THREE RULES OF CONDUCT
July 16, 2006
I have been watching the conduct of Jesus this week in our daily Bible reading passages and noticing how he related to people even in stressful times in his ministry in his life. Notice, for example, in Matthew 19, verse 13 and following, how the children were brought to him that he might lay hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked the people. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. He laid his hands on them and went away.” That is, he took time for them; he viewed them as in need of his blessing and he took an interest in them. A little later toward the end of chapter 20, you will remember we are getting to the last week in the Lord’s life on earth. He is going along out of Jericho. There are two blind men who hear that he is going by and they begin to cry out, “Lord, have mercy on us, son of David.” Of course, again, the crowd this time (not the disciples) begins to rebuke them trying to hush them up. The Lord stopped, verse 32 said, he called them and he said, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said, “Lord, let our eyes be opened. And Jesus, in compassion, touched their eyes and immediately they recovered their sight and they followed him.” I could give you some other examples from this section, but that gives you an idea of the Lord’s conduct. He took an interest, took time and he was a blessing to people.
Why did he do that at this time in his experience in this world? I think he was practicing what he preached. There have been a lot of times when I wished I was more capable of doing that. Jesus taught a general rule for all human conduct in Matthew 7:12. He says, “So, whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them for this is the law and the prophets.” You will recognize that as what has long been called “The Golden Rule.” I have found it interesting that at least going back to T.B. Larimore in the 1800s lessons were taught which took this Golden Rule and tried to identify other philosophies of human conduct and interaction by other rules also named after metals. The Iron Rule, for example, and the Silver Rule. More recently I have seen something that Wayne Jackson wrote which used those terms, and the suggestion is that all of us to one degree or another behave ourselves toward other people by one of these three rules. I think that at least provides us a way of contrasting what the Golden Rule teaches with other ways that people tend to behave themselves, including us. Let’s consider them one at a time this morning.
The Iron Rule
Begin with what has sometimes been called “The Iron Rule.” The Iron Rule says that one must always win. That “one” means “me.” I must get my way and provided I have the power to do so, I will get my way no matter what it does to anybody else. Someone described it as “to be thought special and to get a reward. This means, of course, that somebody else in the relationship has to lose, to be overlooked, to feel slighted, to be treated as unimportant and get squashed. Iron Rule people feel good about themselves only when they are on top.” They know that they often have to hurt other people to be on top but they are willing to do it anyhow.
The Golden Rule, on the other hand, takes into account people’s feelings and what it may do to other people. This is the rule of what’s best for me, or whatever I am big enough to do – a power and a force. It is hinted at by one of the Old Testament prophets. The prophet Habakkuk lived at a time when the mighty and cruel Babylonians were about to invade his homeland. The Babylonians ran over other people like a steam roller, often squashing the blood out of them, the lives out of them. After treating them so cruelly, they would take what was left of the people away into a foreign land depriving them even of a homeland. In Habakkuk 1:11, the prophet pictures what the Babylonians were saying, “My eagle is my night,” they said. That idea “my god is my might,” my ability to do whatever I want is the philosophy we are talking about.
This is a picture that has been at the root of so many of the heartaches and headaches in human history. Some of the most obvious examples have been what civil rulers and military authorities have been willing to do to other people: Alexander the Great, for example, in his conquering all the land from Macedonia all away across to India. Visit a town that has been in the news even today, the town of Gaza in Palestine. When Alexander invaded that town he took the king of Gaza, a man by the name of Betis, the governor, and bored holes through his skull and tied on through those holes and dragged him to his death. There is the Iron Rule at its worst. Julius Caesar after the defeat of Pharmaces at Pontus has said in a rather famous inscription: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” That is what a lot of times happens on a far more personal level. We see, we conquer, we get our way.
Wayne Jackson described the results of the Iron Rule mindset like this: “Each lock on every door throughout the world is testimony to the Iron Rule. The penal institutions of the various nations are monuments to the rule of force. Every corrupt political official who manipulates his power for personal advantage lives by this system. Bully husbands and fathers who abuse their families are iron-rule devotees. Even those within the church, like Diotrophes of III John, who bludgeon others into submission, are apostles of this system of intimidation.” That is one way of conducting life. It is a poor way. It is destructive, but it is common.
