The Golden Rule for Life

The Golden Rule for Life

Creator God, thank you for this beautiful world of your creation, for the gift of life itself, and for calling us into deeper relationship with you and with all your beloved world.  May we tune our hearts to your Spirit’s movement and listen for your word to us this day.  Amen.

You’ve probably heard the old joke about the Golden Rule: “whoever has the gold, makes the rules!”  It’s funny… and it also contains a difficult element of truth about the way the world often works.

Jesus didn’t call it the Golden Rule or know that joke.  But the world in which he lived, under imperial Roman occupation, did operate that way.  And it was to an audience whose lives were shaped by that reality, ordinary folks who may have felt somewhat poor and powerless in comparison to the wealth and power of Rome, that Jesus taught the real Golden Rule:

We all know it: “do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Treat others the way that you would like to be treated.

This teaching is not unique to Jesus or to the Jewish religious tradition in which he lived and taught.  Similar teachings show up in most of the world’s religious and philosophical traditions.  It’s something most of us probably learned as children.  And hopefully now we’re passing it on to the next generation too.

The Golden Rule is one of those enduring truths that calls us into a daily practice.  And, of course, we’re still working on living it out as a global human community.

As you heard in our reading, the Golden Rule is part of a bigger sermon in Luke’s gospel.  And in it, Jesus doesn’t shy away from bringing up some of the tougher circumstances in which we are to practice the Golden Rule.

Sure, it’s easy to love those who love you, do good to those who do good to you, and give to those who give back in return.  But you should also love, do good, and give without expecting anything in return.

And, by the way, says Jesus, that includes loving your enemies, doing good to those who hate you, blessing those who curse you, and praying for those who abuse you.  And yes, for Jesus’ first audience, that included the Romans.

Our human tendency at times might be to love our friends and hate our enemies.  But ultimately, what good does that do?  If we spend too much energy on hate, will we have any energy left for love?  That adrenaline rush that comes from anger is brief.  Holding a grudge ends up being exhausting.

When someone slaps us on the face (literally or metaphorically), we might really want to slap back, or hurl an insult in return, lash out… but that does nothing to break the cycle of violence and retaliation.  And I think that is what Jesus is getting at here.

I confess I’ve often had mixed feelings about this idea of turning the other cheek.  Primarily because no one should have to put up with abuse.  We, as Christians, should be about helping people get out of abusive circumstances and relationships.  We ought to stand up against abusive systems.  And those who abuse, mistreat, or otherwise exploit or hurt others should be held accountable for their actions.  We also ought to help those who are abusers get the help they need to change.

However, I think all of Jesus’ examples in this passage point to the power of choosing not to retaliate.  It’s a form of nonviolent resistance.  I think that’s the point he was trying to get across.  In the ancient world, a slap on the face was an insult.  It still is.  We still talk about it that way: “well, that was a slap in the face!”  So, offering the other cheek might make your opponent think twice.  “Ok, you want to slap me, insult me, go ahead.”  “You want to take my coat, well here’s my shirt too.”  “How long are we going to keep doing this?  Until you’re out of insults?  Until I’m out of clothes?”

I remember as a young kid I once got into pinch fight with one of my friends.  I don’t remember how it started, but I don’t think I was the one who pinched first.  But I did pinch back.  And then she pinched back… and after a few seconds of this painful nonsense, we finally called a truce.

Whether we’re talking about interpersonal or international relations, no one can truly win until the cycle of retaliation and vengeance is cut off and a different way forward is forged.  How can we even begin to imagine a possible compromise or win-win solution for all parties if we’re too busy slapping back?

Instead, Jesus calls for another way.  Love ought to be our ethic.  The Golden Rule ought to be our guidepost.  Jesus goes on to say don’t judge others, don’t condemn others.  Give and forgive.  Be merciful.  That’s the way God is.  Love others as God loves you.  Love others as you love yourself.

And yes, that means we also need to work on loving ourselves.  And that doesn’t mean self-righteousness, self-absorption, or having an inflated ego.  It means truly loving and accepting ourselves and having a healthy sense of self-worth.

How do we live authentically, ground ourselves in God’s love, and take care of our physical, mental, and spiritual selves, so we can love others well?  We can’t give what we don’t have.

