March 23, 2008
Read Matthew 7:12-29.
“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Without a doubt, this is the most famous thing Jesus ever said. This short saying earned the title “The Golden Rule” when Roman Emperor Alexander Severus had this rule written on his wall in gold.
Let me give you a short quiz on the Golden Rule. I call this Elevator Ethics.
Question 1: You are on an elevator with several other people. Someone you don’t know gets on. He’s wearing one of those plastic nametags showing that he’s participating in a conference of some kind. He also has a long piece of toilet paper trailing from his shoe. The elevator door opens at his floor. What do you do? Do you tell him? Do you just let him walk out into the crowd of people?
Question 2: You are on an elevator. Earlier in the day, you had a wonderful but very spicy lunch. The spices are beginning to work through your system. You can feel your stomach rumbling. You try to hold it in, but suddenly you pass gas right there on the elevator. It’s one of those silent-but-deadly types. Everyone is making faces, and people begin to point to the slightly overweight, poorly dressed man standing next to you. Everyone thinks it’s him. What do you do? Do you speak out and take the blame, or do you walk away the as the secret farter?
Question 3: You are on an elevator, and a young woman gets on the elevator with a very cute T-shirt that has an offensive English phrase on it. This has actually happened to me. One of my theology students wore a shirt with a picture of a motorcycle and the words, “I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as my bike!” No kidding! What do you do? Do you try to explain that the shirt is not so good? Or do you let her walk on in ignorant bliss? OK, we all know what Patricia would do, but what would you do?
How do we apply “The Golden Rule” in these situations? Is this what “The Golden Rule” is all about?
In the generation just before Jesus, there were two famous Jewish rabbis: Shammai and Hillel. Once, a Gentile man went to Shammai and said, “I will convert to Judaism, but I have one condition. You must teach me the entire Jewish law while I am standing on one leg.” Shammai was so angry that he beat the guy out of the area with a stick: “Heathen! Gentile! How dare you insult the Law of Yehovah!”
Later, the same guy went to Hillel and said the same thing: “I will convert to Judaism, but first you must teach me the entire Jewish law while I am standing on one leg.” Hillel said, “What is hateful to yourself, do to no other; that is the whole law, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
Jesus seems to agree with Hillel. As Jesus closes the Sermon on the Mount, he gives a one line summary his whole sermon: “Ask yourself what you want other people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get” (Matthew 7:12).
That is very close to what Rabbi Hillel and many other ethical teachers have said. However, Jesus’ statement is different in several important ways.
First of all, Jesus’ statement is positive: “Do to others whatever you would like them to do for you,” not just “Don’t do what you don’t want done.” This might seem like a small difference at first, but it turns into something big.
A negative ethic – a philosophy of not doing harm – is very limited. It is focused on the do-not’s. It is enough not to steal; we are not required to help someone who has been robbed. It is enough not to commit adultery; we are not required to give assistance to prostitutes or to help people escape from addictions. It is enough not to hurt someone; we do not have to help those who are hurt by others.
A negative ethic is all about avoiding sin and avoiding evil. It isn’t about actively being good or doing good for anyone. We tend to live a negative ethic. We go our way and live our own life and try not to hurt people and try not to make the world any worse, but we do not go out of our way to make the world radically better.
Jesus says simply: “That is not enough.” Goodness involves real action. Goodness involves actively doing good things, not just passively avoiding wrong things. The way of Jesus is to actively work for the good of all people.
Jesus’ Golden Rule is different in another way. It is unlimited. The Greek actually says: “Everything whatever that you would like others to do to you, you yourselves do to them.” Everything whatever! In every last thing! Always and at all times! In every situation, in all your actions, in everything you do, from the big stuff to the little stuff, do it all as you would want someone else to act toward you. This is unlimited.
Jesus’ Golden Rule is also unlimited in scope. We normally interpret this rule to mean that we should be nice and kind to the people around us – Elevator Ethics. But Jesus doesn’t limit this to people near us. Jesus says, “Every last thing you want people to do to you, do the same things for them.” People are all over the place, all over the world, not just in our neighborhoods. This is getting more radical. The way of Jesus is to actively work for the good of all people.
Jesus says, “This IS the law and the prophets.” Everything written in the Law of Moses, every word from God spoken by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and all the prophets, every command, every promise, every warning – they all come down to this: “In every last thing, work actively for the good of all people.”
Then, Jesus warns us about people who talk big and act big but don’t live up to this Golden Rule (Matthew 7:13-23). Jesus says that simple unselfishness counts for more than big miracles or great church programs. You can tell if people are good or bad by their actions.
