In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” – Matthew 7:12
Sermon by Pastor Joshua Demi
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” It is such a short and simple phrase. I had originally intended to begin this sermon with timeless quotes from people Winston Churchill, and documents like the Declaration of Independence, which are short and simple, yet express profound truths which summon us to new heights and remark that sometimes the simplest phrases express such profound truths that they compel us to continuously look back at them and try to live up to those heights. Yet, when I held these statements side by side, when I compared these profound statements from history, with the statement from Jesus – this simple phrase spoken from the mouth of God which echoes through time and, despite the fact that many of us first the verse as children, compels us to constantly rethink who we are, how we live, and to try, with everything we are, to try to live up to the greatness to which it calls us – the other statements, the other sources, seemed so small. As powerful as the image may be of Winston Churchill standing before parliament as a newly elected Prime Minister, in the midst of a war that seemed hopeless, saying “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”1 and as much as it has to say about what it means to stand courageously against impossible odds, it is not as strange nor as powerful, nor as comfortably uncomforting, as God Himself sitting down and saying this, saying something so familiar yet so different, so simple yet so revolutionary as this.
This verse is part of The Sermon on the Mount, which contains a lot of Jesus most famous teachings, like The Lord’s Prayer. It actually begins with the beatitudes.
"When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.'" - Matthew 5:1-12 (NRSV)
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus revolutionary discourse on morality one of five large blocks of teaching in the Gospel of Matthew. The fact that there are five is significant. Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish; Matthew takes great care to connect Jesus to the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible begins with the five books of Moses, the Torah, or the Pentateuch as they are often called in Christian circles. And notice how this block of teaching begins, as we read a moment ago: Jesus went up to a mountain, as Moses often did receive and deliver a words from God, and he sits down, as rabbis would when they would teach their students. That is what the Sermon on the Mount is, it is where Jesus delivers law, law that governs what it means to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
In this law of the kingdom of God, Jesus upends so called “common sense”. Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5a) , blessed are the gentle, those who do not dominate nor bluster, “for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5b) “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44). Jesus offers a new way of living which reflects the love and glory of the gracious Lord of Creation. Then comes what might best the most famous line in the entire sermon, aside from (perhaps) The Lord’s Prayer: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
This principle would have been familiar to Jesus’ audience. It was similar, yet so very different than popular teachings from philosophers and rabbis. In Greek philosophy there was a popular notion that you should treat others the way you would like to be treated, for your own self interest, because in the long run it benefits you. Hillel the Elder, a famous rabbi about a generation before Jesus, said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”2 Did you catch the difference? The difference between Jesus’ teaching and the Greek (Aristotelian) understanding of the golden rule is pretty glaring, but here the difference is more subtle but incredibly important. What Hillel the Elder said is purely negative; it’s about what you should not do. Jesus’ command is much bigger, because it is positive command. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” is bigger; it is about both what we ought to refrain from doing, and what we ought to do. Christian morality is fundamentally proactive. It’s not just about refraining from evil but about doing good, and we have just as much of a responsibility to proactively do good as we have to refrain from doing evil.
In practice, this means a lot. This means that we have a duty to do a lot. There is plenty which Jesus mentions in the sermon: have a duty to give alms, to help those in need , we have a duty to care more about honoring God than accruing wealth. It means that we have a responsibility to be humble and non-judgmental, to keep an eye on our own sin when assessing the sin of others. It means that, when we disagree with summoned, we have a responsibility to deal with their views honestly and openly, instead of just propping up straw men that we can knock down.
Jesus’ command, is not “Do no more to others than what they have done to you.” He actually addresses that head on earlier in the sermon (Matt. 5:38-42). It is not even, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” It is bigger than that; it is more than that. It is a higher standard, one that always need to look to and keep striving toward, no matter how miserably we may fail, how many times. It is a standard which compels us to be spiritual “Rudy’s”. I’m referencing the movie with Sean Astin, which follows a young man who who is small and not particularly athletic, but who dreams of playing football at Notre Dame. My favorite scene is his first practice, which is a musical montage of Rudy being knocked down over and over again, and getting back up each time. This is the command we have been given the calling to which we have been called, as high as lofty as it may be. We will stumble, and we will fall, and when we do, it’s time to get back up and keep striving, knowing that the One who has called us by name and claims us as His own, the One who calls us to this standard, loves us just as He calls us to love others, and will be with us, every step of the way.
- Winston Churchill, First Speech as Prime Minister to House of Commons, May 19th 1940. The Winston Churchill Society. https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/blood-toil-tears-and-sweat-2/
- Jacobs, T. L. (2016). Golden Rule. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.