The Golden Rule is not called that in the text of Matthew. It is just there in the text. Many people seem to think that this is the central truth of the Christian message. No, that does not seem to be so to me. I have wondered for some time how it fits.
This time in preaching Matthew, I have tried to pay attention to t he literary structure. In general Matthew uses two devices – first the life of Christ with a sort of climb to the confession by Peter of Jesus identity, then a turn to the Cross. This is an outline shared by Mark and to a degree Luke. Second, Matthew has collected discourses (teaching) and narratives (actions) into thematic clusters.
Matthew 5-9 can be see as a unit with the emphasis on the Authority of Jesus – the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7 focus on Jesus authority as a teacher. Chapters 8 and 9 demonstrate Jesus authority through miracles.
Now here is how the Golden Rule fits in the Sermon
- Beatitudes – 8 statements of conditions of blessing – 5:1-12
- Mission for Disciples – Salt and Light – 5:13-16
- Ethics 5:17-7:12
- Statement of Law and Prophets – 5:17
- Jesus’ Ethical teaching on
- The Law – 5:18-48 – “you have heard, but I say”
- Spiritual Life – 6:1-18 – giving, prayer and fasting
- Possessions and Worry – 6:19-34
- Reciprocal Judgment – 7:1-11
- Golden Rule – “Law and Prophets” 7:12
- Call to Decision – 7:13-17 – 4 examples of 2 paths (4×2=8)
- Crowd comments on the Authority of Jesus 7:28-29
I have underlined verse 5:17 which begins the section on Ethics and 7:12 which concludes that section. Both these verses have the phrase “law and prophets”. First, Jesus speaks of fulfilling the law and the prophets, and at the end he says that the “golden rule” is the law and the prophets.
So then we can see that the Golden Rule serves as a sort of summary of Jesus’ ethical teaching from 5:17 to 7:12.
The Beatitudes as I noted are 8 statements of blessing. The initial beatitude “blessed are the poor in spirit” corresponds to the confession of sin and admission of need that is the beginning point of being a follower of Jesus. At the end there is a four fold call to decide (Two Gates, Two Fruit, Two Claims and Two Houses). Is it a coincidence that the whole sermon starts with 8 beatitudes and ends with 8 choices (four sets of two)?
This sermon is a very carefully crafted discourse – both from the mouth of Jesus and as Matthew records it – I believe he has edited this message, because it is not that long from start to finish. It is about 2,400 words in the NIV – which works out to a 30 minute sermon at the pace I preach. Some parts are shaped as an outline and useful for memorization (e.g. the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer). So it is reasonable to think that this is a condensation of Jesus message, and one that he may have repeated in part or in full as he went from place to place (4:23).
The Golden Rule does not stand alone, nor can it merely be filled by one’s own ideas of its meaning. It is a conclusion to the central section of Jesus sermon. In short, it serves to give one way to summarize the ethics of a Christian – it corresponds to the 2nd Greatest Command – “Love your neighbor as yourself”. (Matthew 22:34-37, where again Jesus spoke of “the law and the prophets.)