Word Magazine May 1985 Page 20


1 Corinthians 13

The Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas

How does one go about describing love? In last month’s column we saw how St. Paul gives us no formal definition of love in his famous “Love Chapter,” the 13th Chapter of 1 Corinthians. We saw how he discounts many important roles in the Church as not being valuable in the sight of God if they are not done with love. And we saw how he indicated what love does not do. He shows us that the one thing love does not do, is to act selfishly. But St. Paul also tells what love does do. We will look at these verses in this Reflection.

What Love Does

What kinds of actions characterize love? The list is impressive, and, again, if we ap­proach it with some imagination about how we feel when we act in these ways, we begin to understand what it means to be loving.

“Love is patient and kind. . . it rejoices at the right. . . it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Now ask yourself, “When I am patient with someone who is really trying me ‘How do I do it?”’ If you check yourself, you will discover that you do it by making an effort to understand what is going on inside that person. You do not act patiently by focus­ing on what is bothering you. When you act with kindness, you are thinking about the suffering and needs of the other, not your own problems. When you “rejoice in the right,” you are happy when good things happen to others, especially to those who have been unjustly treated.

When love “bears all things” (as the English has it) it is aware that other people have their own agendas in life which do not always match ours — and we let others fol­low through on their interests, even if it is somehow disconcerting to us. The Greek verb, however, is “stego,” which means to “cover something.” Some of the Church Fathers, therefore, understand the phrase “bears all things,” to really mean “love covers over things,” that is, love does not ex­pose the weaknesses, failings and sins of others. Love tries to protect others and maintains a positive attitude about others. As you see, the focus of love is on “others,” nor ourselves.

That, too, is how to understand the phrase “love… believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” These words should not be understood as saying that love is credulous, irresponsible, or passive and inactive, in some sort of general way. Those are not Christian virtues. This verse makes Christian sense when it is seen in the context of love acting in ways which focus on others, rather than on our selves. A para­phrase of verses six and seven, by an Ortho­dox theologian reads as follows:

Love is not happy when it sees people doing injustice to others, but it re­joices when it sees people being treated honestly and fairly. Love covers all the shortcomings of the neighbor, and does not parade them about. Love has good expectations about those who are loved in every­thing and believes in them and trusts them. When love sees the failings of the neighbor, it lives with the hope that the beloved person will over­come them. It readily accepts what­ever is necessary to help the neighbor to overcome.

The Only Thing That Lasts

Since love acts towards other people the way God acts toward us, it’s the only human thing which can last — as God lasts for all eternity. All the important things which we are, both inside and outside the Church, will end. For example, in verse eight, St. Paul notes that our “prophesies” (spiritu­al wisdom), will pass away; our teachings and our emotional religious experiences (“tongues”) will cease; even our deep and profound theological knowledge will be in­validated and come to an end.

Even now, in this life, St. Paul points out in verses nine through twelve, our knowl­edge is limited and our “prophesy” (spiritual instruction) is incomplete and “imperfect”. Even now, in this life, we are like little children in all the important and significant things which we do. Eventually we will give up these temporary things and grow into something more reflective of God’s Kingdom.

Another image St. Paul uses to make the same point, is the mirror. The polished metal mirrors of antiquity never gave a clear image of the face. Like the distorted images of the bent mirrors in the amusement parks, they could never give a true repre­sentation of the person looking into it. That is what all our accomplishments, in the last analysis amount to — they are more or less distortions of the truth. Only in the end will it be all clear. In the end we will see “face to face” that only one thing is really permanent, and makes everything else worthwhile and significant. For you see, only “Love never ends.”

“The Greatest”

In the galaxy of God’s heaven, St. Paul then points to the three most important stars, as he ends this famous chapter. What really counts, what really lasts, what is most significant of all in God’s ranking of impor­tant things are these: believing and trusting in Him (“faith”); living with the confi­dence and expectation that God protects us, and will fulfill all His promises to us (“hope”); and, reflecting His divine con­cern for each of us, in our relating toward others in a way that shows concern for their welfare and their good (“love”).

Nevertheless, there is no contest about which of these three is the most excellent way. St. Paul makes it clear, without any equivocation: So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.