What's So Golden About the Golden Rule?

A guest essay by novelist Ron Hansen. Ron's many books include Exiles (2008) and A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (2011). Among his many honors are a Guggenheim Foundation grant, an Award in Literature from the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a three-year fellowship from the Lyndhurst Foundation. He is currently the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, where he earned an M.A. in Spirituality in 1995.

For Sunday November 4, 2012

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Ruth 1:1–18 or Deuteronomy 6:1–9

Psalm 146 or Psalm 119:1–8

Hebrews 9:11–14

Mark 12:28–34

            The sage and biblical scholar Rabbi Hillel the Elder was president of the Sanhedrin and the highest authority among the Pharisees in Jerusalem during the reigns of King Herod and the Roman Emperor Augustus. Hillel is said to have died in year 10 of the Common Era, which means that if Jesus was born in 6–4 BCE, as some scholars propose, the boy could have been listening to Hillel teach when he stayed overnight in the Temple during the Passover festival (Luke 2:41-51). At a minimum, Jesus and his disciples would have been influenced by the eminence and learning of Rabbi Hillel when Jesus began his own public ministry at age thirty. And that would account for the similarities in their so-called Golden Rule.

            Rabbi Hillel felt that love of others was the core principle of Jewish teaching, and in a collection of his maxims there is an account of him being approached by a heathen who was considering becoming a Jew, and who asked the rabbi for a concise summation of the religion. Hillel told him: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Law; the rest is commentary.”

Rabbi Hillel the Elder.
Rabbi Hillel the Elder.

            But Hillel was preceded in his thought with Lao Tse’s 6th century BCE counsel that one should “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” And by Confucius who, in the 5th century BCE, said, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” In ancient Greece, Thales advised, “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing,” and in ancient Egypt it was, “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”

            In fact, it would seem that all major religions or ethical systems have their own version of the Golden Rule, but the Rule of Jesus is distinctive and deeper.

            We see it in our gospel reading today (Mark 12:28-34). A Jewish scribe who witnessed Jesus in a disputation with the Sadducees over the resurrection was so impressed by his wisdom that he sought Jesus out to inquire, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”

            Jesus replied by quoting Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Deut 6:4-5)

            It was a familiar instruction, one that pious Jews recited in their morning and evening prayer services, urged their children to say at bedtime, carried in script on their wrists, and attached to the doorposts of their homes in a small container called a mezuzah.

            But then Jesus added as an ancillary instruction a quotation from the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19:18b). “There is no other commandment greater than these,” Jesus said.

            We have a habit of overlooking the final phrase “as yourself,” or consider it merely a form of comparison, a measuring stick, even a quid pro quo, on which most other maxims on the love of neighbor rely. But I think Jesus intended that his hearers realize that they are indeed esteemed by God, that Love loves them, and they ought to treat themselves as a favored child or a prized possession, not in the criminal or addictive behaviors that so often are a reaction to self-loathing.

            In his ethic of reciprocity and his linking of the love commandments, Jesus was not just facilitating conformity with the Torah, but was indicating that concern for others and oneself was a natural consequence of a fully integrated devotion to God. And that particular fidelity and worship ought to be so all encompassing as to unite our inner dispositions of emotion, spirit, and intelligence, along with the sensations and powers of our bodies.

Jesus and the teacher of the law by Christoph Weigle, 1654-1725.
Jesus and the teacher of the law
by Christoph Weigle, 1654-1725.

            Some have argued that Rabbi Hillel did not mention love of God to the heathen because he recognized the man was still too new to Judaism to have an accurate concept of the Most High, especially in a polytheistic world. And Jesus, of course, was talking to a scribe, an educated interpreter of the Bible and perhaps even a government official. Jesus was merely helping him up to a higher step.

            “Well said, teacher,” the scribe replied, not only ratifying Jesus’s lesson but also revealing his own willingness to be a disciple, a student. Repeating the instruction, the scribe underscored its importance for the crowd watching them and even seemed to be committing it to memory. And his conclusion was that concern for God and one’s neighbor “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

            Mark’s gospel was addressed to communities of Gentiles encircled by hundreds of cults and idols, each requiring holocausts and the violent sacrifice of animals. So the realization that the Law could be fulfilled in its entirety through compassion, generosity, and the love and worship of God would have been a source of relief even as it inspired a new sense of personal responsibility.

            All our social justice initiatives have their basis in the love commandments that Jesus links in this passage. Jesus congratulated the scribe for fully understanding what he’d said, and there was a wry joke in Jesus saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” for the scribe had been gifted with an intimate conversation with the Jesus in whose life and teaching the reign of God was first and finally made present.

Image credits: (1) Vasculata.com and (2) Pitts Theology Library Digital Image Archive.