For example, and I’ll be the first to confess… I get snippy with my spouse when I get tired.  I’m a better wife and much more fun to be around when I get enough rest.

Remember, even Jesus took some time out.  We all need to care for ourselves well in order to do the same for others.  It’s hard to do sometimes, I know.  It can be hard to find the time, especially if you are a parent or a caregiver to others.  But you are worth it.

Practicing the Golden Rule might also invite us into a fuller appreciation of the fact that the space between ourselves and others is actually quite small.  And, in fact, our individuality is a bit of an illusion.  Instead, our connections as a human family run deep.  Our interdependence, our reliance on one another, is always there – even if we forget about it sometimes.

I’ve been reading a new book by the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Senior Pastor of Middle Collegiate Church in New York.  It’s entitled, Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World – a bold path and bold title.  It’s a great book so far – part memoir of her own journey, part sermon to the world.  And, if you aren’t familiar with Dr. Lewis, she’s a great person, pastor, and public theologian.

She starts off with the question “Who are we to be?”  It’s a question for us as individuals, as a nation, as a global human family.

I want to share a brief passage from the Introduction with you.  She writes:

We have a choice to make. We can answer this question [who are we to be?] with diminished imagination, by closing ranks with our tribe and hiding from our human responsibility to heal the world. Or we can answer the question of who we are to be another way: We can answer it in the spirit of ubuntu. The concept comes from the Zulu phrase Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, which literally means that a person is a person through other people. Another translation is, “I am who I am because we are who we are.” When Zulus see each other, they offer this greeting: Sawubona, which means “I see you.” And the response is Sikhona, which means “I exist.” With this in mind, who I will be is deeply related to who you are. In other words, we are each impacted by the circumstances that impact those around us. What hurts you hurts me. What heals you heals me. What causes you joy causes me to rejoice, and what makes you sad also causes me to weep.

By channeling the ancient wisdom of ubuntu, we can engineer a badly needed love revolution to rise up out of the ashes of our current reality. I’m not referring to the sentimental love of romantic comedies, greeting cards, and pop music—that kind of love does not serve this purpose. No, I’m calling for a demanding, heart-transforming, fierce love. Fierce love breaks through tribalism to help humans realize an inextricable and irrevocable connection, and understand that the liberation, livelihood, and thriving of people and planet are tied up together. In this moment, in the urgency of now, we simply must ask questions of identity as we consider the surviving and thriving of all peoples. We must allow the stories of others—the vulnerable, the poor, the stranger, the one least like us—to change our stories, to impact our story. The empathy that grows from listening to others, from connecting with our neighbors, and from loving our neighbors as we love ourselves can define the courses of action we take. How we vote, where we live, where we shop, how we raise our children, how we care for the planet: All of these choices, when made with ubuntu, can save humanity.  (from the Introduction to Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Harmony Books, 2021)

I think her vision of fierce love is right on.  And it’s clearly grounded in Jesus’ vision too.

We are not so separate. We belong to one another. We depend on one another.

In exploring ubuntu a little more, I learned that Sawubona can also be translated as we see you (we, meaning me and all my ancestors).  And Sikhona can be understood as I am here to be seen.

Who we are together, in relationship with one another, in seeing and being seen, is so much of who we are.  Perhaps reminding ourselves of this regularly can help positively shape how we live into the Golden Rule.

I also like to imagine what might change in our world if we all could set a little internal Golden Rule alarm that would go off when we need it.

Someone cuts you off in traffic… Golden Rule!
The grocery checkout line is moving awfully slow… Golden Rule!
A loved one does something that irritates you… Golden Rule!
The barista got your order wrong… Golden Rule!
Your coworker forgot to do that task you needed… Golden Rule!
Your politically opposite family member just has to bring up politics again at the Thanksgiving table… Golden Rule!
Your roommate forgot to take their clothes out of the dryer… Golden Rule!
Your spouse gets snippy because she’s tired… Golden Rule!

I’m sure you can come up with more scenarios.

The little irritations in life afford us an opportunity to practice the Golden Rule.  And maybe that practice might just help us engage more deeply in the bigger, more complex issues.

In all things, big and small, Jesus called us to treat others as we’d like to be treated.  So, with a spirit of ubuntu, let us remember that we are one human community, one in God’s love.  And may this Golden Rule for life continue to guide us toward one another in love.  Amen.