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I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 7, and follow along as I read verse 12, which is one of the most important verses in scripture:
"In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
In the film Pay It Forward (2000), Young Trevor McKinney is troubled by his mother's alcoholism and by fears of his abusive but absent father. Trevor is intrigued by an assignment from his new social studies teacher, Mr. Simonet. The assignment is to come up with an idea to change the world. Trevor’s responds that we ought to change the way we do favors. Whenever someone does something good to us or for us, we do not repay them; instead, we do good deeds for three other people. We do not pay it back, we pay it forward. Trevor's efforts to make good on his idea bring a revolution not only in the lives of himself, his mother and his physically and emotionally scarred teacher, but in the lives of an ever-widening circle of people completely unknown to him.
“Pay It Forward” is an expression of Matthew 7:12, which verse is commonly called the Golden Rule. “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” Scholars call it the Ethic of Reciprocity, the concept that we should treat others the way we want to be treated.
Sometimes the Golden Rule is stated negatively. Hillel and Shammai were two famous rabbis who lived in the Holy Land a generation before Jesus. According to the Talmud, A certain heathen came to Shammai and said to him, "I will convert to Judaism if you can you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." But Shammai pushed him away with his staff. Thereupon the heathen went to Hillel, and made the same offer. Hillel said to him, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and learn." [Shabbat 31a]
Hillel’s teaching would have been known in Jesus’ time. It was the kind of thing that every Jew had heard and probably even repeated. So Jesus takes a familiar saying and turns it around, and states it positively. At first glance, you might think that Hillel and Jesus said much the same thing, but in fact there is a big psychological difference between “Do not do to others what you do not want done to you” and “Do to others what you do want done to you.”
Let us say that a person was desperately ill and lapsed into a coma. This person was in a coma for six months and finally she died. At the funeral, if the preacher followed Hillel’s version of the Golden Rule, he could say, “For the last six months of her life, she was a great woman. She never stole, she never lied, she never once lashed out in anger. She did not do unto others what she did not want done unto herself.”
Of course, she did not do anything at all, but that is beside the question. You see then that if we use only negative ethical propositions, if we dwell on only what we should not do, a person in a coma becomes a great figure of righteousness. If we have only negative ethics, we can be passive; we can pretend to be a vegetable, and still be good.
But Jesus is not going to let us do that. He requires us to take the initiative. If their flat tire needs fixing, fix it. If their leaves need raking, rake them. Jesus demands action. And failure to act is a sin.
Margaret E. Sangster our failures to act in her poem, “The Sin of Omission.”
It isn’t the thing you do, dear,
It’s the thing you leave undone
That gives you a bit of heartache
At the setting of the sun.
The tender word forgotten,
The letter you did not write,
The flowers you did not send, dear,
Are your haunting ghosts at night.
The stone you might have lifted
Out of a brother’s way;
The bit of heartsome counsel
You were hurried too much to say;
The loving touch of the hand, dear,
The gentle, winning tone
Which you had no time nor thought for
With troubles enough of your own.
Clearly, in her poem, Sangster emphasizes that Jesus calls us to be involved with each other. Jesus says I do not need to give you volumes of rules and regulations to govern your conduct. Just put yourself in the other person’s place and figure out what you would want done, and do it.
For example, I am asked to pray for a person in the nursing home. This person’s health is so bad that I know that there is no possibility that they can ever get any better. Their only prospect is to lie there unable to get out of bed, barely able to communicate, unable to do even the basic necessities of life. What am I to pray? Well, I know if I was in that person’s place, what I would want. I would want death, an end to my suffering, and that is what I should pray for.
Take another example. A child wants another piece of candy when you know that they have already had too much candy. This is a little more complicated perhaps, but putting yourself in that child’s place means acting for that child’s best interest. No matter what the child asks for, that child trusts you as an adult to act in the best way possible toward him or her. In this case, that means saying NO more candy.
Still another example. If the USA were invaded by a powerful enemy, and that enemy stationed hundreds of thousands of troops in our country, even if we disliked the former government, we would still feel resentment toward our conquerors. We would feel it a patriotic duty to oppose them, however we could. Thus if we put ourselves in the place of the ordinary Iraqi civilian, we are not surprised that he resents, even hates, our presence in his country.
Primarily, Jesus expects us to apply the golden rule personally. The next time a person is criticizing you, raking you over the coals, putting you down, do not react with your own anger. That is our usual way of doing things. They say, “You did so and so, you rotten scum of the earth.” You reply, “Well, you did thus and thus, you are a worse person than I am.” But Jesus says, do not act like that. When you are on the receiving end of another person’s anger, back off a space and do a little investigation and find out why they are angry. This is putting yourself in their place. Find out their point of view and then ask yourself from their point of view do they have the right to be angry with me. This does not mean that you have to be servile or give in to them necessarily, but even if you think you are right you might want to say, “I see where you are coming from, and I understand that from your point of view what I did or said seems wrong, but you have to understand that from my point of view it does not seem that way,” and then you could go ahead and make your case for your actions.
But you do not just react to anger with anger. That is what Jesus is saying. Understand the other person’s concern, and then perhaps both of you can move to some sort of mutual understanding.
Now this is not easy, but this is an ethic that can change the world. It is an ethic begins with us where we are. Jesus calls us to do to others what you would have them to do you. Do not wait for them to do something for you. Take the initiative.
You want to be forgiven? Forgive!
You need affirmation? Affirm!
You feel hurt, wounded, broken and could stand a gentle touch? Be gentle with others!
You appreciate tact? Be tactful!
You enjoy a compliment? Compliment others!
Let us conclude then, in the movie Pay It Forward, people first needed to have something done for them by someone else before they passed a good deed along. That is not all that different from our relationship to God. God sent His son, Jesus Christ, to die for us – to do something for us that we could never do – that is be cleansed of our sins. God demonstrated the ultimate love, and now God asks us to “pay it forward.” Do to others what you would have them do to you.” Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 03/21/05