:  “In everything, therefore, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”  (Matthew 7:12)

How Have Christians Summarized Their Faith and Life?

Over the centuries, Christians have identified certain passages in the Bible as summaries of Christian faith and life.

Traditionally, these summaries were given the form of questions and answers and incorporated into little handbooks called catechisms.

In the past, children, young people, and adults new to the faith memorized the answers to questions about Christian faith so that things like the beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount would stay with them throughout their lives.

Even before catechisms, Christians understood the need for short and memorable summaries of the Bible.

So, very early, even before the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written down, sayings of Jesus circulated.

A list of the core statements of Christian faith in the Bible would certainly include the collection of his sayings now known as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7).

This list, which catechisms have drawn from, also includes:

  • The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5),
  • Psalm 23,
  • The Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49),
  • The Great Commandment to love God and the second commandment to love neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28),
  • The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37),
  • John 3:16,
  • Romans 13:8-10.

This list of core statements would also include major passages on divine love in

  • John 13-17 and
  • 1 Corinthians 13.

Along the way it would focus attention on

  • The Lord’s Prayer as the central prayer of Christian life (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4) and
  • The sacraments of baptism and communion (eucharist or thanksgiving) and other central acts of Christian worship.

It would reach beyond the New Testament to the early centuries of Church history and include

  • The Nicene Creed with its summary of the New Testament’s teaching about God as Trinity.

If you know where to look when you hold a Bible in your hand, you also hold a catechism in your hand and several short summaries of Christian faith.

The Golden Rule:  A Summary of a Summary

In one sentence, the gospel of Matthew says, the golden rule summarizes “the law and the prophets”—meaning the Bible of Jesus, the Hebrew scriptures, the Tanakh, the Old Testament.

(It does not say that the golden rule supersedes the law and the prophets.  It says that the golden rule is the law and the prophets.)

The internal evidence of the Sermon on the Mount points to the golden rule as a summary of the Sermon on the Mount.

So, what could be simpler than the golden rule? How could anyone forget the golden rule?

Yes, there are a few more details to Christian teaching and the practice of the Christian life, but, if you understand it right, the golden rule puts all those details into one short sentence.

“In everything, therefore, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Of course, cultivating the will to practice the golden rule and actually practicing it are different from simply knowing it and not forgetting it.

But knowing it and not forgetting it give the Holy Spirit a foot in the door to persuade a person to practice the golden rule as well as to remember it.

Two Objections to Using the Golden Rule as a Summary of the Christian Faith

Some Christians and scholars, however, have raised objections to using the golden rule as a summary of the Christian faith.

Compared to the several other summaries of Christian faith available in the Bible and in the Creed,

(1) the golden rule appears to make no mention of God, and

(2) the golden rule appears not to have originated with Jesus.

1.  The golden rule cannot be a good summary of Christian faith if it makes no mention of God.

But, in the Sermon on the Mount, it does.

Some recent English translations of the Bible have, unfortunately, failed to translate one little word that makes the connection to God very clear.

They leave out the English word, therefore.

Accurately and completely translated from the original language, the golden rule in Matthew 7:12 reads,

“In everything, therefore, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

All translations have small problems, and, on the whole, recent translations are among the best translations available.

But, here is one instance where one little word can make a big difference.

The little word, therefore, always refers back to something that came before.

In this case, it marks the golden rule as a conclusion, not an isolated statement.

“In everything, therefore, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets”

  • The golden rule is the conclusion, but what came before that led to this conclusion?

The entire Sermon on the Mount came before—beginning with the Beatitudes.

  • But, more specifically, what came immediately before the golden rule was a sort of parable—a parable about God.

Here is the golden rule again but starting three verses earlier:

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?  If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

“In everything, therefore, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

This means:

because of what God does,

because God gives good gifts even to evil children,

because God loves even God’s enemies and makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36),

therefore, do to others as you would have them do to you.

The life of God is all about imagining and understanding the situation of someone else and reaching out in love to that person.

It is not about doing something for another person in order to get that person to do something for God.

So, the golden rule asks us

  • to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes,
  • to imagine and to find out what the life of someone else is like, and then
  • to act in love for that other person.

What a wonderful summary of a good human life—an imagination constantly exercised and employed for figuring out what would really help somebody else!

In the Sermon on the Mount, the golden rule does make reference to God.

It does make reference to the inner life of God and calls on people to participate in that life by imagining what somebody else’s life is like, finding out what that life is really like, and then acting in love.

“In everything, therefore, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

2.  If the golden rule did not originate with Jesus, can it summarize Christian faith?

Even more than this, there is no way to demonstrate from the evidence in the Bible that Jesus actually stated the golden rule.

The words of the golden rule or the principle behind them occurred elsewhere in other cultures and outside the Bible.  If Jesus did actually speak the golden rule, it is still not unique to him.

On the other hand, the golden rule as placed in the Sermon on the Mount does grow directly out of Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies.

The commandment to love our enemies can be demonstrated to have come from Jesus as far as any human proof can demonstrate such a thing simply because

a commandment so outrageously contrary to the material interests of his followers needed the authority of Jesus himself to get it recorded and preserved.

Even though he said, “love your enemies,” it is true, however, that Jesus was not the first person to state the golden rule.

Even though the golden rule as placed in the Sermon on the Mount grows directly out of the commandment to love our enemies, it is true that Jesus did not originate the principle behind golden rule.

The religions and philosophies of many cultures of the world have expressed one version or another of the golden rule.

A quick search of the Internet will show this to be so, and many careful scholars agree.

So, should the list of summaries of Christian faith used to teach children and remind adults of the basics of Christian faith include the golden rule?

The answer has a lot to do with what you think a good summary really does.

  • Would a good summary of the Christian faith include only the things that are supposed to distinguish Christians from everybody else?
  • Would a good summary of the Christian faith include only the sayings and teachings of Jesus that are unique among the religions of the world?
  • Or would a good summary of the Christian faith provide some basis for reaching out in love to people of very different beliefs and experiences?
  • Would a good summary of the Christian faith try to find some common ground where Christians and people of other faiths or no faith could meet without the common ground turning into a battleground?

A good summary of the Christian faith tries to find common ground.

I think a good summary of the Christian faith would try to find some common ground without downplaying the differences.

I think a good summary of the Christian faith would try to find some common ground precisely because Christian faith is not Christian faith without the project of reaching out in love even to our enemies.

“In everything, therefore, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

The golden rule, when rightly understood according to the Sermon on the Mount, is simple enough to form the Christian faith in a child.

It is also profound enough to help Christians carry out the mission of the Church to the peoples of the world in the 21st century.

 

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