Many families have their rules which are taught to children very early in life. Remember Thumper in the film ‘Bambi’: ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.’ These early lessons are internalised and determine our behaviour as adults.
Hillel and the book of Tobit advise people not to do to others what they wouldn’t want to have done to them. Typically, Jesus turns this around to create the Golden Rule: Do to others what you would like them to do to you. This is a much more challenging proposition.
The readings were Genesis 13:2, 5-end, Psalm 15, Matthew 7:12-14. The sermon follows.
I think most of us can recall things we were told to do or not to do by our parents. Things we are taught early tend to have a lasting impression on us. I have a friend whose mother always said ‘Don’t make a fuss’ so now she tends to worry if she feels emotional about anything. She tries hard not to make a fuss. My mother always told me not to be nuisance, so I try not to bother people which can be a bit of a problem when I tend to be in touch with lots of people in various chat programs. I always have to debate with myself about contacting my friends in case I am a ‘nuisance’ as defined by my mother. I imagine most of us have seen the film ‘Bambi’ where Thumper obediently trots out ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all’.
Thinking back to what I said to my own children, one thing was ‘Come home when the street lights go on’. This made sure that they were always back from playing with friends well before it got dark. I can also remember often having to say when there was an argument, ‘How would you like it if that had happened to you?’ when one child had done something to another. I imagine that has been said in countless households around the world in some form.
In fact I would think that many Jewish parents said this many centuries ago, quoting their wise men. Hillel, a Jewish teacher, had advised, “What is hateful to yourself, do to no other.” In the book of Tobit, in the Apocrypha, Tobias said, “Do to no one what you yourself dislike.”
In our Gospel reading, Jesus gives the Golden Rule: ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets’. Like many of Jesus’ sayings it is familiar yet not familiar. He tends to twist things in order to bring them back to the way they were intended to be.
Hillel and the book of Tobit are teaching social skills by giving their advice in a negative form: ‘Don’t do to someone else something that you wouldn’t want to be done to you.’ This makes sense as part of the way that society works. In fact, it’s the people who don’t follow this advice who would probably be defined as criminals in our society. Most of us would not like our homes to be broken into, and don’t do it to others. Likewise we would not like to be injured by someone else, and mostly do not resort to violence to resolve problems. The way to live out this rule is to avoid doing things that would annoy or upset someone else. It may mean not always following what we want to do, but most of the time it’s fairly easy to stick to. Just by being a bit thoughtful and showing a bit of consideration, we can fulfil this pretty well, and society rolls on nicely. We can consider that others who don’t live by this standard are not good citizens, while considering that we are.
Just by turning the rule into the positive form, Jesus raises the stakes significantly. Jesus tells us that ‘in everything’ we have to do to others what we would like them to do to us. Fulfilling this is not a matter of avoiding certain kinds of unacceptable behaviour but going out of our way to behave in a way that we would really like others to do for us, if we could have what we dream of. This is the Christian way to behave, the Christlike way to behave, not just the socially acceptable way to behave. In fact, sometimes it may be socially unacceptable to do the things that this commandment asks of us.
In order to follow this we need to really consider what we would like others to do for us. Would you like people to listen when you are trying to explain something? Does it irritate you if they seem distracted? The way to behave is to really listen to others, to switch off from your busyness and give them undivided attention.
Perhaps you would like people to be honest with you, to actually tell you the truth when you ask them something. We are so good at saying the socially acceptable thing that we seldom act honestly. The trouble is that being honest can bring the risk that someone might respond badly at first. It’s not easy to phrase ourselves well, to do this lovingly, and so perhaps it’s much easier to give the answer that most people would, the easy positive one, rather than crafting an honest and loving answer. However, if that’s what we want, that’s what we have to do.
Do you long for someone to forgive you for things you have done which you regret? Do you want them to offer you a new start, to accept that we all make mistakes and so not judge you? In that case, you need to do that for other people. You cannot hold on to grudges and then expect to be forgiven by others.
We need to be proactive, to begin modelling the behaviour we would like to see exercised towards us. Whatever we want to see in others, we must demonstrate in ourselves first. It’s not enough to wait for others to be nice to us, to be interested in us, to reach out and make an effort for us. We need to do it first. Remember what Jesus did for us. ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ He didn’t wait for us to reform our lives. He lived a life of self-sacrifice and died for our sakes.
I’m reminded of a campaign to encourage people to do random acts of kindness. You can find lots of resources to help you with this, but basically it just means doing good things because it is good to do them. You are not doing them because you necessarily expect anything in return. Jesus advised us to give in such a way that our left hand wouldn’t know what our right hand was doing. On one website the author remembers when someone stopped to help when his car had broken down. The author now does the same for other stranded motorists. One act of kindness has rippled out to change the outcome for so many other people.
What if we are kind to everyone but people are still unpleasant and inconsiderate towards us? It really doesn’t matter. The idea is to give a gift and give it wholeheartedly. The important thing is that we are growing in holiness day by day. We are responsible for our own behaviour, not for that of others. As we give in this way, we are allowing other people to meet Jesus in us, and what greater gift can we offer than that.
Jesus gave the reason why we should follow the Golden Rule – in so doing we fulfil the Law and the Prophets. In this one simple sentence we have all we need to guide us into living as we should.
Is there any wonder that our faith is suitable for children? It takes a matter of minutes to learn all you need to be a Christian. It takes a lifetime to apply it.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor