Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

The love that Paul is describing takes action; it is not a passive feeling

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January 30, 2022

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

First Corinthians 13 is, perhaps, one of the most recognizable passages of the New Testament. A favorite text for many wedding homilies, this chapter of 1 Corinthians has far more to offer than merely a sentimental reflection on romantic love. Rather, this rich chapter points to both the challenges and rewards of self-giving love.

The literary context of 1 Corinthians 13

It is important to situate 1 Corinthians 13 within its larger context of 1 Corinthians 12-14. In chapters 12 and 14, Paul is addressing issues related to spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of speaking in tongues. While it seems that the Corinthians themselves were over-emphasizing the importance of this single gift, Paul is encouraging the congregation to recognize the necessity of all spiritual gifts (chapter 12) and cautioning the congregation to temper the practice of speaking in tongues with the interpretation of these tongues and with prophecy (chapter 14). 

Given this setting, the placement of chapter 13 here may at first seem odd as it only mentions speaking in tongues tangentially (verses 1 and 8). However, 1 Corinthians 13 is possibly the most central part of Paul’s argument in chapters 12-14. One might think of these chapters like an Oreo cookie where the two “cookies” of chapters 12 and 14 are held together by the delicious cream center that keeps everything together: love. In other words, just as an Oreo would be insufficiently satisfying without its creamy middle, so too would Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts be lacking without a clear grounding in love.

Understanding this larger context sheds light on what Paul is doing in this chapter. That is, rather than a Hallmark-style ode to sentimentalized ideas of love, this chapter offers what should be a foundational ethic for the church community. From what we can gather about the Corinthian community from chapters 12 and 14, these early Christians were becoming starkly divided in a debate related to spiritual gifts. However, rather than taking a clear side in the debate, Paul urges his audience to pursue love, even amid differences and dissent. 

Love is a verb

The context of dissent in Corinth makes Paul’s teachings about love all the more vivid. This context suggests that love, for Paul, is not just the cute subject of a Valentine’s Day card. Rather, love is a collection of intentional actions.

In verses 4-7, Paul offers a rich description of the kind of love that he is discussing. However, what most English translations fail to capture is that all these descriptors are verbs, not the adjectives with which they are often translated. So, these descriptions might be better translated along the lines of, “Love waits patiently; love acts kindly” and so forth. What might seem like a pedantic grammatical point is actually quite important. That is, the love that Paul is describing takes action; it is not a passive feeling toward another. 

Love and limitations

In verses 9-13, Paul takes up the topic of the limitations of seemingly everything except love. Part of his method in making this argument is to compare his own growth journey from child to adult (verse 11). While Paul’s point here is clear, it is also worth problematizing the way in which Paul goes about making this argument. In recent years, biblical scholars have been turning more attention to childist interpretations that have attended to the experiences of children in and with the biblical text. Through a childist lens, then, Paul’s method of making his point might be called into question. 

If this text is read and preached in intergenerational worship settings, it may be helpful to provide some situational context for making sense of Paul’s comments here. In the ancient world, children were largely discounted and were often regarded with mild disdain. Thus, Paul here is playing into a cultural trope that would have asserted that the ways of children are immature, illogical, and unsophisticated. When preaching this text today, however, it would be important to observe that these cultural assumptions create their own sort of limitations on modern notions of childhood that view children as whole, autonomous individuals. 

Readers might face additional limitations in understanding Paul’s meaning upon coming to verse 12 where Paul compares the present reality to what he imagines a future, eschatological reality might be. Here, Paul is suggesting that there will be a future time that makes things clearer than what they may be at present. 

However, modern readers might have a question about Paul’s example here: how does looking in a mirror not produce a clear image? Knowing something about ancient mirrors is needed here to understand Paul’s point. In Paul’s day, mirrors would not have been nearly as reflective as what they are today. Instead, they might be comparable to the experience of viewing a reflection in a spoon or in a window. While these surfaces can provide a general sense of the item being reflected, the image is not crystal clear. Paul suggests that the Corinthians’ current view of the world is much like this. While they can grasp the outlines of truth, they simply do not have the clearest image right now.

Reading 1 Corinthians 13 with the lectionary

This text makes for an interesting partner to today’s Gospel reading from Luke 4:21-30. In that text, Jesus’s audacity in pointing to the inclusion of outsiders (the widow of Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian) is met with such outrage that he is nearly killed on the spot. Here, in the context of a heated debate about the proper use of spiritual gifts, Paul has the audacity to preach on the importance of love across lines of difference. Read together, these two texts illustrate the deep significance of Paul’s topic while also gesturing toward the possible consequences of such radical, self-giving love. In this season of Epiphany, these texts provide a reminder that part of what is revealed in Jesus is this very brand of love that is to be emulated by those who follow him.