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Sermon on the Mount: Do Unto Others

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Jeremy Bacon

Jeremy is a divorced single dad who lives in Illinois with his three amazing children. He has a bachelors and masters in theology, which is not always super-useful at the retail job he's worked since 2006.

Do unto others what you would have them do unto you…

So that’s the Sermon on the Mount. At least the meat of it, anyway. Matthew 7:12 is the second bookend, echoing Jesus’ opening discussion of “the law and the prophets” (Matt. 5:17-20). Jesus has given us his definitive expression of life in the Kingdom. Matthew 7:12 is his concluding, summary statement.

I’ve heard preachers try to give a single sermon on the entire Sermon on the Mount. This is an inherently stupid idea. (Jesus’ audience probably sat there for way more than 20 minutes!) But if you had to distill the Sermon on the Mount into one dominant thought, this is it.

The Core of Christian Ethic

So what is the dominant thought? How do you sum all this up? What is the core of the Christian ethic? When preachers and teachers try to sum up basic Christian morality, a common buzz-word these days is “integrity.” Integrity is fine, but our dominant Western individualism betrays us, here. “Integrity” has no necessary relationship to other people. It is a quality you simply have in yourself. You can sit alone in your living room and have all kinds of integrity.

Do unto others: “You can sit alone in your living room and have all kinds of integrity.”

That’s not the Kingdom. Jesus has been surprisingly unconcerned with this kind of individual, personal morality. For Jesus, “living out your faith” is about how you treat others. Fundamental Christian morality is about respect. Do you treat everyone you meet with dignity, as a fully human being? Thus, the paragraph on jugmentalism (Matt. 7:7-11) led us to the fundamental attitude of empathy. In Matthew 7:12, Jesus summarizes his sermon by stating that the Kingdom is not just about feeling empathy. The Kingdom is about living out empathy: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

The Illustrations & the Summary

But how do you expound on the Golden Rule? It’s a summary sentence. It’s THE summary sentence. It’s a rephrasing of what James calls “the royal law” (James 2:8)—“Love your neighbor as yourself.” The entire Sermon on the Mount IS Jesus expounding on the Golden Rule. In fact, Jesus says that the entire law of Moses and the writings of the prophets simply elaborate on this one principle. They’re all just illustrations.

We still definitely need them. The illustrations put meat on the idea, so it’s not this abstract thing floating out there. Do you want your brother to treat you with contempt? No? Then don’t treat him that way. It works the same for objectification, sincerity, judgmentalism, etc.

But we need the summary principle, too. Otherwise, we might miss that the illustrations do not exhaust the principle’s application. There is no comprehensive list of rules to check off. That’s the Pharisees’ trap. Jesus has been combating it this entire sermon.

Do unto others: “There is no comprehensive list of rules to check off. That’s the Pharisees’ trap.”

Another List of Obligations?

In fact, the attitude of legal nit-picking often makes its way into the discussion of the Golden Rule itself. (I guess calling it the “Golden Rule” doesn’t really help!) For instance, some folks make a big deal of the fact that Jesus states this rule positively, “Do to others what you want them to do to you,” while other sages (Socrates, Confucius, etc. [It’s actually pretty common]) tend to state it negatively, “What is hateful to yourself, do to no other” (Hillel). It sounds like they’re telling you what not to do while Jesus is telling you what you should do. Framed this way, Jesus’ formulation seems more proactive. As the argument goes, this means greater obligations.

First of all, the Sermon on the Mount is not about obligations. It is about life. Second, this is Jesus’ summary of his sermon, and the instructions in the sermon are, more often than not, stated negatively, “Don’t do this.” Perhaps we could paraphrase the Golden Rule in a way that avoids the issue entirely: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

This is a basic statement that our actions should be guided by empathy. You might think that we wouldn’t need the reminder. A healthy human brain is hard-wired for empathy. But acting on that empathy can get complicated.

“This is a basic statement that our actions should be guided by empathy.”

For instance, if I’m going to treat people the way I want to be treated, how do I want to be treated? Hopefully, I want to be treated in a way that genuinely promotes my overall well-being. But we often stop short of that. We either let others devalue us or we devalue ourselves. We settle for that which does not promote our overall well-being. How I want to be treated is ultimately founded on what I truly believe I’m worth. Do I love myself? Do I grasp that I am created in the image of God and loved by him? And, therefore, do I have affection for myself that generates a willingness to be stretched for my own benefit? Only when I value myself rightly will it be a good thing for me to treat others the way I want to be treated.

Our Overriding Concern

We are all created with the same value, but a further complication is that we are also all created unique. In order to treat people the way I want to be treated, I need to act in their best interests. But since we’re all unique, it may take some time and effort to understand what those interests are.

It’s easy to just project ourselves onto others—to assume that they would think and feel about their situation the same way we would. But they don’t. So the first act of treating people the way we want to be treated is to listen to them. That’s the only way to grasp their whole context. That’s what empathy is all about: “How would I feel, not in my shoes, but in their shoes?” Only then can we get some idea of how we would want to be treated.

Do unto others: “How would I feel, not in my shoes, but in their shoes?”

But, more than that, our empathy often gets short-circuited. Sometimes we don’t recognize that others have the same value we have. Sometimes we just don’t want to. Sometimes I want to do what I want to do, and I don’t want to be bothered by how it affects anyone else. This is pure selfishness.

The problem is that we are social beings. We want our freedom, but we also want to live in community. John Stuart Mill, a favorite philosopher of the American founding fathers, was huge on individual freedoms. But he also realized that, at some point, your choices affect the people around you. In order to keep a society functioning, he advocated the “harm principle”—your freedoms end when they cause (or could very likely cause) literal, physical harm to someone else.

This may be a good principle for governing society, but for a Christ-follower, the “harm principle” is an entry-level application of the Golden Rule. For the behavior of Christians, the overriding concern is not “my freedom” but “your value.” As Paul said, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor. 9:19).

Do unto others: “For the behavior of Christians, the overriding concern is not my freedom but your value.”

At the very least, the Golden Rule drives a nail through selfishness by insisting we recognize the value of every person we affect. Especially people we might not see that value in. This includes people who don’t look, believe, or live like us. Love is meant to be universal (Matt. 5:46-48). This even includes people who acted like jerks to us. We don’t judge (Matt. 7:1). We have mercy (Matt. 5:7), and we forgive (Matt. 6:12, 14-15).

Oddly enough, this doesn’t mean living without boundaries. Quite the opposite. If someone is pushing one of your boundaries, you can reverse the roles and ask, “If I were pushing this boundary, would I expect them to accept that behavior?” If the answer is, “No,” then enforcing your boundary is treating them the way you want to be treated.

Guiding Us through the Messiness

Yes, life can get foggy. Even so, focus on the Golden Rule. It is a beacon that can guide us through this mess in a way that reflects God’s heart.

Do unto others: “The Golden Rule is a beacon that can guide us through this mess in a way that reflects God’s heart.”

To change the metaphor, picture your life as a wagon wheel. What we might call “different areas” of your life are actually spokes all radiating from a central hub. Of course, that hub needs to be Jesus. He is the organizing center for our lives. But what does this mean practically?

For all the different people I encounter in all the different settings of life, Jesus has lots of advice and instruction. But the heart of Jesus that radiates into every spoke, filling them, defining them, in a sense leveling them out so that they form an integrated, functioning whole is, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”