Monday, 5 August 2019

Sermon on Matthew 7:12 - The Golden Rule

“So everything that you wish that others would do for you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."
Related image
Approaching this sermon, I felt very challenged in two completely different ways. Firstly, it's such a short reading, only 20 words long. How to find enough to speak about from so few words of Scripture? But then straightaway I had the opposite problem. This verse is famously known as the Golden Rule, because it beautifully sums up the attitude that should define our morality and our spirituality. But it can be applied in so many different situations, how do you explain it in any way in only ten minutes.So right at the start my hands are both too empty and too full. I'm struck with a degree of humility, and fear and trembling as I approach this task.

I take comfort though from the fact this reflects life itself. The sheer bewildering vastness of life and its choices is, I imagine, enough to make us all feel a touch of fear and trembling sometimes. Especially in this modern world there seem to be so many opportunities and choices, and maybe it's just me, but I sometimes feel with so many choices, I'm just that more terrified I'm going to make the wrong one.

I work for a major, well-known corporation that shall remain anonymous. It's a great company, there's lots of opportunities, and they have this real focus on personal development. This is good, we all want to develop, but at times it is exhausting. If you're not careful you can feel like you're never good enough, you're up on the side of a mountain and you have to step up, and up, and just as soon as you become vaguely comfortable with where you are, you've got to climb a bit higher again, and so you've always got this slight sense of vertigo, like you might just fall off if you put a foot in the wrong place.

And it's not just work, it's social occasions, it's dealing with family, and friends; it's politics, it's the constant never-ending messy confusion of being alive. And the choices are endless, and some of them don't matter at all, but a lot of them do, even if just in a small way, and you can feel like at any moment you could make the wrong choice and screw up, maybe embarrass yourself, maybe miss some opportunity, maybe hurt someone you don't mean to hurt. 

So, what do you do?

I think, fundamentally, there are two types of approach. You can have a list of rules. You can have a list of rules about what you do in each type of situation. So, maybe the rule is "Always say yes to an opportunity", or it's "Don't steal" or it's "Always be polite". But in the complexity of life there will be times when these rules should not apply because they don't take account of the context of the situation we're in. And this will be true however many rules you have, because there will always be some situation that doesn't fit into the rules we already know.

The Law of the Old Testament was a system of rules, designed to cover almost every situation. The Rabbis added up all the 'do's and 'do not's in the Law of Moses and found there were 613 in total. 613! And the Rabbis added many more rules to the list, to create what they called 'a fence around the Law' to prevent anyone breaking the core commandments. They didn't do this to be a pain in the backside, they did it to try to create a comprehensive guide to life, that would allow people to walk in the right path without tripping and falling down. Orthodox Jews today still guide their lives by this code, and Islamic 'Sharia' Law is meant to be a similar theological guide for Muslims and Islamic society.

Our modern secular world seems to be trying to go down the same path too. Anyone who runs a business or a charity, or a school, or who just deals with the Government or the Local council, will know that the rules and bureaucracy seem to be multiplying year after year, sometimes it feels like, before your very eyes. Online as well, in any social media, people are creating an increasing and bewildering number of rules about what you’re allowed to say, and what opinions you’re allowed to hold, to avoid being sternly condemned by well-meaning busybodies. Once again the idea seems to be that if we shape the rules precisely enough, just right, it will be possible to exactly and clearly define what righteousness is.  

But what Jesus taught us is what we inevitably see in life, that this approach never fully works. There are too many choices in life, and people are too unique, and different, for any list of rules to always tell us what is the answer. And that's before you get the issue of people deliberately trying to subvert and get around the rules. However well designed any system of governance is, if people are out to make mischief, they will find a way to get around it and subvert it. You just have to look at the actions going on in parliament at the moment to see people on both sides trying to game the rules to get their way. People really struggle to believe this though. They always seem to think that if they phrase the rules just right, then they will be fool-proof, and then everything is simple. Well, I can only say the history of mankind is the history of the fools winning that one.

What is the alternative though?

The alternative is Jesus's teaching here in the Gospels, the alternative to the Letter of the Laws, is the Spirit and Grace of God; the alternative to and never-ending list of rules is just one - The Golden Rule. “So everything that you wish that others would do for you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

But why is this so different? Isn't that just another rule?

