If you’ve been here for many of the sermons in this series, you know that I’ve done a fair bit with the structure of the Sermon on the Mount. I believe it to be a large ring composition, structured in parallel sections from the ends toward the center, and you’ve heard me say this makes a difference for how we interpret the various sections of the Sermon. If you were here last week, though, you might have noticed that I didn’t talk about this at all—I don’t know if anyone did, but you might have. This is because, as I understand it, verses 7-11 are an anomaly in the structure. They break the pattern, standing in parallel with the sections on prayer in chapter 6. I didn’t mention that last week because I don’t think it changes how we read that passage. Instead, I think it changes how we interpret verse 12, which we know as the Golden Rule.
As a side note, it’s possible that 7-11 don’t fit neatly into the structure I’ve outlined because I’m wrong. I don’t think so, though, because biblical passages often don’t have neat and tidy structures with everything fitting perfectly into place. The biblical authors use various literary structures to help express their meaning, but they never make the mistake of turning those structures into straitjackets for the text. Indeed, inserting a verse or a paragraph that doesn’t fit the structure can be an effective way to get people’s attention, because it’s unexpected—it sticks out.
I believe that’s the case with last week’s passage, and that it’s there for two reasons. One, it’s the very last word before Jesus brings the central section of the Sermon to a close with verse 12, and as such it changes how we understand this section. Without it, we would go right from verse 6 to verse 12, and that would make perfect sense. Don’t judge lest you be judged, take the beam out of your eye before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s, don’t cast your pearls before swine, do to others as you would have them do to you. It would all fit together, and that would be that. Instead, Jesus breaks that connection by going back to talk about the importance of trusting God in prayer, which reminds us that prayer stands at the center of everything he’s been saying.
Two, this has a further specific implication for the meaning of our verse this morning. The Golden Rule requires trust—indeed, it’s a way of life grounded in trust. If we take Jesus’ words seriously, we can’t wait to see who does good to us before we do good to them. This isn’t like Christmas in some families where the value of every gift is precisely calibrated so that everyone gets back as much as they spent. Rather, Jesus calls us to do good to others even before they’ve done anything for us at all, knowing they very well might not. Anyone who lives this way in trust that they’ll get back what they give is going to have some rude shocks, and probably end up cynical and rather depressed. But if we put our trust in God, that the Father will provide for us and reward us for our faithfulness, then living this way makes sense.
Now, that said, verse 12 raises questions of its own. One struck me back in January as I was laying out this series: if the Golden Rule sums up the Law and the Prophets—which is another way of saying, the whole word of God—then what do we do with the Great Commandment? If the command to love God with everything you have is truly the most important one, why don’t we see it here? Is Jesus contradicting himself? Is he really saying that all the Bible tells us is to be nice to each other?
The first thing we need to see here, I think, is a key difference between 7:12 and 22:40. In chapter 7, Jesus says, “This sums up the Law and the Prophets.” In chapter 22, after laying out the two greatest commandments—both quoted from the Old Testament, note—he says, “The whole Bible hangs on these two commandments.” In other words, to flip the metaphor, the command to radical love of God and neighbor is the root from which everything else in Scripture grows; the command to do to others as we would have them do to us is the one-line summary of what that looks like in practice.
The second point is illustrated by an episode from the life of the great rabbi Hillel, who taught Gamaliel, who taught the apostle Paul. On one occasion, the rabbi was challenged by a potential convert to summarize the Law while standing on one foot. Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Law; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” Slightly differently put, but the same intent; some folks call this the “negative version” and think it’s less demanding than the “positive version” Jesus offers, but if you look at them closely, I think he’s truly saying the same thing. And remember, this is coming from a Pharisee, and one of the greatest of them. There’s no way he meant to exclude Deuteronomy 6, with its command to love God with all that is in us. We may see a contradiction, but he didn’t.
Our problem comes, I think, from our practice of separating everything out into discrete categories, each with its own label and fact sheet. We think of “worship” as one thing and “how we treat people” as something totally different; and so we read verse 12 and we assume it doesn’t have anything at all to do with worship or how we relate to God. I don’t believe Jesus thought that way, and I don’t think Hillel or the other Pharisees did either. They saw the Law holistically—that’s why they were so fond of reducing it to one-sentence summaries.
They understood that the Law works in the vertical and horizontal dimensions simultaneously. Everything the Law commands us to do for others flows out of what it commands with regard to God, and neither can exist without the other. We can’t love our neighbors as ourselves if we don’t love God with everything in us; and while we never really get to the point where we truly love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, the closer we get, the more we will love those around us as ourselves. The Golden Rule doesn’t ignore worship or exclude prayer—it presupposes them. It is the expression in our relationships with others of a pure heart which hungers and thirsts for righteousness and seeks first the kingdom of God; it’s the fruit of a life that is characterized by worship and prayer.
We can see this if we look at the context in which this verse sits. Again, we have this tendency to separate everything out, and so we take the Golden Rule and put it on a plaque all by itself and hang it on the wall—but that’s not how it comes to us. I noted a few minutes ago that Jesus has inserted a section on prayer into the Sermon right before saying this, to help us understand that the Golden Rule only makes sense if we trust God absolutely, for everything; we saw last week that that’s only possible if our lives are filled with prayer, if we give God all our desires and hopes and wishes and dreams. More generally, remember that verse 12 closes out the great central section of the Sermon on the Mount, and remember what sits right at the center: the Lord’s Prayer.
The Golden Rule doesn’t sum up the Law and the Prophets because it’s all the Law or the prophets care about. Rather, it sums them up because it’s the fruit of a life lived according to the Law and the Prophets. This isn’t what you do in order to live a life pleasing to God; it is the result of living a life pleasing to God.