The Silver Rule
The second approach to life has sometimes been called the Silver Rule. This rule finds its statement also in Old Testament sayings. In Psalm 15:3, for example, it describes this time of a person as one who “does no evil to his neighbor.” Of course, there are other statements thankfully in that Psalm, but just take that phrase. This is the approach that what happens in somebody else’s life, no matter how much it hurts, is no concern to me as long as I have not actively injured him, as long as I have not physically attacked him or inflicted evil upon him then I have no obligation to him. It has been called the “Golden rule without the gold.” Many writers have noted and have chronicled long-standing statements from various cultures which have given voice to the negative form of the Golden Rule, and that is what we mean by the Silver Rule.
I brought with me some examples provided by John Stott. He goes back to Confucius, the Chinese wise man, who is credited with having said, “Do not to others what you would not wish done to yourself.” It is close to the saying in Matthew 7:12 except it uses a “not” instead of saying “Do what you would that people would do to you.” The Stoics had a similar saying. There is a saying in the book of Tobit in the Old Testament Apocrypha which says, “Do not do to anyone what you yourself would hate.” Another Greek teacher had to say that “whatever makes you angry of others, then do not do to others.” A Jewish Rabbi named Hillel was asked one time to explain the law to someone while that other person stood on one leg. His rival Shammai had refused to give an answer to that question, but Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. This is the whole law; all the rest is only commentary.” Whatever you don’t want done, whatever makes you angry, whatever is hateful to you, then don’t do that to someone else. You may be thinking to yourself, “That’s a fine way to live. It is just as good as the Golden Rule.” But let me ask you to notice that all of these negative approaches to things that just tell us what not to do have the effect as someone said of “forbidding much but enjoining nothing.” One illustration is that these negative statements might have the effect of telling you not to steal my wallet. Don’t break into my office or my house or don’t lift out of my back pocket my wallet. Don’t do that to me because you wouldn’t want that done to you. But what if you found the wallet with no identification at all out on the parking lot at the mall? Would you then have any obligation to seek out the owner or would the philosophy become, “I didn’t cause him to lose this; finders keepers, losers weepers.
Bro. Mack Lyon in one of the Search programs told the story of the time he visited Long Island, NY, and he was speaking at a special event with a congregation in that area. When he got there he stayed with the preacher of that congregation and his young family. They told him while he was there that not too long previous to his visit, where they had been living they had suffered a house fire. Their house had caught on fire while they were gone to Bible study one Wednesday evening. Their neighbor lady, who had been a good neighbor for a long time, noticed it when the blaze first broke out, and she called out to her husband, “Call the fire department. The neighbor’s house is on fire.” He rudely told her that it was none of their business and he was not going to call. She ran to the phone as if to call, and he took the phone from her and forbade her to get involved. “We didn’t start that fire. This is not our business.” He was right! They hadn’t started the fire; they didn’t go set the blaze. It was not in any way their fault that it had happened. Maybe their favorite TV show was on; maybe they were tired; maybe they were afraid they would be questioned. But this fellow had not broken the Silver Rule. He had not done actively evil. But I think most of us can see the selfishness and the evil in his conduct.
The Golden Rule
There is the Iron Rule and then the Silver Rule (it’s not my problem rule of life), and then thankfully our Lord Jesus Christ introduced into human experience the Golden Rule. You can see the difference between the Golden Rule and the others in the Lord’s story of the Good Samaritan. T.B. Larimore years ago used this picture to illustrate this very same truth. He made the point that here is a traveler on the road up from Jericho who meets three different kinds of characters. There were first the robbers who practiced the Iron Rule. There are more of us than there is of him. He has something we want. Let’s take it. Then along come the priest and the Levite, practitioners of the Silver Rule. We didn’t do this to him. We have other important matters to take care of. Let us go on our way and not get involved. And then, thankfully, there is the Samaritan who comes along and practiced the Golden Rule. He hadn’t done this to this fellow. He has no obligation to this man in any legal sense, and yet he goes to him, dresses his wounds, takes him to the Inn, pays the bill, and sees to it that the fellow was taken care of.
Various writers have shown the difference between the Golden Rule and other approaches. F.F. Bruce in his commentary says, “The negative confines us to the region of justice; the positive takes us into the region of generosity or grace.” D.A. Carson wrote that “the positive is more telling than the negative for it speaks of the sins of omission as well as sins of commission. The goats in Matthew 25 would be acquitted under the negative form of the rule, but not under the form attributed to Jesus, which calls for active love.”
In fact, consider some of the characteristics of the rule as stated by Jesus. The first is that it is grounded in divine revelation. “This, Jesus says, “is the sum of the law and the prophets.” In other words, this kind of conduct goes on because someone knows something of who God is and how God would act. This person then, motivated by wanting to be like God, acts to be a blessing to other people, to be unselfish in it.