No, because it does not dictate the answer to a specific situation, it gives us the key so we can understand and decide any situation for ourselves. It helps guide our thinking, but it requires us to think. That was what Jesus did again and again. That's why he taught in parables: because he wanted us to consider and learn. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan - Jesus tells this parable after a rich, young man comes and asks him first, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life", and then "Who is my neighbour?". Clearly this man just wants Jesus to give him the answer, maybe in some form of list.

Instead Jesus gives him a parable that he has to take and consider and apply anew in every situation. Jesus knows that no set of rules can be a replacement for a kind and loving heart. Yes, it matters to have the right rules in a society, or a workplace, or in ethics. Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. And that can only be done by those who judge and think for themselves, but not people who judge and think in any random way, but people whose hearts are guided by loving the Lord God with all their mind and strength, and guided by loving their neighbour as themselves. Only when we take decisions guided by the Spirit of God, who is love, mercy, generosity and peace, rather than by the letter of the law, only then will we judge rightly. 

For this sermon I kind of wish it wasn't popularly known as the Golden Rule, because it's not a rule in the manner I've talked about. It's so different, it's not a law to follow, but a principle that can guide our thinking and our hearts. “So everything that you wish that others would do for you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." 

What kind of principle is it?

The first thing to say, is to make sense of it we can't apply the Golden Rule in a manner that is too immediate and literal. Just because you like bananas doesn't mean the Golden Rule is telling you to give everyone a banana. And it's easy to think of ever sillier examples. We have to take a step back from that kind of narrowness, and think about it more at an emotional level, what is the way we would like other to approach us, and then let that guide us back into specific actions.  

And if we do that this Golden Principle opens up for us. It becomes one that leads us to think about ourselves and the weaknesses we feel and the challenges we face.  To think about ourselves and all the times and ways we wish we had a helping hand, wish we had someone to turn to. And then it guides us, not to dwell in that forever, but to take all our vulnerability and look to the person sitting next to us, or the person walking by us in the street, or the person opposite us on the bus, and to think about how they might be vulnerable and in need in the same way, and to devote ourselves to them.

Because it assumes that other people are like us. It tells me that I can know something about others, that I can know that they have complex, multiple needs, and motivations, and cares like me. And it tells me even more than this, it tells me I must act to do something about it. When Jesus was asked "Lord, who is my neighbour?" he told the story of the Good Samaritan, with the message that our neighbour is anyone in need, and we act like a neighbour when we step in and help them. And we know that we are in need, so we better believe our neighbour is also in need. And we better do something about it. This is the statement of our common humanity, not as a legal or theoretical assumption, but in the messy, practical reality of all the things and cares that make up our lives.

There is a related saying to the Golden Rule, it is sometimes called the Silver Rule - "Do not do anything to others, that you wouldn't want them to do to you". Did you catch the difference? - "Do not do anything to others, that you wouldn't want them to do to you". Now that is an important principle as well. I'd suggest we all keep it. But it is not as important as the Golden Rule. It is also more common. Many religious traditions have the Silver Rule, but Jesus takes the rare step of turning it into Gold. Silver means second place, and there’s nothing shameful about that, but Gold means first. Why? Gold has always been considered more precious, more beautiful. Gold is always valuable, Silver tarnishes, but Gold keeps its shine. 

"Do not do anything to others, that you wouldn't want them to do to you". The difference is this - You can keep that principle by doing nothing. And that is why it would never be enough. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that the work has begun and is ongoing of creating a New Heaven and a New Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven, and that means standing up and acting. Maybe in small ways, maybe in large ways, and with the Grace and Spirit of God.

Just before this verse in Matthew 7:7 we have another famous reading, Jesus says “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you". Ask! Seek! Knock! And today, Do!

If we think about it, we all know how we'd like to be treated. We all want to people to be considerate, to pay attention to us, and not leave us abandoned, to approach us as unique individuals, to extend a helping hand, to appreciate us for who we are, to stick by us despite our flaws and errors, we want people to never condemn us on the basis of some stereotype or assumption. In other words, we want to be approached as an individual person who needs understanding, rather than as an object to be fit into some rigid structure of laws or assumptions. By no coincidence these are all the ways God's Love see us, and the ways his forgiveness approaches us. And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes it clear that, however many rules and laws we have, we will never have the good world we want to see until we approach everyone around us with that same Grace, that we would want for ourselves.     

Amen.

0 comments:

Post a Comment