Gospel For Today: Triumph of the Cross



While on the highway this past week I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Harm none, and do as you will.”  This is a common moral axiom among Wiccans and other neo-pagans.  It struck me as I drove past the vehicle how similar this was in phrasing to St. Augustine’s summation of the Christian moral life: “Love God, and do as you will.”  The phrasing may be similar, but the meaning is entirely different.  I noted the contrast between these two on Facebook and was taken to task for picking on Wiccans.  In truth, I was not thinking of Wiccans when I posted because I believe “Harm none, and do as you will” has become the de facto moral code of most people in our society today.  I have heard it espoused by agnostics and atheists, and even some Christians as the only truly universal moral code.

What is wrong with that? you may ask.  Isn’t doing no harm a good thing?  With all the violence in the world today, what’s wrong with reminding people that harming others is bad?  Nothing is wrong with that.  In fact, it is good.  But it is not good enough.
When it comes to morality today most people assume we should be free to do anything we want as long as it does not negatively impact other people.  That is basically what this axiom tells us.  This seems at first to be very liberating.  I can do whatever I want!  But as a guiding moral principle, it is rather small and limited.  It makes the basis for moral decisions what you shouldn’t do but doesn’t tell you anything about what you should do.  It is a passive morality, not an active one. Ultimately, that is rather uninspiring.
Let’s contrast this to St. Augustine’s, “Love God, and do what you will.”  St. Augustine begins with the call to love God.  The heart that loves God perfectly will only desire what is pleasing to God.  Therefore if you truly love God, you can safely do as you will because you will only desire what God wills.  The trick to achieving this is to love God above all things, including yourself.  That’s a tall order.
Jesus tells us to “love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39).  These are the two great commandments in which Christ says are contained all the law and the prophets.  The world today tells us we can do whatever we want as long as it doesn’t harm our neighbors.  Christ tell us that’s not enough; we must actively love our neighbors.  Of these two, the Christian calling is much more inspiring; it also requires more hard work.
One moral code is negative: don’t do harm.  The other is positive: do love.  One is passive.  The other is active.  One is self-centered.  The other is self-giving.  How is “do no harm” self-centered?  Because it only tells us what we shouldn’t do to our neighbors, not what we should do for them, it ultimately becomes all about us and fulfilling our own desires (as long as no one gets hurt in the process).  “Love your neighbor,” by contrast, commands us to look beyond ourselves to the needs of those around us.  It calls us to sacrifice our own desires and comfort in order to help others.  And of course if we love our neighbors we will not wish to harm them. The command to love your neighbor actually contains within it the principle of “do no harm,” and much more.  This is why I say that “do no harm” is good, but not good enough.  We are called to something greater.
In a different gospel passage (Mk 10:17-22) a man asks Jesus what must he do to gain eternal life.  Jesus reminds him of the Ten Commandments; specifically, “Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud.”  The man replies that he has observed all of these.  But is it enough?  Is not being a murderer enough?  Is not being an adulterer enough?  Is not being a liar enough? Is not harming others enough?
So you have avoided killing and lying and cheating.  Good for you.  Jesus tells the man, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you have, and give to the poor… and come, follow me.”  The gospel reports that the man went away sorrowful.  Why?  The man was fine with not harming his neighbors.  But his love was imperfect.  His love was centered on himself.  He did not love his neighbors enough to sacrifice his own wealth for them.  And he did not love Christ enough to turn away from his old life and follow Him.
Following Christ means loving like Christ.  Love, by its nature, is self-giving.  God is love, which means God is self-giving.  We see this in the Incarnation, in which “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).  And we see this most perfectly in the Cross, the ultimate and perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, made in love for the very people who nailed Him to the tree.  By His passion and death, Christ “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave… He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.  Because of this, God greatly exalted Him” (Phil 2:6-11).
Christ did not come into the world so that He could merely do no harm.  He had a higher calling and so do we who are made in His image.  This is the Triumph of the Cross.  It is a triumph of self-giving.  It is a triumph of sacrifice.  It is a triumph of love.