Notice next that this statement is universal in its application. The Lord meant for us to practice this with our families, with our neighbors, with our fellow church members, with the people we work with, at school, and he meant for us to do it on Monday or Thursday or Wednesday or whatever day it was. In all things whatever you wish that others would do for you, you do for them. Instead of trying to write down 746 rules for us to follow in life, the Lord states a great principle that we have to apply in all circumstances to the best of our ability. This certainly requires the taking of initiative or action on our part. Instead of us waiting unless somebody else’s life bumps into ours and requires some sort of response from us, we sort of go like the driver on an empty four-lane highway where nobody else is to be considered. Jesus requires that we act in the interests of others.
It calls for reason, moral sensitivity and responsibility on our part. One time I did a form of a lesson on The Golden Rule. We had a visitor present who came to me afterward and he said, “I don’t agree with any of what you just said.” I, with a smile, told him he wasn’t the first one and asked him where he disagreed with that. He said, “If I were a sinner and I was in good health, etc., I wouldn’t want anybody to bother me with the gospel.” My answer to him was that this statement by Jesus is set in the context of the other teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and that this assumes the responsibility of an individual, the moral sensitivity of an individual to know and to want to do the right thing, not the convenient thing for the other person.
J.W. McGarvy made the point that this Golden Rule is limited only by what is right and he explained that “what I could rightly or reasonably do is what I should wish to do for the other person.” His illustration was a parent with a child. Suppose the child only likes chocolate cake, no vegetables or anything else. Then the parent has to try, not to just do what the child wants, but what the child needs.
And then the Lord’s teaching is consistent here with every other aspect of his teaching in the New Testament. This is not saying “Ignore everything else,” but make this choice in light of all those things that Jesus had taught.
William Barclay in his little book on Matthew used an illustration that I think is helpful and touching. It has to do with a fellow who was a Secretary of War or at least worked in the war office in Great Britain. His name was W.H. Smith. “When Smith was at the War Office, his private secretary, Mr. Fleetwood Wilson, noticed that at the end of a week’s work, when his chief was preparing to leave for Greenlands on a Saturday afternoon, he used to pack a dispatch box with the papers he required to take with him for the weekend. That box would become fairly cumbersome, but he would carry it himself with him on his journey. So the secretary, Mr. Wilson, remarked to Smith that he would save much trouble for himself if he would do as was the practice of the other ministers and leave the papers to be put in an office pouch and then sent by post. Mr. Smith looked rather ashamed for just a moment and then looking up at his secretary said, “My dear Wilson, that fact is this: our postman who brings the letters from here to my place has plenty to carry. I watched him one morning coming up the approach with my heavy pouch in addition to his usual load, and I determined to save him as much as I could.’”
Mack Lyon observed the “what if” to this. “’What if’ everyone in the world got up in the morning resolved to practice the Golden Rule all day long with everybody they met – just to do to and for everybody what we would like everybody to do for us. A lot of husbands and wives would be reconciled and marriages would be saved by breakfast time. A lot of abused children would get a new lease on life. Neighbors would be talking over the back fence who haven’t spoken for years. Think of what would happen if employers treated their employees as they would like to be treated and the tables were turned then by the employees. And, what if the employees performed on the job what they would like their employees to do if they were the employers. We wouldn’t need labor unions and all the fusses that go into these relationships. Living costs would be cheaper because there would be no hidden costs like shop lifting. Taxes would be less because we wouldn’t need police cars cruising our neighborhoods and prisons to house criminals. We wouldn’t need a military force if everybody woke up in the morning resolved to live by the Golden Rule. There would be no more murders, no adultery, no thievery, no lying about one another, no envying or character assassination, no prejudice, racial, religious or otherwise.”
I know and you know that is never going to happen here. It is not because the Lord doesn’t want it to happen. It is because we are people needing to be redeemed. It takes a new heart to really practice the Golden Rule. Tasker in his commentary on Matthew makes the point that this verse, Matthew 7:12, is followed by verses 13 and 14 about the two ways. He says, “The ideals set before the disciple in this passage is a very high one. If he is to practice it, he must be prepared to travel the narrow way of personal commitment and self-renunciation so conspicuously trodden by Jesus himself.”
Am I living by the Iron Rule or the Silver Rule or the Golden Rule? Why not choose to try to travel with the Lord on the path he set for us in the use of the Golden Rule? Maybe you are here this morning ready to begin following him. If we can help you in obedience to the gospel, would you let us know while we stand and sing together?