Epiphany 4: 31 January 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
This piece has a beauty all of its own, like an autumn leaf fallen from a tree. As such it has been loved and admired, not infrequently as a reading, for instance, at weddings. Much of its impact remains when it thus floats free. This makes it all the more interesting to consider it in its context in 1 Corinthians, where it stands not only as a fine piece of writing, but also as a very confronting statement.
Paul has been concerned in 1 Corinthians 12 about people's approach to spiritual gifts, as we have seen over the past two weeks. He has had to make the point that the life of the Spirit is about building up community, not about getting carried away with one's own experiences in ways that undermine community. Such behaviour may include affirmations that Jesus is Lord, but amount to declaring Jesus cursed (12:3). Strong claims. The Spirit has a place for all. People have different gifts. There needs to be a sense of perspective.
When our passage commences by referring to tongues of men and angels, it is not engaging in a piece of baroque flourish. Some in the community do appear to have been carried away with speaking in tongues. Paul spends the next chapter addressing the problem. So his assertion that speaking in tongues is just a lot of noise if love does not have highest priority confronts a certain kind of religiosity. The same happens in the statements which follow. Prophecy, understanding mysteries, knowledge, faith to move mountains, all count for nothing if love is not present. Paul is attacking approaches to spirituality which have missed the point of what Christianity is about, as he understands it.
From earlier chapters we see that the Corinthians seemed obsessed with these things. They were squabbling about leadership; some were making claims to be especially wise; some were getting carried away with ecstatic experiences; others were making miracles central (see especially the first four chapters). Already in Paul's day there was enough in the burgeoning Christian tradition to fuel such distractions. Paul attacks none of these activities, but he refuses the assumption that any of them should be seen as the main thing. When Paul wants to identify the presence of God, these are not the prime location. The prime location is compassion.
Matthew gives us a picture of Jesus making a similar point when he declares: "Not every one who says, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my father who is in heaven" (7:21) and continues by pointing out that in the end people will report their wonderful deeds, miracles, prophecy and the like, only to be told they have no real relationship with Jesus at all. Similarly in the parable of the sheep and the goats, Matthew reports that the sheep are those who exercised compassion in their lives (25:31-48). That is ultimately what counts.
In a similar sense Mark seems to have had to counter a triumphant kind of spirituality which focused mainly on Jesus' miracles. He does so by setting them within the context of Jesus' love and his willingness to go all the way, even to death, for people. John has something similar. His Jesus refuses those who believe in his name because of his miracles (2:23-25). In what immediately follows he tells Nicodemus, as a prime example of such faith, that he must be born again (3:1-3). Nicodemus represents a way of believing which John seeks to counter as inadequate. Many 'born-againers' still need to be born again, in this sense.
Not even apparent acts of generosity and bravery count for much if love is not the source (13:3). In 13:4-7 Paul gives us a timeless summary. It is not without its difficulties. The final three statements may not make a lot of sense the way people often translate them. Does love really believe or endure all things? Perhaps a better interpretation (using "all things" as an adverb) moves in the direction of saying that love is unrestrained in its willingness to do all these things. Whether intended or not, the notion that love means the afflicted and violated should just put up with everything is anything but loving.
There are other dangers. If love becomes an ideal, then a set of guidelines, and then a set of rules, we are in danger of creating a series of "oughts", which will mostly end up either being discarded as unrealistic ideals or being directly counterproductive because they tie people up in guilt. While we can make conscious decisions to act in ways that express love and care, ultimately love seeks a deeper motivation. It needs to have a life of its own which flows from within as well as all the tending it needs in self critical assessment of our attitudes and behaviours. This is why Paul speaks of the Spirit elsewhere as a fruit (Gal 5:22). Spirituality is about gardening: attending to the plant, the soil and the setting to enable the fruit to be born.
The second half of the passage seems only marginally related to love - until we get to the climax in 13:13. Paul is wanting to put other things in their place. Only love really endures (13:8). The point of 13:9-12 is to assert human vulnerability. We have not arrived - some at Corinth thought they had (4:7-8). So here in 1 Corinthians 13 Paul is trying to bring people down to earth to stop the arrogance. Paul does not need to pretend that he is in control, that he knows everything, that he is superior. It is OK to be a human being who still has a long way to go. In this way Paul is at least preparing the kind of soil in which love might have a chance to take root. It often can't get much of a start until we acknowledge our need of it.
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