Toorak Uniting Church

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The Law of Reciprocity: What goes around comes around…

Matthew 7: 1 – 12
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
23 March 2014

The self-help guru Wayne Dyer says, "When you judge someone, you don't define them. You define yourself." So, "Judge not lest you be judged; for in the same way that you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, the same measure will be used on you." That is a form of what we call reciprocity – what goes around comes around. And yet we make judgments all the time, often comparing ourselves with others; better, worse; richer, poorer; more beautiful, less beautiful, and so forth. It seems that the only way we know who we are is by making a comparison with someone else. But that is not always very helpful. A better way is to see yourself in the other person. And recognize that they are being and acting from reasons unknown to you or me.

Judging Others
Now, we are still in the Sermon on the Mount. And I hope it has become quite obvious that this is a collection of sayings of Jesus and not a crafted sermon as we know it. There is hardly a topic of Christian faith that isn’t touched on in this "sermon." And its importance in the Christian canon is largely because of the scope of these teachings. I think it has become clear, as we have sat on the mountain with the disciples, that these are not easy answers to simple questions. They may be presented as practical ways to live the Christian life, but the sayings require not only interpretation, but a "living into" them and a community in which they can be practised. And the saying noted earlier, Judge not lest you be judged, is an example of this.

The Speck and Plank
Some of our scholars and preachers have robbed us of the humour that we find in the Gospels. Here in this passage is an imaginary image of seeing the faults in others but not in ourselves. "Let me take the speck out of your eye. No, don’t worry about the plank in my own eye. I can look after that." Of course it is meant to be ridiculous to get your attention. So the author takes these words and offers a visual image. It is often said that we react to the faults we see in others because they are the same defects we observe in ourselves, but try to keep them hidden.

In the first century AD, the philosopher Epictetus (born in Phrygia, now Turkey, in about 55 AD) said, "When you are offended at any person's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger." On a lighter note, but still on the theme of faults and judgements, it is said that a man marries a woman hoping she won’t change and a woman marries a man convinced that she can change him. So the story is told of the young bride who is nervous about her trip down the aisle and the beginning of the marriage service. The helpful minister says to the bride, "Look, it’s quite simple, all you have to remember is the aisle, the altar and the hymn." So the bride heads off down the aisle on her father’s arm saying to herself, "I’ll alter him….I’ll alter him….." I doubt that there is any scientific evidence behind that observation!

But judging is a kind of desire to change a person, to make them more like me. And we know it doesn’t work. The author of this gospel will return to this theme a little later with a universal saying found in most religions and cultures. But before that the focus shifts sideways to consider the attitude one should have in living the faithful life.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

It is a difficult passage isn’t it? At one level it seems too simplistic and yet at another, it is about a way of life that is focused and intentional. I think it begs the question, "What am I asking for, what am I seeking and what door am I knocking on?" It could be like the man who prays to God every night that he might win the lottery. He prays and prays and then one night he says, "I don’t understand it God, I keep asking to win the lottery and nothing happens." To which he hears a voice from heaven say, "I can’t do much if you don’t buy a ticket!"

The centre of this saying, and the centre of the Sermon on the Mount, is the fundamental truth that discerning what we might call the will of God and then locating oneself within that is what living the Christian life is all about. No, I don’t think that just asking for whatever you want will bring it into your life. There was a book and video a few years back called "The Secret." It promoted the notion that the Universe wants you to have whatever your heart desires. I think it was called the "law of attraction." I don’t think that that is what is being promoted in this passage. Rather it is the deep truth that our spiritual life is shaped and formed by the practices of compassion, gratitude, hospitality, prayer, contemplation, kindness and generosity, just to name a few, and then from that formation we have a sense of what to ask for; we know what to seek and we know which door to knock on.

I suppose this passage, like the previous words about judgement, is still in some sense talking about reciprocity: the relationship between asking and receiving; between seeking and finding. Once we have discerned, then we will be in the right place to be receptive to what we have been asking.

The Law of Reciprocity - what goes around comes around

Matthew’s gospel goes on to say:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

There is a truth in this aphorism. If you treat people with respect you will get respect in return… Well, let’s say mostly. But even regardless of the outcome for you and me, nevertheless, this is a full, whole and healthy way to live your life.

This is often called the Golden Rule and I said it was found in most religions and cultures. I have a Norman Rockwell print on the wall in my office which shows the faces of people from around the world with the words at the bottom of the painting, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Here is how it is expressed in other religions and cultures as an ethic of reciprocity. It is often regarded as the most concise and general principle of ethics.

"You shall love your neighbour as yourself."

"Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do so to them."

"Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself."

"A person should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated."

"Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence."

"One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire."

"Comparing oneself to others in such terms as ‘Just as I am so are they, just as they are so am I.’"

African Traditional Religions - a proverb from Nigeria:
"One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts."

I like the last one. But again, as with asking and receiving, the golden rule only works when there is discernment about how it applies in my life and in this context. Then it has the power to change and transform our lives.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

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