The Golden Rule

Tuesday, September 27, 2011 — Week of Proper 21, Year One

Vincent de Paul, Religious, and Prophetic Witness, 1660

Thomas Traherne, Priest, 1674

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 984)

Psalms 97, 99, [100] (morning) 94, [95] (evening)

2 Chronicles 29:1-3; 30:1(2-3)10-27

1 Corinthians 7:32-40

Matthew 7:1-12

We hear the teaching of Jesus through the scholarship of Matthew today speaking within the great tradition of Jewish Rabbinical teaching. He tells us: Do not judge others. Take care for your own failings first. Do not force the teaching on unwilling ears. God is benevolent and wishes to give good gifts — ask, seek, knock.

Verse twelve is Jesus’ version of the Golden Rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” This ethic of reciprocity is found in virtually all religions.

In 1893 the first Parliament of the World’s Religions gathered to create an international dialogue on faiths. The President Charles Bonney said the Parliament hoped “to unite all religion against all irreligion and to make the Golden Rule the basis of that union.” The centennial celebration of the Parliament in 1993 published a “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” which is worthy of study as a starting point for claiming a universal ethic. (The introduction to the text is the first two pages of the full text found here.

The great Rabbi Hillel who died during Jesus’ childhood offered the same principle of reciprocity in the negative: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the Law and the Prophets; the rest is commentary, go and learn.”

There are many parallels between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Hillel. Jesus attached himself to the village of Capernaum whose synagogue was influenced by Hillel. Hillel was a moderate interpreter of the Jewish Law. His teaching was challenged by the stricter interpretations of Rabbi Shammai, who lived during Jesus’ life. Until 70 CE, the House of Shammai tended to predominate among Jewish synagogues; after 70 the influence of the House of Hillel prevailed, and became the tradition from which modern reform Judaism traces its roots.

It appears to me that many of the conflicts we read of between Jesus and the Pharisees, colored by the early church’s conflicts with the synagogues, are better interpreted as conflicts with the teachings and disciples of Shammai. Jesus’ own teaching has many consistencies with the teaching of Hillel. One famous conflict that we have in our gospels regards the sabbath. Shammai taught that “humanity was made for the Sabbath,” but Jesus and Hillel both taught that the “Sabbath was made for humanity,” a more moderate view that allowed provision for response to certain human needs in spite of the Sabbath observance. For Hillel and for Jesus, love of one’s neighbor was the central ethic for all people.

How ironic and tragic that Christianity and Judaism fell into such dark historic conflict. The heart of our origins is so similar. How many injustices and how much violence might have been avoided had Christians been faithful to our Rabbi and his teaching: “Do not judge… How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? …In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

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