1 Corinthians 13:1-13
As we know, the passage from Corinthians is often, very often, used in weddings. The irony of this, as we also know, is that Paul wrote this to a community in great distress, arguing with each other, fighting with each other, and it was an admonishment from Paul to behave differently as a community towards one another. This passage in itself has absolutely nothing to do with romantic love (even the word used here for love in the original Greek is not romantic love but brotherly, godly, holy love), and it is not even about individual love. This is a letter talking to all of us about how to get along with one another in community when we do not agree, do not like each other, and do not want to be community together. So, in one way it has absolutely nothing to do with romantic loves and the fact that is used so often in weddings is strange. On the other hand, as I often say in the weddings I’m asked to officiate over when those getting married pick this passage, in some ways it is very appropriate since every marriage will have times of stress, times of discord, times of dis-ease. Knowing what you are called to do during those times is essential. How will you love each other when times become difficult? When you have that day you just don’t want to actually be in the same room as your spouse, or when you find yourselves on opposite sides of a moral or practical dilemma, and that will happen, the words in this passage are important to remember.
The passages from Mark that we read today are also all focused on love. Jesus confronts the leaders of the day saying that they are not acting in love. “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.” And then we see an example of what it is to be loving: the widow gives everything she has out of her love, and is praised for doing so. And today’s reading from Mark began with the legal expert once again trying to test Jesus, trying to trick Jesus. This is the end of a section in Mark where Jesus has been tested again and again by the legal experts who are trying to catch Jesus up in a way that will discredit him with his followers. Today’s question about which commandment is most important ends this testing. And the difference here is that while with the other tests that have been put to Jesus we hear that the people following Jesus are amazed at his answers but those who are trying to test Jesus simply go away, this time, the legal expert actually agrees with Jesus. There is movement here, even on the part of the one trying to trick Jesus, trying to confront Jesus. And I think that movement happens because Jesus answer is so simple, so clear, and so beyond dispute. It’s so clear that even those trying to trick him, trap him, discredit him in the end are forced to agree with him and unite with him in this. What are we required to do? It is very, very simple. Hard to do, but simple and clear. We are to love God with everything that we are. And we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s it. Everything else is the fulfillment of those two commandments. Everything else is the way in which we act out and live out that love. Everything else is description of what it looks like to live lives of love.
I want to point out that the way this is phrased in the Common English Bible translation is very interesting.
Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, 30 and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.[a] 31
The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself
No other commandment is greater than these.”
The first commandment is a command: you MUST love God with all your heart, being, mind and strength.
But the second then is “you WILL love your neighbor as yourself.”
Because when you love God with all that you are, you WILL love your neighbor as yourself.
As Dorothy Day said it, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.”
We really only love God as much as we love the person we don’t like.
And therefore, when we finally choose (and it is a choice) to love God with all that we are, when we choose that, we will find that we love even those people we didn’t like before.
And this is how you shall be known. This is how we all shall be known: by our love. And when we are not acting love towards anyone, we are showing by our actions a lack of love towards God. They are one and the same. And when we follow in our behaviors and in our judgements and in our decisions and worldviews people who are acting unloving towards anyone, we are following people who do not love God, no matter what they may claim. No matter that they are walking around in robes looking for honor. If they are cheating those people who are already hurting the most, they do not and are not loving God.
All of these words, Paul’s words on love, Jesus’ words on our commandments: they all say the same thing. We, as a community, must learn how to love. To quote 1 Corinthians again, “Love isn’t arrogant. It isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice but it is happy with the truth.” When we see arrogance and rudeness and complaining and an execution of injustice and lying, we know that these behaviors do not involve love. And we are called to choose something else, as individuals, but much more, as a community.
I want to be clear here. Love, in this context, is not about a feeling. It is not about liking people or approving bad behavior, or turning away when we see injustice. It isn’t just words. Love is action. It is action of patience, it is action of kindness. Love walks humbly with God. And as we see here, while faith and hope are also essential for us as people of God, Love is the foundation. Love is the center of the flower that is surrounded by petals of faith, hope, charity, kindness, compassion. Love is the grounding on which we live, and breathe and have our being. When we forget that, when we act in our own best interests and fail to care for those who are suffering, who are vulnerable, who are at risk in any way and in any place, we have not just failed to love our neighbor as ourselves, we have shown ourselves as failing to love God with all that we are.
