The golden rule is an interesting piece of biblical literature. I can remember as a child being shocked to find out this tried and true piece of advice was actually scripture. For years I had heard the encouragement to “treat others the way you want to be treated” never knowing that it actually came from the lips of Jesus. Once I found out it was scripture, the line went from being just a good piece of advice to follow, to a command I needed to take more seriously.
During my years working in youth ministry I soon realized how quickly we take this verse out of context. There were multiple times when teenagers would explain bad behavior by quoting this verse and saying, “they wanted me to make fun of them because they made fun of me first. I was only following the golden rule.” One of the best was a time a student spit in a girl’s drink at a restaurant and claimed “she wanted me to do it because she put salt in my drink first.” It wasn’t long before I realized how easy it becomes to misinterpret verses for our own desires, this particular verse being a classic example.
It isn’t hard to see how treating others poorly because you’ve been treated poorly is a bad interpretation of this classic admonition. There’s never a time in scripture when Jesus says it’s perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged, to treat others poorly. That is clearly a blatant misinterpretation. A much more accepted interpretation is to use the golden rule from the reverse perspective, or the negative perspective. Instead of reading the verse as do unto others as you would have done to you, we read it as don’t treat others in a way you would not want to be treated. This is often a way that we try to teach children that negative behavior is hurtful. I’ve had times with all three of my children when I’ve used this interpretation. “Do you like it when people take your toys away from you? No, of course not, so don’t take another child’s toys without asking, it makes them sad.” “Do you like it when someone calls you names? No, of course not, so don’t call other people names.” We use this verse to avoid negative behaviors. Because I don’t want others to treat me poorly, I shouldn’t treat others poorly. Especially with children, who don’t have the brain development to see the world outside of themselves, this can be an excellent way to help teach positive and negative behavior.
The problem is, it’s not being true to the text. Simply avoiding treating my neighbor poorly, while important, does not actually require anything of me. This becomes a very passive interpretation of the text. In this sense, I have no responsibilities to you or anyone else. My neighbor is still allowed to just be a neighbor. They can live in their house and do their own thing, and I have no responsibilities toward them. I can even ignore them if I want to, just let them live their lives. As long as I’m not mean to them I’ve fulfilled this verse.
The problem is, Jesus doesn’t interpret the passage passively, but actively. Jesus doesn’t say don’t treat others in a way you don’t want to be treated, but in everything do unto others as you would have done to you. Jesus is calling us to action. Jesus says I have a responsibility to my neighbor. I need to be the first person to step up and love the other. So often we rationalize doing nothing by thinking, “they don’t talk to me so I’m not going to talk to them.” But this is the wrong response. Instead we are called to love our neighbors, to be kind to them, to do good for them, not because they were kind to us first, but because we have the responsibility to be good to them no matter how they treat us. Jesus is calling us to action. We are even called to seek our neighbors best interest. To protect them and provide for them. As followers of God, we are required to love first, and to serve first. And we are to continue to be kind, whether they are ever kind in return or not. Our love is not based on a positive response. We actively love our neighbors because it is the right thing to do.
You and I are to treat others the way we want to be treated, in everything. Not just our friends and family, and not just when we feel like it. This is active faith, active love, all the time, for this is the law and the prophets.