Jesus was born into a world that was filled with violence, bitterness, pride, and hatred. In these respects, to a world not all that different from today. He didn’t have the noble birth the Jewish people expected for their Messiah or savior. They had expected a ruler to reign over others. Instead, Jesus led by serving others. Despite his humble birth and life, he brought new hope for the future of humanity.
The Jewish people had attempted to live by adherence to the “Laws or the Prophets”—a set of strict dos and don’ts. Jesus preached a simple gospel of love, compassion, and forgiveness. On the occasion of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6), he said “Do not think I have come to abolish the Laws or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” He explained that fulfilling the Laws required going beyond simply obeying a set of rules or commandments. He said, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you certainly will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus gave a number of specific examples to make his point. With respect to the law “You shall not murder,” Jesus said, not only must we not kill but we must also avoid getting angry or holding grudges. With respect to the law “You shall not commit adultery,” he said we must avoid even looking at another person with “lust” in our hearts. The Jewish law allowed a man to divorce his wife, but Jesus said “Divorce makes her the victim of adultery.” The law was “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.” Jesus said, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” The law was, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
After listing a number of other examples, Jesus concluded with a profound statement that summarized everything else he had said regarding “fulfilling” the Laws. He said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” On another occasion, Jesus was asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22 35-40).
Jesus taught us that just following the “letter of the law” is not enough—be it religious or secular law. We must also follow the “spirit of the law” in order to fulfill the law. And most important, He said the spirit of the law can be summed up with one simple statement” “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” This simple commandment certainly was not new. It had been included in Jewish teaching in the Old Testament. It is a part of virtually every major religion and every enduring secular philosophy in the world. It is widely known as the Golden Rule. What was new is that Jesus was telling the Jewish people that trying to obey a strict religious dogma hadn’t worked, wasn’t working, and wasn’t going to work. To fulfill the spirit of the law, they simply needed to “treat other people as they would like to be treated.” This was the new hope for the Jewish people and for the future of humanity.
This teaching is just as relevant today as it was when he delivered in the Sermon on the Mount. The world today is still filled with violence, bitterness, pride, and hatred. Global society is dominated by religious and secular fundamentalists who strive to live by the letter of “their” law, with little regard for the spirit of “the” Law. They are attempting to live by strict sets of rules or standards while condemning others who choose to live differently. They would like others to respect their beliefs but have no respect or tolerance for others’ beliefs.
The Golden Rule is rooted in empathy: an ability to understand and share the feelings of others. We can’t simply say “If I were in their situation today, I would like to be treated in a certain way”—because we are not them. We must first try to exchange our feelings for theirs, considering their situation at birth, their early nurturing or lack thereof, their education or indoctrination, and their opportunities and life experiences–or lack thereof. We must try to share the feelings of others in deciding how we treat others because that is what we would like for them to do in deciding how they treat us.
It isn’t easy to understand and share the feelings of others. However, a good start is to look for the goodness in others, because Jesus said we should “love our neighbors as ourselves,” and love begins with a belief in goodness. Even if we don’t fully understand why others think and act as they do, we know we would like others to see the goodness in us. We can also treat others with compassion and respect, regardless of whether we understand them. We can forgive others because we too need forgiveness. We would like to be treated with kindness, even by those who don’t fully understand us. With practice, we can learn to be more empathetic.
This is the essence of all religions and philosophies. Jesus was telling us that we don’t need to be religious scholars or philosophers to know how we should live our lives. Fundamentalists throughout history have tried and failed to live by sets of religious or secular laws or rules. At best, laws and rules can only set minimums of socially acceptable behavior. For Christians in particular, Christmas should be a time to celebrate because Jesus taught us a Christian lifestyle can be summed up in one simple obligation: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”