易地思之 (Koreans say yuk-ji-sah-ji) is a very popular Korean saying in Chinese characters. Its origin is not clearly known but it is said that it may be a modification of a teaching of Confucius. The saying transliterates, ‘Put yourself in the other’s situation hypothetically and think about the situation from the other’s standpoint.’ As I learned about Matthew 7:12, I almost automatically remembered the saying. As I have thought about the teaching of Jesus as my Christian life has been going deeper, I got to appreciate more and more the saying and the spirit that it points. They do not say the same thing exactly but understanding the saying and the spirit that it points are really helpful for me to explain what Matthew 7:12 teaches accurately.
The saying emphasizes that we, human beings, have to put on others’ shoes and think about their situation as if we were in it. The humane spirit and attitude that it points and emphasizes is thoughtfulness of others instead of insisting only on our own way. In this meaning commonly accepted by Koreans, this saying is applied to most of situations in which there are disputes or quarrels between those who have uncompromisable conflicting opinions or attitudes. For such situations, it is proved that it not only gives a very promising way toward a solution of the conflict, if they accept the wisdom, but also suggests a virtue by which people around them evaluate their behavior, probably the yielding spirit to their opponents in humility and in love of peace.
The good thing of the saying, as it works for people in conflicts, is the result that it brings about—peace. It may be putting oneself in the other’s situation that results in peace between him/her and the other. This principle, on which the saying is based to bring about the good result, is what makes the saying great. Interestingly a principle on which Matthew 7:12 is based is this.
For Matthew 7:12, the principle is expressed syntactically by adopting the subjunctive mood, which makes a hypothetical assumption. The subjunctive is used for two verbs—‘wish’ and ‘do’ in the object phrase that comes first in the verse (ESV). If I translate it again, it is “whatever you would wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” I put would before the ‘wish’ which the ESV does not. The one that works to express the principle that the Korean saying is based on is the first one—“Whatever you would wish others.” This one denotes the change of our shoes with those of the others, that is, the putting on the others’ perspective to consider the situation. This makes the teaching of the verse profound. Nevertheless, some do not pay due attention to it.
The ‘would,’ marking the subjunctive mood, sets the stage for the action, ‘wish’ and it is necessary for the verse to mean what Jesus teaches. With the subjunctive, the sentence means this: Put yourself in the person’s situation as if you were the person; think what you would wish others would do to you as you assume that they were in your position now; and then do exactly what you think to the person. If I use the saying and say it again, it is like this: ‘Yuk-ji-sah-ji, and do to the other what you’ve gotten in the thinking.’ Interestingly the first subjunctive means ‘yuk-ji-sah-ji’, which plays a very important role to make the points.
ESV and NKJV do not have the ‘would’ whereas KJV, NIV, and many others do. If one drops it, as in ESV and NKJV, the meaning of the scripture is not the one that Jesus meant according to the original Greek. Without the subjunctive in the translation, in other words, it is not able to set the ground that the subjunctive sets in the original Greek scripture. Without it, the verse is just saying, ‘Do to others what you want others to do to you’ (as the first would is not there, even the second one loses its subjunctive force). What could be the problem, which could be tremendously tragic? What if you are a drug addict who want others to give you money to buy it? According to such erroneous translations, Jesus taught us to go ahead anyway and do it. Would Jesus have meant such kind of thing and told us that such is the fulfillment of the law and the Prophets? No way! Jesus, the Son of God, put the subjunctives in the verse that his disciples have to consider, translate, and interpret them as they are. Only with the subjunctive, it means ‘Do the objectively best good to others’ (it is too long a discussion for this article that the verse with the subjunctive means the same thing with “Love your neighbor as yourself”).
By the subjunctive, Matthew 7:12 is the Golden Rule for the disciples and the fulfillment of the law and the Prophets with no blemish. If a translation does not assume ‘yuk-ji-sah-ji’ in the verse, it means something else than what Jesus meant; it does not mean to command to do the best good to others. Without it, therefore, Matthew 7:12 is not any golden rule at all.