“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
One day a Rabbi turned to his students and asked them: “When can one know that the night has ended and the day has begun?”
His students thought for a moment, and then one raised a hand. “Rabbi, is it at the moment when you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog?”
“No!” said the Rabbi, “That isn't it!”
“Is it,” asked another, “when you can see the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree?” “No, that's not it, either.” He glanced around his students and saw no more hands raised.
“Students, one knows the night has ended when you can look at a face never before seen and recognize the stranger as a brother or sister. Until that moment, no matter how bright the day, it is still the night.”
This story reminds me that, when we use the Rabbi's definition, we find that many of us live in the night much of our lives. It appears that we are trained, from the time we are very young children, not to recognize brothers or sisters, but rather to see labels: Male or Female / Black or White / Liberal or Conservative / Friend or Enemy / Us or Them. From childhood we come to know whom to protect and whom to threaten, whom to care for and whom to ignore. We become, in our own way, determined guardians of the night.
That is why Jesus’ words, widely recognized as the Golden Rule, are so very important. For here Jesus extols his listeners to recognize that at the very core of what it means to be a child of God is to respect others well. By challenging us to treat others as we would like to be treated, Jesus requires us to consider mindfully what is most important to God, as well as what is most important to us.
Commentators are quick to point out that the Golden Rule is often found in negative form. Best known is the version ascribed to Hillel, the greatest of first-century rabbis: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; this is the whole Torah, all else is interpretation.” Jesus’ form of the Golden Rule, however, is overtly positive. It requires action. Jesus never tired of teaching that the essence of righteousness is the constructive doing of good—not the negative avoidance of sin.
To live in the light of this truth requires us to reflect upon how we ourselves wish to be treated. It asks that we think about our place in the world. Are we worthy of love, of forgiveness, of kindness? Do we deserve to be treated with respect? How we respond to these most basic questions will, in large part, determine how we will treat others.
Perhaps Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the New Testament, The Message, best expresses the power and positive force of this passage:
“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.”
So much of Jesus’ energy and ministry was expended upon loving people well. As His followers, we would no doubt be best advised to follow in His footsteps. Let us grab the initiative and never tire of treating others well. And, as we do so, may we remember that when we are on the path of accepting ourselves, we are well on the path of being able to accept others.
We no longer need to be guardians of the night.