Matthew 7:12. So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets.
With these words He concludes the teaching He has been giving in these three chapters, and wraps it all up in a little package where it can all be found. Thus everyone can put it in his bosom and keep it; it is as if He were saying: “Would you like to know what I have been preaching, and what Moses and all the Prophets teach you? I shall tell it to you so briefly and put it in such a way that you dare not complain about its being too long or too hard to remember.” This is the kind of sermon that can be expanded or contracted; from it all teaching and preaching go forth and are broadcast, and here they come back together. How could it be put more succinctly and clearly than in these words? The trouble is that the world and our old Adam refuse to let us ponder what He says and measure our lives against the standard of this teaching. We let it go in one ear and out the other. If we always measured our lives and actions against this standard, we would not be so coarse and heedless in what we do, but we would always have enough to do. We could become our own teachers, teaching ourselves what we ought to do; and we would not have to chase after holy lives and holy works, nor would we need many lawyers and law books. This is stated briefly and learned easily, if we only were diligent and serious in acting and living according to it.
Let me illustrate it with a somewhat crude example. Surely there is no one who would enjoy being robbed; if he asks his own heart about this, he has to say that he really would not enjoy it at all. Now, why does he fail to draw the conclusion that he should treat others the way he wants to be treated? At a market, you see everyone marking up his prices as high as he pleases, asking 30 pfennigs for something that is not worth 10. If you ask him, “Friend, would you want to be treated that way?” he must be honest and reasonable enough to say: “I would be willing to pay for it what its market value is and what would be reasonable and proper, so that I am not overcharged.” There, you see, your heart is telling you honestly how you would like to be treated. And your conscience is arguing that you should treat others the same way; it can teach you well about your relations with your neighbor in buying and selling and all kinds of business, all things belonging to the Seventh Commandment (Ex. 20:15): “You shall not steal.”
It is the same with the other Commandments. If you have a wife, a daughter, or a maid, you would not want her to be corrupted or to acquire a bad reputation. You want everyone to respect her, to treat her well, and to speak the best about her. Then why are you so perverse that you yearn for someone else’s wife and want to corrupt her yourself? Why do you not help to improve her reputation, instead of finding pleasure in talking behind her back and slandering her? Similarly, you would not want anyone to do you injury or harm, to malign you, or to do anything like that. Then why do you yourself violate the rule and standard that you demand of others and want them to keep? How can you judge, criticize, and condemn someone else if he does not treat you that way? Why do you refuse to obey your own rule? Go through all the commandments of the Second Table this way, and you will find that this is really the summary of all possible sermons, as He Himself says here. Thus this is properly termed a short sermon. But on the other hand, if it were expanded through all the details it implies, it is such a long sermon that it would be endless, since the things that will be done on earth until the Last Day are innumerable. It takes a good teacher to condense and summarize such a long-drawn-out sermon in such a way that everyone can carry it home with him, be reminded of it daily, and see what is missing in his whole life; for he has it written in his own heart, in fact, in his whole life and activity, as we shall hear in more detail.
I am convinced, moreover, that it would be influential and productive of fruit if we only got into the habit of remembering it and were not so lazy and inattentive. I do not regard anyone as so coarse or so evil that he would shirk this or be offended at it if he really kept it in mind. It was certainly clever of Christ to state it this way. The only example He sets up is ourselves, and He makes this as intimate as possible by applying it to our heart, our body and life, and all our members. No one has to travel far to get it, or devote much trouble or expense to it. The book is laid into your own bosom, and it is so clear that you do not need glasses to understand Moses and the Law. Thus you are your own Bible, your own teacher, your own theologian, and your own preacher. The way He directs you, you only need one look at them to find out how the book pervades all your works and words and thoughts, your heart and body and soul. Just guide yourself by this, and you will be more wise and learned than all the skill and all the books of the lawyers.
To take a crude example again: If you are a manual laborer, you find that the Bible has been put into your workshop, into your hand, into your heart. It teaches and preaches how you should treat your neighbor. Just look at your tools—at your needle or thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardstick or measure—and you will read this statement inscribed on them. Everywhere you look, it stares at you. Nothing that you handle every day is so tiny that it does not continually tell you this, if you will only listen. Indeed, there is no shortage of preaching. You have as many preachers as you have transactions, goods, tools, and other equipment in your house and home. All this is eontinually crying out to you: “Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.” In this way, you see, this teaching would be inscribed everywhere we look, and engraved upon our entire life, if we only had ears willing to hear it and eyes willing to see it. It is being presented to us in such abundance that no one can give the excuse that he did not know it or that it was not announced and preached to him often enough. But we are like the vipers, which stop up their ears and become deaf when someone tries to trap them.16 We refuse to see or hear what is inscribed on our own heart and thoughts, and we plunge in recklessly: “Ha! What do I care about somebody else? I may do business with my own possessions as I please, and sell them for as much as I can get for them. Who is going to stop me?” That is what Squire Skinflint and Squire Squeeze17 do at the market. If someone rebukes and threatens them from the Word of God, they simply laugh and mock and become firmer in their wickedness. But we are not preaching to such people, and neither is Christ. He wants to have nothing to do with them and despises them as much as they do Him. He will let them go to the devil, so that He and they will have nothing further to do with each other.
