A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 7:12. Christian’s relationships: Our attitude to all men.
The logic of the ‘so’ or ‘therefore’ (*oun*) with which this verse begins is not plain. It may look back to the previous verse and imply that if God is good to all who seek him in prayer, his children must be good to all likewise. Or it may refer further back to the *judge not* command, and take up the underlying argument against censoriousness and hypocrisy. In any case it seems that Jesus uttered this principle at different times and in different contexts, for in Luke’s version of the Sermon it comes immediately after the three little cameos which illustrate the command to love our enemies. (Lk.6:31.). Certainly such love is beyond us apart from the grace of God. It is, in fact, his own love and is one of the ‘good things’ he gives us through his Holy Spirit in answer to our prayers. (verse 11 = Lk. 11:13).
Much has been made by various commentators of the fact that the Golden Rule is found in a similar – but always negative – form elsewhere. Confucius, for example, is credited with having said, ‘Do not to others what you would not wish done to yourself;’ and the Stoics had an almost identical maxim. In the Old Testament Apocrypha we find: ‘Do not do to anyone what you yourself would hate,’ (Tobit 4:15, NEB), and this it seems is what the famous Rabbi Hillel quoted in c.20 BC when asked by a would-be proselyte to teach him the whole law while standing on one leg. His rival Rabbi Shammai had been unable or unwilling to answer, and had driven the enquirer away, but Rabbi Hillel said: ‘ What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. This is the whole law; all the rest is only commentary.’
Because this is the best-known example of the supposed parallelism between the Jewish Talmud and the Sermon on the Mount, a further comment may be in place. Some have gone so far as to claim that *everything* in the Sermon is also in the Talmud, plus a great deal more. Professor Jeremias reacts in this way: ‘That is exactly the case: that in the Talmud “a great deal more” is to be found, and that one must seek the grain among a great deal of chaff, the scanty golden grain that may be compared with the words of the Sermon on the Mount.’ Alfred Edersheim, writing towards the end of last century, was even more outspoken. He agrees that there is ‘wit and logic, quickness and readiness, earnestness and zeal’ in the Talmud, but that at the same time there is a real ‘contrariety in spirit and substance’ between it and the New Testament. Indeed, ‘taken as a whole, it is not only utterly unspiritual, but anti-spiritual’.
Returning to the Golden Rule, there is really an enormous difference between the negative and rather grudging maxim of Hillel (‘Do not do to others what is hateful to you’) and the positive initiative contained in the instruction of Jesus (‘Do to others what you wish they should do to you’). Even then it may sound a rather low standard, like ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Actually, however, it is a high standard because self-love is a powerful force in our lives. Edersheim called such neighbour-love ‘the nearest approach to absolute love of which human nature is capable’. Also it is a remarkably flexible ethical principle. Self-advantage often guides us in our own affairs; now we must also let it guide us in our behaviour to others. All we have to do is to use our imagination, put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and ask, ‘How would I like to be treated in that situation?’ As Bishop Ryle wrote, ‘It settles a hundred difficult points … It prevents the necessity of laying down endless little rules for our conduct in specific cases.’ Indeed, it is a principle of such wide application that Jesus could add, *for this is the law and the prophets*. That is, whoever directs his conduct towards others according to how he would like others to direct theirs towards him has fulfilled the law and the prophets, at least in the matter of neighbour-love. (cf.5:17; Rom.13:8-10).
We noted at the opening of this chapter that the Christian counter-culture is not just an individual value-system and life-style, but a community affair. It involves relationships. And the Christian community is in essence a family, God’s family. Probably the two strongest elements in our Christian consciousness are an awareness of God as our Father and of our fellow-Christians as our brothers and sisters through Christ, although at the same time we can never forget our responsibility to those outside the family whom we long to see brought in.
So in Matthew 7:1-12 Jesus has introduced us to these basic relationships. At their centre is our heavenly Father God to whom we come, on whom we depend and who never gives his children other than good gifts. Next, there are our fellow believers. And the anomaly of a censorious spirit (which judges) and of a hypocritical spirit (which sees the splinter in spite of the plank) is that it is incompatible with Christian brotherliness. If our fellow Christians are truly our brothers and sisters in the Lord, it is inconceivable that we shall be anything other than caring and constructive in our attitude towards them.
As for those outside the family, there is the extreme case of the ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’, but they are not typical. They are an exceptional group of stubborn people who are ‘dogged’ and even ‘pigheaded’, one might accurately say, in their decisive rejection of Jesus Christ. Reluctantly we have to drop them. But if verse 6 is the exception verse 12 is the rule, the Golden Rule. It transforms our actions. If we put ourselves sensitively into the place of the other person, and wish for him what we would wish for ourselves, we would be never mean, always generous; never harsh, always understanding; never cruel, always kind.
Tomorrow: Matthew 7:13-20.A Christian’s relationships: to false prophets.
To learn more about this ministry visit langham.org
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.