It’s called the golden rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” A principle offered in every major religion in one form or another, it calls forth a certain amount of empathy for other people.
We teach it to our children so they can learn to be decent human beings who are considerate toward others. If Tommy punches Julie in the nose, we say, “Now Tommy, you wouldn’t like it if Julie punched you like that, would you?” Well, of course not. So we learn to give others the same consideration we would like them to give us.
But I’m not so sure that’s quite what Jesus intended when he said, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Not when you look at that verse in its biblical context. It seems to be not so much a guideline for how to get along with other people as a description of what it means to live a way of life that manifests the love of God.
The way we love is usually such a poor imitation of the way God loves. We may love out of guilt, because we feel crummy if we don’t. Or we may love out of obligation, because we know it’s the right thing to do. Or perhaps we love as the result of an intellectual exercise. Like the Christian who looks on someone who is hungry and thinks about the passage where Jesus says, “I was hungry and you fed me.... As you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” And they'll say, "I need to think of this person as I would think of Jesus, and how would I treat Jesus?” That’s love as an intellectual exercise.
Mother Teresa was known to say on many occasions that she saw Jesus in every human being, no matter how unlovable that person might have been. She didn’t have to go through the intellectual exercise and decide to love every time she encountered a person who was difficult to love. She didn’t have to convince herself that somehow the way she treated that person was like the way she would treat Jesus. That person wasn’t like Jesus to her. That person was Jesus. When she saw the person, she saw Jesus.
Understanding the difference is a key to understanding what Jesus meant when he said, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” If we have to filter this through an intellectual exercise that takes us to the point of considering how we might like to be treated by others and then offering that same treatment to them, we’re not quite there yet. The intent of doing unto others as you would have them do to you is not to treat others the way you would like them to treat you. The intent is to love others because in doing so you are loving yourself. That is to say that when you love others, you are actually loving yourself because you are connected. They are not like you. They are you. The same love of God that fills you to overflowing fills them to overflowing and it all spills together into one big sea of love. We’re a part of that. So that whatever we do for another, we do for ourselves.
Back when my kids were living with me, we all had a great love for chocolate éclairs. Sometimes I would go to the bakery and pick one up for each of us and we’d all indulge in ecstasy. And sometimes I’d just want to have an éclair for myself. Especially if I was going through a stressful day and I had to do something I hated, I’d pick myself up an éclair and have it waiting for me in the fridge when I got home, as a reward. Of course, when I did that I had to be sure to hide the éclair so neither of the kids saw it or it wouldn’t be there by the time I got home. And when it came time to eat it, I’d have to sneak off someplace by myself so I wouldn’t have to share it.
Well, it was one of those times. I was on my way home after a grueling day and I knew there was an éclair in the fridge waiting for me with my name on it.
I arrived home to find my daughter frazzled. She clearly had been crying. We sat at the kitchen table and she told me about a terrible disappointment that day in school that broke her heart. After we talked I asked, “Gretchen, would a chocolate éclair help?”
She smiled broadly. “A chocolate éclair always helps.”
I went to the fridge and got the éclair I had hidden away and presented it to her. “Well, I just happen to have one right here. Enjoy!”
I handed her a fork and watched while she ate my éclair. And the weirdest thing happened. I could actually taste that éclair in my mouth while Gretchen ate it. And it tasted soooo good.
Had that been a sacrifice? Perhaps it appeared that way to someone on the outside. But from the inside, it was no sacrifice at all. In fact, I couldn’t ever remember that any éclair I had ever eaten in my life tasted as good as that one.
We have this idea of loving the way Jesus loved as being connected to sacrifice. And, from the outside, that’s what it looks like. It’s a sacrifice to give yourself in love. But from the inside, that’s not how it looks at all. Because when you truly love another, you are truly loving yourself. That’s why Jesus can say that we’re blessed when we become poor for the sake of the poor, when we hunger for the sake of the hungry, when we weep with those who weep. It may seem like a sacrifice for those who don’t get it, but for those who are in tune with the love of God and the way it works, there is no sacrifice. “Rejoice on that day and leap for joy,” Jesus says. When you offer yourself in love, there is no sacrifice. Only joy. It’s the sort of thing Jesus was talking about when he revealed that the secret to life that eludes so many people is quite simply this: If you give your life away, you’ll receive more than you could ever imagine. And if you hoard your life and keep it all to yourself, that’s a sure fire way to lose everything.