Do To Others Whatever You Would Have them Do to You

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples to “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.” Although Jesus describes this teaching as “the Law and the Prophets,” the Jewish formulation (via Hillel) is actually slightly different. It teaches: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.”

How are those two different?

A simple way to appreciate the difference is to consider the difference in the answer to two questions. First, based on the Jewish formulation: What do I not want others to do to me; what in the behavior of others towards me make me unhappy? Second, based on the Gospel formulation: how do I like others to treat me; what in the behavior of others towards me makes me happy?

The first question highlights the fact that the original formulation seems to function more as a check on bad behavior more than an encouragement of positive behavior. E.g. answering the first by saying, “I don’t like it when others are nasty to me,” discourages me from nasty behavior.

However, asking the question in the positive sense has a much different effect in term so encouraging virtuous behavior. Answering the second, e.g. by saying, “I’m really touched when someone does something unexpectedly kind for me,” that has the potential to impel one to affirmatively look for some opportunity to do some gratuitous unexpectedly nice act for another that I might not otherwise have thought to do.

I think the slight difference in phrasing is meaningful and that, as he so often does, Jesus ups the ante, so to speak, demanding more of his disciples – and therefore of us – than did the old law.