If you are a good Christian at some point you have tried to do what Christians call witnessing. That is you have tried to either convert someone to Christianity or you have defended Christianity. If you have done that you have almost certainly heard someone say something like ‘all the great teachers taught the same thing. The same thing is what we call The Golden Rule. It is something that sounds informed but is really dismissive.
Saying that all the great teacher taught the same thing, sounds informed because the person is laying claim to knowing what all the great philosophers taught. It’s dismissive because they are claiming to know everything they need to know. They are wrong on both counts. There were many teachers who taught that the only rule people need follow is what in their own best interests. Lookup Brhaspati, Yang Zhu and Epicurus. They were all great teachers. We don’t know much about Brhaspati (India) and Yang Zhu (China). We only know about them because of what people opposed to their ideas wrote about them. We know more about Epicurus (Greece). His teachings led to Hedonism though he wasn’t a Hedonist. In fairness, these teachers may not get called great because you don’t need to be much of a teacher to teach people to do what they want to do anyway.
When people say things like ‘all the great teachers of behavior taught the same thing’ they mean ‘all the great teachers whose writings were preserved’. It’s a biased sample. There is a story that engineering professors like to use when teaching engineering. During the second world war the bomber command in Britain would inspect returning bombers for bullet holes. Their thought was that they could reinforce those places where statistically a plane was most likely to get hit. The problem was that they only had access to returning bombers. Planes that got shot down may have had bullet holes in different places. That’s an example of a biased set. Only teachers who taught the highest behavior had their teachings preserved because their students were motivated to preserve them.
Saying that all the great teachers taught a version of the Golden Rule is dismissive because the people saying it don’t intend on following it. There are a lot of ways to make the Golden Rule work in your favor and people use them all. The oldest written version of the Golden Rule comes from Egypt. That one is ‘do for others so they will do for you’. People call that the rule of reciprocity. Most people interpret the Golden Rule that way. They interpret it as ‘you do for me first’. That’s not very Golden. A near contemporary of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel said “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow man.” That’s a very low bar. The main problem with the Golden Rule even when people attempt to follow it with the best of intentions is that human nature over values the things we do for others compared to the things other people do for us.
A very good rule is ‘The more self-centered the person, the more they over value what they do for others and the more they under value what others do for them’. As a reforming narcissist you should trust me on this.
Jesus did not teach the Golden Rule. It’s not that he didn’t say the words. He did, and Matthew recorded it. What Jesus taught was to treat everyone as if they were God’s own sibling. He taught “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40. That is a much higher bar. All of Jesus’ other teachings re-enforce that behavior.
In the parable of the unforgiving servant (see Matthew 18) the servant who had the large debt forgiven acted the way most people interpret reciprocity. He thought himself a good person because he had lent money to fellow servant. He undervalued that his master had forgiven him. He probably justified it by thinking that his master had lots of money an forgiving the big debt didn’t cost him much. The unforgiving servant also, probably, justified putting his fellow servant in jail because it would not be good for society if people were allowed to not pay their debts. Jesus taught that this is unacceptable. Jesus taught that “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Luke 12:48.
Jesus did not teach the Golden Rule. A sad fact of human nature is that people do not like being taught. Jesus taught a lot. In some cases he taught people who did not want to be taught. That would be the Pharisees. He commanded his disciples to teach others. Ask yourself if you like being taught. None of us do. It implies that there is something wrong with us. Who likes that? You may be an exception. You are reading this in the hopes of learning something. But ask yourself this. If I say something you disagree with how do you feel? You feel something between uncomfortable to being attacked. That is human nature.
This is a better rule than Do to others as you would have them do to you. Treat everyone as if they are your own adult children. If you are a very mature person and like it when people try to correct your behavior and teach you things, then you would say that ‘Do to others…’ and ‘treat like your own adult children’ is the same rule. You’re right. Treat like adult children leaves less wriggle room. It also illuminates all of the other things that Jesus taught. What parent hasn’t visited their children in prison or fed them when they were hungry as in the parable in Matthew 25? Think of ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. What parent doesn’t want peace between their children and hasn’t tried hard to make that peace. Think of turn the other cheek. What parent hasn’t put up with a lot of crap for the sake of their children. On the other hand, what parent has corrected their child for their cheek slapping when they could and when they thought it could be a teaching moment? Read everything that Jesus taught as if it were instructions to a parent on how to treat their adult children and you will see what I mean.
Jesus did not teach reciprocity. He didn’t teach to do to others so that they will do for you. He didn’t teach to not do things to others that are despicable to you. Except for the very mature he didn’t teach ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. The best way of summing up what Jesus taught in a actionable rule is that Jesus taught us to treat others as if they are our own adult children. It’s a high bar. It’s hard to do. It takes a lot of motivation and it takes a lot of wisdom. Even the best of us don’t always know when to teach by giving and when to teach by words. It is what Jesus taught though.