What the Golden Rule can teach us about rightly-ordered love

Dr. Michel Therrien

The very first principle of the moral life is that we are to do good and avoid evil. Saintly minds have argued over the centuries that so long as a person understands the meaning of this statement, it is a self-evident truth with which no reasonable person can disagree. Of course, the challenge is, what is good and what is evil? This is a question that is increasingly difficult to answer today.

Jesus explains that the very first principle by which we begin to grasp the difference between good and evil is what we have conventionally come to know as the golden rule. We know this commandment in two forms: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” or “whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Mt 22:39; Mt 7:12). In either case the proper love of self is the foundation for knowing how to treat others. 

Self-Love as Self-Gift

The difficulty with the golden rule, however, is that if we do not have a proper sense of self-love, our determination of how we ought to treat others will be skewed. In other words, if self-love is self-seeking, our conscience will lead us to false judgments regarding love of neighbor. Thus, the more self-referential one becomes, the less able one can truly love their neighbor. 

For this reason, the proper love of self depends upon the love of God and our obedience to his commandments. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (Mt 22:37-38). The implication is that by loving God above all, a person will perceive how best to love their neighbor since self-love will be rooted in the love of God. 

Because of the importance of the Golden Rule to moral integrity, Jesus clarifies its meaning in his Last Supper discourse:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13:34). What Jesus models throughout his life is a form of self-love whereby he offers himself as a gift and sacrifice to humanity—to all of us—on behalf of his love for his Father. In other words, the best way to love self is to offer oneself in service to neighbor, as illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

This is what Christians mean by charity, or in Greek, Agape. Jesus tells us that true love is not so much about what we desire or find attractive, but rather about offering our self to others in affirmation of human dignity.  ⊲

Does Love Have No Limits?

Today, we often hear people speak about “unconditional love.” This is how Jesus’ teaching is interpreted. The argument basically states that God loves us “unconditionally,” no matter what. The implication here is that Jesus’s love is entirely inclusive of everyone. After, all, Jesus associated with and called the social outcasts and marginalized to be his disciples. This is true and no one can dispute this. Divine love does not discriminate on the level of human dignity. 

However, this does not mean that Jesus accepted every form of behavior or every human intention. While Jesus indeed loves every person—he died for all—to remain in his love, He commands us to follow the “narrow way,” which he explains in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7). In other words, God does not withhold his love from anyone. However, He also does not reconcile himself with sin. He commands us to be perfect as His heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48).

The greatest illustration of the point is the story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). Jesus did not condemn her, but he also commanded her to sin no more. Jesus called the woman into covenant fellowship with him, but at the same time, called her to leave behind her sinful ways. Jesus’s love was not legalistic or punitive, but neither was it an accommodation to sin. His love is best understood as a transformative call to conversion.

One of the biggest challenges to the Christian notion of love today is the idea that we are not to judge. Jesus clearly teaches us not to judge others, lest we ourselves be judged (Mt 7:1-3). We are also to forgive others that wrong us and be merciful (Mt 6:14-15; Lk 6:36). Somehow not judging others has come to mean that we are not allowed to make moral judgments, especially when it comes to human sexuality. It ought to be obvious, however, that we cannot forgive an offense or show mercy toward another’s faults if we are not allowed to make any moral judgments. How would we know to forgive if we do not know we have been wronged?

The proper way to understand Jesus’ teaching here is to distinguish between making a judgment about the moral character of an action and condemning others in our hearts because of their sin. Christian love must always affirm the dignity of a person, and so embrace him or her—to love our enemies for example—but Christian charity can never embrace sinful behavior as acceptable to God. It is simply false to suggest that if I make a moral judgment, I am therefore not loving the other person whose actions are morally wrong.

Today we can observe many efforts to pressure us to not merely tolerate but to accept behavior and lifestyles incompatible with Jesus’ teaching in the name of inclusivity—even among Christians who clearly relativize Jesus’ teaching, as though Christians need to get with the times. For example, the slogan “love is love” and the demand for non-discriminatory laws more inclusive of various expressions of sexuality are often defended by an appeal to inclusivity and “unconditional love.”   

The problem is that this argument fails to distinguish between the person, whom we are commanded to love, and a set of behaviors that we cannot accept because they are incompatible with Jesus’ teaching about the dignity of the human person. 

The love of neighbor is God’s command to affirm the dignity of others through a gift of self. Jesus offers himself to us from the cross, not to gloss over sin, but to call the sinner to repentance. The command to love is not a license to disregard the moral law on account of the dignity of the sinner. To the contrary, according to Jesus’ example, the love of neighbor demands that, for the sake of human dignity, we call others to conversion and help others live according to their true dignity. 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!