Are they just living Elevator Ethics, being polite and maybe even generous on occasion, but basically looking out for themselves? Are they involved in church, do they know all the Bible answers, do they smile and say Amen, and then go out and live their lives as if no one else really matters? Those are the fakes. They are rejecting God’s way in their daily lives. They’re going into the fire.
Are they actively working for the good of all people? Are they thinking about how they live and how they interact with the world? Are they asking how they can help the people who most need their help? Are they taking action based on these questions? Those are the real people. They will be welcomed into the
Jesus concludes his sermon with a famous parable. There are two builders. The smart guy builds his house on the rock, and his house stays strong even when the storm comes. The stupid guy builds his house on the sand, and when the storm comes, his house falls down in a mighty crash.
What’s the difference between the smart guy and the stupid guy? Only one thing. The smart guy actually lived Jesus way, and the stupid guy listened to Jesus but kept living his own way.
When we keep this parable in the context of the overall Sermon on the Mount, we get a startling message. Remember, Jesus’ summary of all his teaching (and all of God’s teaching ever) is very simple: In every last thing, actively work for the good of all people, just like you would want them to work for your good.
So, the smart guy did this. He built his life on these words. He actively worked for the good of all people in every last thing he did. And he experienced God’s true life.
But the stupid guy didn’t do this. He was a good listener, but not a good doer. He listened to Jesus, and then went his own way, maybe being a nice guy, but generally ignoring the needs of others. In the end, his life came crashing down around him.
A paraphrase from The Message, helps us apply this to our lives: “But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach.” Going to a Bible study doesn’t do much good unless we actually live what Jesus says.
Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, says that in his church, at the beginning of every small group Bible study, the group checks to see if the people actually lived out what they studied last week. If most people didn’t put it into practice, they stop right there and talk some more about how to live out what the Bible is talking about. They don’t study another chapter until most people in the group can honestly say that they are putting into action what they studied the week before.
How would that change your Bible study? How would that change our church? How would that change our world?
“Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it” (James 1:22-25).
What is this “perfect law that sets you free”? Jesus says it very simply, “In everything, do to people whatever you want them to do to you.” In every last thing, work for the good of all people.
You and I might say: “But this is very hard. Everything is … well … everything! And that’s a lot. And all people … well … there are a lot of people. There are a lot of people in our world with a lot of needs, a whole lot of needs, starving people, poor people, sick people. There’s a lot of people. It’s one thing just to not hurt them, but to actively work for their good in everything I do? Well, that would take … my whole life! It would be … um … hard!”
Exactly! It will take your whole life. It will be hard. “Don’t look for shortcuts to God. … The way to life – to God! – is vigorous and requires total attention.” (Matthew 7:13-14, The Message). “You can enter God’s Kingdom only by the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
The way of Jesus is actively working for the good of all people in everything we do. This is hard! Let’s not pretend. It’s difficult. In fact, sometimes it will even feel like dying. That’s why Jesus talked about taking up your cross and giving up your life. This is the way of the Kingdom. This is the way of Jesus. With all of our life, we actively work for the good of others. We give our lives for those who most need our help. This is the way of Jesus.
This way leads us to the cross, to our own cross. But it is only possible because of the cross of Jesus, and even more, the resurrection of Jesus. Today is Easter, and today we celebrate that Jesus lived his own philosophy. He actively worked for the good of others wherever he went, and in the end he gave up his life for the good of all people. Jesus paid the highest price so that he could share with us the highest good – new life, God’s life, the Holy Spirit of God living and breathing in us, giving us the power to live in new ways, helping us to love our neighbors as ourselves, giving us the imagination and the determination to work for the good of all people. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God is creating a new world in us and through us.
Easter is the day of global transformation. And this global change starts with the local action of one changed life. One person dies and experiences new life with Jesus. One person actually shapes his life around Jesus’ teaching: in every last thing, do what you want others to do for you. This local change starts what Shane Clairborne calls an Irresistible Revolution.
Our death is our life. Our unselfishness is the best thing we can do for others and ourselves. The Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26).
Easter is the day of resurrection. Easter is the day that we lay down our lives again and experience Jesus’ resurrection again.
The way of Jesus is to actively work for the good of all people. Elevator ethics is not enough. This is a life or death choice. What do you choose?
 Michael J. Wilkens, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary, (
 This is a “double entendre.” The word “dirty” has a second meaning relating to immoral sexuality.
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, (
 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church – International Conference,