Brow of the Hill Near Nazareth, James Tissot,
c. 1886–1894, Brooklyn Museum
(About this Image)
When the people in the synagogue heard this,
they were all filled with fury.
They rose up, drove [Jesus] out of the town,
and led him to the brow of the hill
on which their town had been built,
to hurl him down headlong.
But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
1 Cor 12:31–13:13
January 30, 2022
Today’s reading is among the most beloved passages in the Bible. It is a hymn to love and is by far the most popular reading at weddings. It is indeed beautiful by itself, but as we may suspect from our examination so far of 1 Corinthians, it is immeasurably more so in context. Although we as members of the Global North may have some trouble appreciating its wider context.
Paul is writing to a mixed group Jews, Greeks, slave, free, rich, poor. They are very impressed by oratory, and he will use many rhetorical techniques to reveal his familiarity with “proper speech.” Some of these are extremely effective and provide significant clarity but would take undue time to explain. We will look at this passage from the perspective of community. As we have seen the Corinthian church was not only composed of people from every land but from every class. It was a boom town in constant flux. A religion, indeed, any new society, would experience great tension keeping itself together. The more elite sections would expect to be given the places, positions, and privileges of their station. We see this in 1 Cor when the rich who gave their houses for the communion meeting—Eucharist—would expect better food and wine than the more common members. Others, however, sensed this as a new opportunity and sought to gain status by their participation in the Church. As Paul reminds us, all Christians have been given spiritual gifts and there is always the tendency to hold mine as the most important. We still find this today with people who claim the benefits of “meritocracy.”
In the readings of the past two weeks, Paul has addressed these issues. He has first told us that we all have gifts from God through our baptisms. Although some may be more impressive and perhaps even more important than others, no one has all of them and no gift can be used by itself. Last week he expanded on this insight. The church is literally the Body of Christ, his physical presence in the world and it was God himself who called people to their place within it.
By the time Paul is writing to the Corinthians he has learned that it is not enough to know and to accept one’s place in the body of Christ, it is necessary to do so with the right attitude indeed the right intention. To do that we need the “greatest spiritual gift” and accept “a still more excellent way.”
Paul will now speak of himself. He knows that he is writing to a community which is most impressed with oratory, so he speaks of speaking:
If I speak in human and angelic tongues
but do not have love,
I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
(1 Co 13:1)
This is a very shrewd choice of images. Gongs and symbols are certainly musical instruments, but they are not only very load but cancel out others. When a gong is sounded, nothing else can be heard. For Paul, if speech is to be considered from God, then it must be in harmony with others. Think symphony, not bagpipes. We are meant to work together, and we need love to do it.
Paul himself has the gift of prophecy and indeed knowledge and faith, so he can speak from the experience that these are tricks, not gifts if they are not bond to the community. If we do not use our gifts for others, then it is for nothing. When gifts are used without love, it is for our own advancement. The esteem of others and indeed our own is its own reward. It may wrap itself up in the trappings of virtue like sacrifice and indeed martyrdom, but it is not true virtue. T.S. Eliot expressed his most memorably in “Murder in the Cathedral”: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
Paul will then give us his hymn to love, but we must be very careful that we understand what he means by love. It is said that the “Greeks had a word for it” indeed usually many. They had five words for love. Despite that they had no word which could express God’s love for us as Christians saw and experienced it. The closest was agape, which was the love within a family. Paul empathizes that God loves us as a Father, completely and without measure. This would have been a development of the covenant. To be in a covenant with someone was to be accepted as family. This love of God makes us a member of the family of God. It is a gift from God and cannot be manufactured by us. As he will say in the letter to the Romans:
God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit
that has been given to us
Every example of love that Paul will give us is for building community. We have all experienced people with significant talents who did not realize that these were gifts from God. However talented a pompous or ill-tempered person may be, without the love which makes these talents gifts and directs them to the wider community, it would be better for him or her to stay home. Paul singles out for special notice openness and endurance.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
(1 Co 13:7)
As most of us can attest, these are what allow a community to form and thrive.
As love is a gift from God it does not fail, perhaps better does not “run out of steam.” As it is family love from an infinite lover, there is nothing in the universe which will ever be greater. It will be experienced in heaven in full but when we allow love to inform our gifts, we get an inkling of it. Thus, tongues and knowledge, the two gifts most highly esteemed by the Corinthians will pass away for no matter how mature and faithful we are we are now but children.
The background and context for the hymn to love makes it an even better for a wedding. The church reminds us that in marriage, we see most clearly Christ’s love for his Church. Indeed, the family is called the domestic Church and even those of us who are not married should see in marriage a most precious sign. It directs us out of ourselves and shows us what Paul preaches today: love’s end is not what I feel but what we build.