We are studying 1 Corinthians 13 for Sunday, October 25, another candidate for most well-known passage of scripture inside and outside the church. Almost anyone who has been to a wedding has heard it at least once. In this case, familiarity never seems to breed contempt, as it should not. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The larger text is Paul’s long (long) first letter to the church in Corinth, a large, prosperous, port city in Greece that reportedly had a reputation for being … a city, with the ancient world equivalent of sex clubs and opium dens, but according to Bible Odyssey that may be overblown. The city had been resettled late in the 1st century BCE by the Romans, in particular by freed slaves – which may help explain why there was an important early church there.

What we know about the church in Corinth from the evidence of the letter itself is that they were dealing with a lot of “church conflict,” “what do we do about …” practical church-life problems. Arguments. Cliques. Scandalous behavior on the part of some or one member, confused responses by the rest. Procedural questions. “Worship wars.”

[I take comfort in this, frankly. Whatever our own congregations are going through, it’s nothing new.]

1 Corinthians is a long letter – the second longest, after Romans, in the New Testament – and our text comes near the end. Paul has been dealing with all the pastoral and organizational questions, one by one. He has just finished outlining a view of the church itself as a body with lots of parts, each part individually and the whole collectively animated by God’s spirit, all working together harmoniously and functionally. [It would be silly for the hand or the foot to try to be the mouth or the ear … analogously, not everyone is an apostle or a prophet or a teacher … ] Then he says, “I will show you a more excellent way.”

The more excellent way is the substance of chapter 13.

The remainder of the letter deals specifically with the question of speaking in tongues during gathered worship, with the doctrine of the resurrection and what that means, and finally some concluding administrative matters and final greetings.

This is not to suggest that chapter 15 is an anti-climax in any way.

This text is in the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Year C, alongside the call of Jeremiah and Luke’s version of Jesus’s first sermon. But even people who have never been to church know this text, if they’ve taken a western literature class or been to a wedding or watched the funeral of Princess Diana on television or in some other way encountered this text as the persistent trace of western Christendom that it is.
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CLOSER READING: Our book reports that scholars speculate on whether the text was originally a poem already in use in the church, or even a secular one that Paul appreciated and adapted to his purpose in the letter. I don’t know. It’s more lyrical for Paul than usual, but on the other hand, Paul is rhetorically brilliant. Either way, we can’t help noticing its poetic quality, in English, and even more in Greek.

The love is the agape kind.

The word translated “give away [all my possessions]” in v3 could give us an image of doling out bits of food.

In v5, “irritable” is literally “quick to get angry,” a word that also gives us the English word paroxysm. So, we might think of throwing a tantrum. “Resentful” translates a longer Greek phrase that is literally “keeping count of wrongs,” which does amount to resentment, but is more concrete. Both seem more vivid to me.

In v7, “bears all things” literally is a verb that means covering something tightly to keep out water, so the image is maybe what we might mean when we say “hunkering down.” Then “endures all things” has a connotation of waiting things out, staying behind. I cannot help thinking of the people who stay to clean up after a long event, when their feet are already sore and it would be nicer just to go home.

In v10, the “complete” that contrasts with partial is the telos word that refers to the end result being aimed at or traveled to. I think it’s just how the Greeks talked, but it always means a lot to me.

The word for “child” in v11 emphasizes immaturity – too young to know how to talk, for instance, or too simple-minded to reason well.

In v12, the “mirror” would have been polished metal – so, it wouldn’t have produced a distinct image like a modern mirror. The word that is translated “dimly” (NRSV), or for those of us who were raised on King James, “darkly” as in “through a glass darkly,” is the Greek word that gives us our word “enigma,” a “dark saying” in the sense of being “obscure,” hard to figure out, a riddle. Like being in Plato’s cave and trying to make sense of the shadows on the wall. [Like I said, western literature.]

The main idea is that we don’t know fully or precisely what is going on; the image for that ignorance is one of squinting at something indistinct, blurry, that only gives us rather gross outlines to go on, and has to be looked at from all angles even to get that much.

One of the most memorable sermons I heard one of our former pastors preach was on this text. He went through this description of love and pointed out that love like this isn’t something we can generate in ourselves by trying hard. This description of love describes God, the way God loves. If we are going to show any of this kind of love in our own lives, it will have to come from God. If we have any of it, we know who to thank.
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mosaic painting of Saint Paul writing