Those who want to be pious, who fear God, and who think about how to live and behave, must know that they simply have no right to do business with their property and manage it as they please, as though they themselves were the lords of all. They have the obligation to carry on their business in a proper and orderly way; this is why there is territorial and civil law. That is how everyone would want his neighbor to treat him; therefore he should also treat his neighbor that way, taking and offering only good merchandise. Christ means this commandment seriously, and He will not let it be made free or optional, as though one could obey it or disobey it with impunity. He will enforce it, too, however much the world may take it as an insult and despise it. If you do not obey it, He will deal with you according to your own standard and judgment, and it will strike you in your house and home. You will have no blessing from what you have acquired in disobedience to this teaching, but you and your children will have only trouble and sorrow. He wants His commandment to be kept; otherwise you will have neither property nor good fortune.
In the second place, Christ not only makes this so intimate, as we have said, that we have to see it in everything we look at, He also portrays it in such a way that everyone has to blush in shame over himself. There is no one who enjoys doing something wrong when other people can see it. No one dares to sin publicly, in the presence of people, with the same freedom as he does privately, where no one can see him. So Christ intends here to appoint us as our own witnesses and to make us afraid of ourselves. Then if we do something wrong, our conscience will stand up against us with this commandment, as an eternal witness, and say: “Look here, what are you doing? According to the usual fair-business practice, you ought to put such and such a price on this. But you are putting on a much higher price. Or the way you are debasing and misrepresenting this merchandise, you would not want to have someone else sell you something like that.” How it would annoy you if someone charged you a gulden for something barely worth ten groschen! If you had one drop of honest blood in your body, you would have to be ashamed of yourself. If someone else acted this way, you would call him a thief and a villain. Then why are you not ashamed of yourself, since it is not someone else but yourself who has to make this accusation, and you are condemned by your own conscience? This may be all right for a brazen hardhead, who has no sense of shame before the people or before himself, much less before God. But when someone else treats you that way you can quickly exclaim: “Is it not a sin and a shame and a clever18 way of robbing my wallet?” You can quickly recognize a thief and a villain in someone else; but you refuse to see the one working in your own breast, whom you can easily catch and feel.
Oh, how many fellows like this there are in all the businesses and trades! They go along, smugly deceiving and cheating the people wherever they can; still they refuse to be called thieves and villains, so long as they do it secretly and adroitly. If everyone had to give back what he has stolen and robbed in his business or job, very few people would be able to keep anything. Yet they go along like pious people, because no one dares to accuse and denounce them publicly. They suppose that they are sinless; yet if they look around, every corner of their house and home is full of theft and, by God, they do not have a single gulden or two in the house that was not stolen. Yet none of this is supposed to be called theft. If it were merely theft, and not murder in addition! Shoddy merchandise or unwholesome food and drink can make people weak and sick. Thus you deprive them not only of their money but also of their health. Many a person eats and drinks and then gets sick and often dies as a result. My friend, except for the name, is this not as bad as breaking into his house or rifling his treasure chest or striking him dead?
Now, if you were not such a heinous and brazen person, you would be ashamed when your conscience says this to you and reminds you of this saying. It would give you pause. In fact, it would make you so afraid that you would be unable to remain at rest anywhere on account of it. This burden continually oppresses us and drives us. It is an eternal witness against us, always condemning us, so that it becomes unbearable. It would soon teach you that you have to stop this robbing and stealing and whatever else you would not like to have someone else do to you. Get used to looking at this saying once in a while and practicing it on yourself. Thus in your whole existence, in every task in which you have contact and dealings with your neighbor, you have a daily sermon in your heart. From it you can easily learn to understand all the commandments and the whole Law, how to control and conduct yourself personally and socially. On this basis you can easily decide what is right and wrong in the world.
But you may say: “How can He say that the Law and the Prophets consist in this? Do not the Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets contain much more than this? They contain the doctrine of faith and promises, which are not mentioned here.” The answer is that here Christ names the Law and the Prophets in direct contrast to the Gospel or the promise. He is not preaching here about the sublime doctrine of faith in Christ but only about good works. These are two distinctive proclamations; both must be preached, but each at its appropriate time. You can tell that plainly from the words in the text where He says: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” By this He indicates that His preaching here does not go beyond the relation that people have with us and we with them, and that it is not talking about the grace of Christ which we receive from God. What He intends to say now is this: “When the time comes to preach about the good life and about the works which we should perform in our relations with our neighbor, you will find nothing in all the Law and the Prophets except what this saying teaches.” He uses the words “men” and “do so to them” to specify that He is discussing only the commandments of the Second Table.
The best thing in the saying is that He does not say, “Other people shall do so to you,” but, “You shall do so to other people.” Everyone would like to have others do good to him. There are many villains and rascals who have no objection if other people are pious and do good to them, but they refuse to treat anyone else that way. So our peasants nowadays suppose that it is an injustice and a great burden that they are required to give fair measure, and yet they can yell and complain that their taxes are robbery. Such people are simply snakes. Now, some are a little better when they say: “I would be willing to take my turn and to do what I should if other people did it to me first.” This saying declares: “You should do what you expect from another.” If you want others to do it to you, you begin and be the first. And if they refuse, you do it anyway. If you will not be pious and do good until you see it in someone else, nothing will ever come of it. If others refuse, you are still obliged to do it, on the basis of the Law and of what this ordinance declares to be right, since that is how you would like to be treated. Whoever wants to be pious must not let himself be diverted by the example of other people. It is not right for you to say: “He cheated me, and so I have to do him dirt in turn.” Because you do not like it, do not do it to him; begin with the way you would like to be treated. By your example you may prompt other people to do good to you in turn, even those who used to do you damage before. When you do not do good yourself, your reward is that no one does good to you either. And it serves you right, before God and the people.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:235). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.