The History Of The Precept Matthew 7:12

All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets. - Matthew 7:12
1. The words of the text are old and familiar. We learn from our infancy to say, "My duty towards my neighbour is to love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me." All Christians accept this as an elementary and fundamental maxim of their religion. But not only are these words not new to ourselves in this age of Chistendom; they were by no means altogether new to the world when our Lord spoke them. Parallels to them can be found in heathen philosophers, in the sacred books of other religions. The maxim may justly be regarded as human and universal, rather than as specifically Christian.

Christ not only did not claim for the precept any originality, but He expressly disclaimed it; He gave this as the sanction of the rule, that it was "the law and the prophets," that is to say, that all the precepts which had been given of old concerning our conduct one towards another were briefly comprehended in this one saying, that we should do to all men as we would that they should do to ourselves; the Lord gave this as a key to the whole, and would have us to understand that if we once master this great principle, and make it the real principle of our conduct, all particular duties will be easily, and as a matter of course, performed. And so St. Paul represents the matter. He says, "He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." What Christ did, then, was to bring together scattered duties under one general head and supply a principle which should be applicable to them all.

In Confucius this Divine instinct of the soul began to break forth in history. He said, "You must not do to others what you would not they should do to you." This was only a refrain. It was a rule telling us what to avoid doing. The grand old Plato went further, and in a kind of prayer says, in the eleventh book of his Dialogues, "May I, being of sound mind, do to others as I would that they should do to me."1 [Note: D. Swing, Truths for To-Day, i. 34.]

A Gentile inquirer - so the Talmudic story runs - came one day to the great Shammai, and demanded to be taught the law, condensed to a sentence, while he stood on one foot. In anger the Rabbi smote him with his staff and turned away, and the questioner went to Hillel, and Hillel made answer, "Whatsoever thou wouldest that men should not do to thee, that do not thou to them. All our law is summed up in that." And the stranger forthwith became a proselyte. The best of the Scribes went no further than this negative goodness in their approaches to the teaching of our Lord. He teaches that love cannot be satisfied with this cold abstinence from harm-doing. Active, energetic benevolence is the only true outcome of a character which has yielded to, and been moulded by, the Divine bounty. Frigid negatives satisfy neither Law nor Gospel.2 [Note: A. Pearson, Christus Magister, 261.]

2. Our Lord translated other men's negatives into God's positive. Hitherto, the Golden Rule among men had been in the merely negative form. "That which is hateful to thyself do not do to thy neighbour"; that is to say, if thou abstainest from certain gross injustices and iniquities, thou hast fulfilled the whole Law. It is not in such a saying as that that all the philanthropies and humanities of Christianity lie dormant. Those great beneficent systems and institutions with which Christian feeling has covered this land and so many others are not the outgrowth of a mere negative ambition to abstain from insulting or injuring one's neighbours. It was Christ's genius that translated the negatives of religion into the positives. With Him the "thou shalt nots" of the Decalogue became the positive constructive doctrine of the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount.

Each time that we turn to the Gospels we find ourselves awed, commanded, moved, as by no other morality. We know nothing deeper, nothing more universal, nothing more practical, than the laws of human conduct which our Lord clothed in language intelligible and impressive to His Galilean hearers. The gospel morality needs no championship; it only needs to be understood and felt. It has much that is manifestly higher than what human wisdom unenlightened by the gospel has ever suggested; but it also welcomes and justifies and exalts every good idea which has appeared to be independent of it.

By universal consent, if Jesus has any rival it is Buddha; by common consent also Sir Edwin Arnold is the man who went through all the Indian literature, sifted out the straw and the chaff, gathered up every grain of wheat he could find, and gave it to us in that poem, The Light of Asia. Then a few years later Sir Edwin re-opened his New Testament, and after a year published The Light of the World. And lo, the disciple of Buddha reverses his judgment! With poetic licence Sir Edwin Arnold represents the Wise Men of the East as Buddhists, who brought their gold and frankincense and offerings to the infant King, and left them, and journeyed back to the Ganges. Then, when two-score years had passed, one of the Wise Men, still living, retraced his steps, fascinated by that memory of the wonderful child. In his travels he meets Mary Magdalene, and hears the tragic story of the life and death of Jesus.

After long brooding upon Christ's words, the aged Indian priest puts the Light of the World over against the Light of Asia. First, Jesus is infinitely superior, because, until Christ spake, "never have we known before wisdom so packed and perfect as the Lord's, giving that Golden Rule with which this earth were heaven." And, second, he finds that Buddha held life was one long sorrow; but "right joyous, though, is Christ's doctrine, glad 'mid life's sad changes and swift vicissitudes, and death's unshunned and hard perplexities"; for over against the despair, the gloom and the pessimism that makes Buddha propose extinction and a dreamless sleep stands the piercing joyousness and out-breaking "gladsomeness of the life of Jesus." And, third, the old Buddhist finds another round in the golden ladder; if Buddha wrapped the universe in darkness and gloomy mystery, "thy teacher doth wrap us round in glorious folds with mighty name of love, and biddeth us believe, not law, not faith, hath moulded what we are, and built the worlds, but living, regnant love," for the fury of unharnessed, natural laws, the ferocity of fate, gives way before the advancing footprints of a Father of life and love. Then comes the priest's final confession. "My teacher bade us toil over dead duties, and brood above slain affections, until we reached Nirvana; yours, to love one's neighbours as one's self, and save his soul by losing heed of it, in needful care that all his doings profit men and help the sorrowful to hope, the weak to stand."

Oh, nearer road, and new! By heart to see
Heaven closest in this earth we walk upon,
God plainest in the brother whom we pass,
Best solitudes 'midst busy multitudes,
Passions o'ercome when Master-passion springs
To serve, and love, and succour.1 [Note: N. D. Hillis.]  

to be continued