So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
Even the most secular among us would embrace this teaching, right? Almost everyone desires to live in a benevolent society marked by the reality of this simple biblical principle. Yet this teaching is at complete odds with how the world operates and how believers often behave.
I live with my family in northern Italy. Trying to live out this Royal Law definitely puts us at odds with Italian culture. Here, the rule is return “good for good” and “evil for evil.” Now there are positive ways in which this plays out in Italian society—hospitality, for example. It is a social obligation to reciprocate hospitable kindness. It is not just appropriate, it is expected. It is a conviction that runs in their blood, and we benefit by experiencing some wonderful meals as a result.
However, if you have read anything about Italy in recent months, you have seen that the country is paralyzed politically, economically, and socially. Why? It is my observation that one of the biggest contributors to Italy’s problems is the conviction that you do not have to do your part until another does his part. This is returning “evil for evil.” I am justified in not following the rules until “they” start following the rules. One business refuses to pay another business until they are paid by yet another, meanwhile that business is waiting to be paid by another—and on and on. Everyone sees that the system doesn’t work, but they refuse to change their own behavior to fix it.
Considerably less than 1% of Northern Italians profess faith in Christ as the Son of God and as the only way to know God. As a result, there are few people who care about living according to biblical standards. They are convinced—and not without reason—that if they do what is right, they will become victims. Obviously, as followers of Christ, we are trying to avoid adopting this standard of returning “evil for evil” and using other people’s irresponsibility as an excuse to be irresponsible. One would think that this type of behavior would be respected. However, I was recently told that I was a fool because I paid a bill that I rightfully needed to pay. The person who called me a fool wanted me to use nonpayment as a weapon to wield power over the other party. I was told that I didn’t understand how Italy worked. Ironically, I believe this is why Italy does not work.
As believers we understand the idea that we are not supposed to return “evil for evil.” However, I fear that we often behave as if we are only obligated to do good to those that deserve it, or who have shown goodness to us. It seems that we do not understand that our doing good to others is not conditional. Why are we supposed to treat someone else in a way that we want to be treated? This passage does not say treat others that agree with you the way you want to be treated. It does not say treat those deserving of goodness the way you would like to be treated. It does not say treat the godly the way you would like to be treated. We are simply supposed to treat others the way we ourselves would like to be treated. Think about the ungodly around you. How did Christ treat the prostitutes—with disdain? Harsh words? Stronger legislation? If followers of Christ would put this principle into practice, while the world may think we are fools, they will not think we are unloving, ungracious, or ungodly. Putting this principle into practice will put you at odds with the world—even against Christian culture at times. Living this out will mean you have entered in that narrow gate and are traveling on that difficult path. There will be times when it will be hard to know how to show love to someone who is full of hate. It will be challenging to know how to show grace to someone who is embracing sin. Often the challenge will be simply to have the desire to do these things. However, the benefit of traveling that path will lead you to life as Matthew 7:14 promises, and maybe inspire others to follow.