“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 7:12 (NRSV)
There are some who have suggested the Sermon on the Mount might follow a sort of chiastic structure where the sermon list some main points, comes to a crux, then backs out to the end discussing those same points in a slightly different format. I don’t know that we can make the Sermon work out exactly like that without using some very vague categories, but what we can say is that we see similar issues brought up in different ways with different thoughts or different applications.
This sentiment could generally capture a lot of the ethical instruction in the Sermon, but it probably has its strongest corollary to Matthew 5:38-38:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)
While certainly the principle applies to all the other ethics taught in the Sermon, it’s here that the principle is put to the test – the principle of retaliation (which is also in the Law) and treatment of enemies.
It is in these areas where the listener is asked beyond what the specific wording of a case law implies and examine the heart or intent of the Law. The Law may permit divorce, but the intent is not to create a culture of casual “marriages” for your personal gratification. The Law may require just compensation for injury, but the intent is not to create a culture of vengeance where you take wrongdoing out of someone’s hide.
By doing this, Jesus sums up the intent of the case laws as he is wont to do in various places.
It’s difficult to think of something to say about this that hasn’t been said already many times as we’ve gone through the Sermon. Faithful Israel is under the thumb of an oppressor, and she’s about to be delivered and the oppressor is about to be judged. How then should she behave?
Jesus, wisely, exhorts his listeners to follow the lines of the core of the Law, which is to deal in justice and compassion and mercy even when the other party is neither just nor compassionate nor merciful. Behaving in this way is a testimony to your own desire to be the faithful people of God in the world and your trust that God will judge. It’s a way of behavior that protects both you and the community until such time as God repays those who have treated you badly. And who knows? Perhaps by your behavior, they may be compelled to join your side.
There is an interesting, if subtle, unique contribution this saying brings into the mix. Jesus doesn’t say, “In everything, do to others as the Law requires,” or even as he will suggest elsewhere, “Do to others as I have commanded you.” Instead, he exhorts listeners to behave toward others the way they desire someone to behave toward them.
In other words, Jesus is asking them to create with their own behavior the world they want to live in. Do you want compassion for your situation? Be compassionate, even to those who are not. Do you want forgiveness for your failings? Forgive, even if others will not forgive you. Do you want to be dealt with in peace? Do you want to be treated both justly and mercifully? Do you want someone to intervene in your time of need? Be that. Be that person. Be those people. Be that world.
Jesus says that this sentiment is the Law and the Prophets. We could probably find particular case laws or declarations of prophets that would call that into question, but what cannot be called into question is that this is the core of the mission of the kingdom in the Old Testament brought into individual ethics: be a new creation. Incarnate that creation. Bring it into reality through your life and the life of your believing community, and trust that it is this creation that God will deliver, vindicate, reward, exalt, and finalize.
When we look at the spread of the church in the first century, we do not just see the spread of a message or an establishment of doctrine, we see faith communities being something. They are being what Israel was created to be, and this is supposed to be a declaration, call, profession, defense, and invitation to the nations deeper than words.
- What are the times in the Old Testament where Israel had been basically observing the Law in its details but had overlooked the heart of it? What kinds of virtues and characteristics do the prophets tell us define that heart? What does God really care about?
- What do you think God wants for your life above and beyond spreading a message and abstaining from evil? What does he want churches to look like?