Frederick Buechner says this about love:
The first stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. The middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love and that the Greeks had a different word for each of them. The last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. The unabashed eros of lovers, the sympathetic philia of friends, agapegiving itself away freely no less for the murderer than for the victim …-these are all varied manifestations of a single reality. To lose yourself in another’s arms, or in another’s company, or in suffering for all who suffer, including the ones who inflict suffering upon you – to lose yourself in such ways is to find yourself, is what it’s all about, is what love is. Of all powers, love is the most powerful and the most powerless. It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold that is the human heart. It is the most powerless because it can do nothing except by consent….To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth. In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion, but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. You can as easily produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze. On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus, in Jesus’ terms, we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them. In fact liking them may stand in the way of loving them by making us overprotective sentimentalists instead of reasonably honest friends.
When Jesus talked to the Pharisees, he didn’t say, “There, there. Everything’s going to be all right.” He said, “You brood of vipers! how can you speak good, when you are evil!” (Matthew 12:34). And he said that to them because he loved them.
This does not mean that liking may not be a part of loving, only that it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes liking follows on the heels of loving. It is hard to work for people’s well-being very long without coming in the end to rather like them too.
(~originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words)
The thing that is so contrary to our cultural understanding here is that love does the opposite of what we expect. When we love those who cannot return anything to us, when we offer care to those whom we see as our enemies, who threaten our ideas of what is “mine” and take it for themselves, we will find ourselves enriched. This is contrary to everything we think we “know” to be true. We are taught to take care of our own. We are taught to stand up for ourselves and insist on getting what is ours, what we deserve. But through Jesus’ life of service, through Jesus’ willingness to die, and ultimately through Jesus’ resurrection, what the gospels show us is completely opposite of this thinking. “The first shall be last.” “Those who wish to be first, must be servants of all.” “whoever loses their life for me will find it.” These are Jesus’ words. These are mirrored in his actions. We “win” only by losing. We gain only by giving. Whenever we hog things for ourselves (and again, I mean this at a community level as much if not more so than at the individual level), we are risking everything. It is only through sharing, giving and loving that we will gain our lives back, that we will find wholeness, that we will find healing. Jesus wants us to give, wants us to share, wants us to take care of each other in every way: that everyone has the care they need, that everyone has enough income to survive, that everyone has a safe place to live, food to eat, health and well-being. Jesus wants all of this for everyone, and he wants that not just because he loves those who don’t have enough (though he does!), but also for those of us who have so much more than we need; because if we fail to give, we will fail to receive. If we fail to love, we will lose our lives. Rights are always surrounded by responsibilities. We are called to be stewards for one another. And until we learn that, we will not ever be whole.
C.S. Lewis said it this way (in The Four Loves):
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one…Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.
We can see how we as a community must behave. The same applies for us as individuals, even though this was not the original intention. I think about Father Gregory Boyle in his work that he documents in Tattoos on the Heart. He works with gangs in LA and what he does is create work places for those in gangs, places where these young people who have been enemies in rival gangs, are working together, learning to love each other, caring for each other. They stop being enemies because they become human beings to one another. He told the story of two people in rival gangs, one of whom ended up in the hospital because of Gang action. The member of the other gang at first was really tough and said, “I’m glad that happened to him.” But later, he told Father Boyle, “You tell him that x, from rival gang y hopes he gets better.” Father Boyle continues,
“Sometimes you are thrown into each other’s jurisdiction, and that feels better than living, as the Buddhists say, in the ‘illusion of separateness.’ It is in this place where we judge the other and feel the impossibility of anything getting bridged. The gulf too wide and the gap too distant, the walls grow higher and we forget who we are meant to be to each other. Somewhere, in the jurisdictional locale where judgment used to claim us, a remarkable commonality rushes in, and the barriers that exclude are dismantled.(p133)…No question gets asked of me more than… ‘What’s it like to have enemies working together?’ The answer; it is almost always tense at first. A homie will beg for a job, and perhaps I have an opening at the Bakery. ‘But you’re gonna have to work with X,Y, and Z’ naming enemies already working there. He thinks a bit and invariably will say, ‘I’ll work with him, but I’m not gonna talk to him.’ In the early days this would unsettle me. Until I discovered that it always becomes impossible to demonize someone you know.” (142)
I want to end by sharing with you a story that Barb passed on to me:
I was at the corner grocery store buying some early potatoes… I noticed a small boy, delicate of bone and feature, ragged but clean, hungrily apprising a basket of freshly picked green peas.
