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The Very Short Rule

From From Long Ago and Many Lands by Sophia Lyon Fahs, second edition (Boston: Skinner House, 1995). Permission pending.

Read or tell the story.

When Jesus came into town, someone who knew him was sure to pass the word around. A plan would be worked out for him to be at a certain place when evening came and the day's work was done. Then men and women who had to work during the day could gather and listen to what Jesus had to say.

Sometimes they would find him in the house of a friend. And the number of people who would come might fill the whole house and the street outside, too. Other times they would follow Jesus to the lake. He and some of his fishermen friends would step into a boat. They would anchor it near the shore. The people would sit on the rocks and grass near by, and Jesus would stand up in the boat and talk to everybody.

Sometimes there were men and women who listened to Jesus who were very much discouraged. Some were so poor they did not get enough to eat. Some had sick children to take care of at home. Some were old and crippled and always in pain. Some felt that nobody cared for them. They were always given the meanest jobs to do and they were always being scolded because they did not do them well enough.

There were others who felt it was scarcely worth while trying to be good at all. No one was ever pleased with what they did no matter how hard they tried.

These people went regularly once a week to the synagogue on the Sabbath. They heard the Bible read to them, but they could not remember all that they heard, so they did not do all that they were told they ought to do. They knew they were not praying as often as they were told to pray, but it was so hard to remember the words to say. They knew they were not giving as much as they were told to give to the synagogue, but they had so little to live on, how could they give more? They admitted that they did some work on the Sabbath while the teachers said they should never do any work at all on that day. But the hours in the week were not long enough to get everything done that had to be done to keep the children from starving.

Often they would go home after listening to Jesus, and they would remember just one little story or one short sentence that Jesus had said. But that little bit they remembered a long, long time, because somehow they liked to remember it.

Such people as these were naturally discouraged. They felt all the time that their teachers were not pleased with them. If their teachers were not pleased, then probably God was not pleased either. This thought made them feel even more discouraged.

One day as Jesus was sitting in a boat and the people were squatting on the rocks along the shore, one of these discouraged men asked a question. "I am a shepherd," he said. "I have to spend long hours in the open fields. When eating time comes, I cannot always find a brook where I can wash my hands before I eat. It is the rule, is it not, that a man should always wash his hands before eating? Do you think, Jesus, that I am a bad man because I have to eat my lunch without washing my hands?"

"Certainly not," said Jesus with a smile. "You are not a bad man simply because you eat without washing your hands when you are in the fields and cannot do so. Unwashed hands cannot make a person bad anyway. Goodness and badness are inside of you, not in your skin."

Then a woman spoke up and asked another question. "There are many of us here, Jesus, who have never learned to read. We have not gone to school. We have not been able to study the laws in the Bible. We can't remember all the laws the preachers in the synagogue tell us about. There seem to be hundreds of laws the preachers say we must follow if we want to please God. But we simply cannot remember them all. Do you think, Jesus, that we are bad because we can't remember all the laws? Our other teachers seem to think we are no good just because we don't know much."

Then Jesus would encourage these people. He would say: "For many years, our teachers have been adding more and more laws to the ones that are in the Bible. They have meant to help us but what they have really done is to make living a good life so hard that none of us can be counted good.

"I say to you, friends, that being good is not just obeying a large number of rules. You could obey every single one of the rules the teachers have made, and still not be really good. Whether one is good or not depends on how one feels inside in one's heart. Do you feel hateful or loving toward others? Do you feel angry or patient with the person who hurts you? Those are the things that count."

"That kind of talk sounds good, Jesus," said a man who had been busy all day long hauling stones for building a road. "But I wish you would tell us in just one sentence what is most important so that we can't forget."

Jesus smiled at this and said: "Your wish reminds me of what someone once said to Hillel, that great teacher of ours of whom you all have heard. The story is told of how a student one day said to Hillel: 'Tell me, Rabbi, what all the laws put together mean and tell me so simply that I can hear it all while I stand on one foot.'" At this everyone laughed.

"Hillel gave the student a very good answer and a very short one," said Jesus. "Hillel said: 'Never do to anyone else the kind of thing that is hateful to you. This is all the laws put together. All the rest is just an explanation of that one short rule.'" Then Jesus added his own thought.

"I would say this rule in just a little different way. I would say it this way. Do those things to others that you 'Would like to have others do to you."

"That's a good rule," said the workman who had asked the question. "I could have stood on one foot easily while you said that."

"Try the rule," said Jesus. "It doesn't take long to say it, but it may take a long time to learn to follow it."

When his talk was over, the people got up from the ground and walked along the shore to their homes. Some of them seemed very much relieved. Jesus had given them something they could understand and something they could not forget.

"Do those things to others that you would like to have others do to you." It was a very short rule, but one that is still remembered after nearly two thousand years. We call it our Golden Rule.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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