If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)
Saint Paul’s great hymn to love is well-known. But do we read it for what it really means in its context? It is not illegitimate to read it at weddings, as we often do, but it must be remembered that its true context is that of community, of life together. If chapter 13 of the First Letter to the Corinthians is entirely devoted to love, that is because for Saint Paul love is the key to a good understanding of what life in community requires. That is Paul’s great concern throughout this letter.
One can easily discern three parts in what has been called the hymn to charity. Verses 1-3 deal with the essential nature of love: without it all the spiritual gifts are worthless. In the second part, from verses 4 to 8a, Paul lists the characteristics of love by means of sixteen verbs. Seven are used to say what love is, and nine other verbs to say what it is not. It is by closely examining these verbs that we discover what it means to love. Finally, in the last part, verses 8b-12, Paul proclaims the durability of love and therefore its superiority over all other spiritual realities. This allows Paul to say at the end that love is the greatest of all (v.13).
If the first part is rather obvious and needs almost no commentary, the second, focusing on the characteristics of love, is instructive. Paul takes up in subtle fashion almost all the issues that were addressed in the previous chapters of his letter. One can imagine the discomfort of the Corinthians when they read or listened to these verses, because Paul is telling them: “Here is all you do not put into practice! You did not find the right attitude to the questions that came up.” More specifically, regarding the question of spiritual gifts given to the Corinthians, a question on which this chapter sheds important light, it should be noted that the Corinthians were not suffering from a lack of enthusiasm, especially for anything that could increase their knowledge. On the contrary, they were particularly avid in this regard. But they did not understand the true meaning of the gifts they received: these were given by God to enable a better life with others and not to flatter the ego of those who possessed them! Paul had already stated this in chapter 8: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (8:1). Now he consolidates this point: “Love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (13: 4). When love takes its full place, a community can live, develop and, if necessary, be rebuilt. It is no longer the place of endless rivalries, grudges and jealousies.
Someone wrote that “love gives meaning to an otherwise unintelligible world” (Richard B. Hays). The expression is beautiful. There is, in fact, an intelligibility proper to love. It is not enough to stick to principles or to know who was wrong and who was right on a divisive issue. When it comes to life in the Church, those who love will find the right answers, correct behavior and actions which best correspond to what can help a community to grow. Contrary perhaps to the Corinthians, Paul does not forget that we are still on the road, that we go forward as best we can. Fortunately for all of us “love is patient.”
Among the characteristics of love enumerated by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, which ones enlighten you concerning a question which you have right now in your life with others?
What changes when we see life with others as a journey where one learns to love?