I paid for my potatoes but was also drawn to the display of fresh green peas. I am a pushover for creamed peas and new potatoes.
Pondering the peas, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation between Mr. Miller (the store owner) and the ragged boy next to me.
‘Hello Barry, how are you today?’
‘H’lo, Mr. Miller. Fine, thank ya. Jus’ admirin’ them peas. They sure look good’
‘They are good, Barry. How’s your Ma?’
‘Fine. Gittin’ stronger alla’ time.’
‘Good. Anything I can help you with?’
‘No, Sir. Jus’ admirin’ them peas.’
‘Would you like to take some home?’ asked Mr. Miller.
‘No, Sir. Got nuthin’ to pay for ’em with.’
‘Well, what have you to trade me for some of those peas?’
‘All I got’s my prize marble here.’
‘Is that right? Let me see it’, said Miller.
‘Here ’tis. She’s a dandy.’
‘I can see that. Hmm mmm, only thing is this one is blue and I sort of go for red. Do you have a red one like this at home?’ the store owner asked.
‘Not zackley but almost.’
‘Tell you what. Take this sack of peas home with you and next trip this way let me look at that red marble’. Mr. Miller told the boy
‘Sure will. Thanks Mr. Miller.’
Mrs. Miller, who had been standing nearby, came over to help me.
With a smile she said, ‘There are two other boys like him in our community, all three are in very poor circumstances. Jim just loves to bargain with them for peas, apples, tomatoes, or whatever. When they come back with their red marbles, and they always do, he decides he doesn’t like red after all and he sends them home with a bag of produce for a green marble or an orange one, when they come on their next trip to the store.’
I left the store smiling to myself, impressed with this man. A short time later I moved to Colorado, but I never forgot the story of this man, the boys, and their bartering for marbles.
Several years went by, each more rapid than the previous one. Just recently I had occasion to visit some old friends in that Idaho community and while I was there learned that Mr. Miller had died. They were having his visitation that evening and knowing my friends wanted to go, I agreed to accompany them. Upon arrival at the mortuary we fell into line to meet the relatives of the deceased and to offer whatever words of comfort we could.
Ahead of us in line were three young men. One was in an army uniform and the other two wore nice haircuts, dark suits and white shirts…all very professional looking. They approached Mrs. Miller, standing composed and smiling by her husband’s casket.
Each of the young men hugged her, kissed her on the cheek, spoke briefly with her and moved on to the casket. Her misty light blue eyes followed them as, one by one; each young man stopped briefly and placed his own warm hand over the cold pale hand in the casket. Each left the mortuary awkwardly, wiping his eyes.
Our turn came to meet Mrs. Miller. I told her who I was and reminded her of the story from those many years ago and what she had told me about her husband’s bartering for marbles. With her eyes glistening, she took my hand and led me to the casket.
‘Those three young men who just left were the boys I told you about.
They just told me how they appreciated the things Jim ‘traded’ them. Now, at last, when Jim could not change his mind about color or size….they came to pay their debt.’
‘We’ve never had a great deal of the wealth of this world,’ she confided, ‘but right now, Jim would consider himself the richest man in Idaho …’
With loving gentleness she lifted the lifeless fingers of her deceased husband. Resting underneath were three exquisitely shined red marbles. (from Whisper This… Not to Your Horse, To Yourself by Smokie Brannaman)
This is love. Caring for those who cannot care for themselves. Offering not just needs, but in this case not taking away their sense of self by denying them the ability to help “pay” for what they needed. We are given opportunities to love, even those we don’t like, every single day. Our job is simple. Not easy. But simple. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. All that simple. All that hard.