February 2-3, 2013
Fr. George Smiga
Today’s second reading is one of the most famous passages in the New Testament. It is Paul’s hymn to love from his First Letter to the Corinthians. I could count on one hand the number of times I presided at a marriage over the last 40 years where this passage was not used.
When we think of love, we get all warm and fuzzy. We imagine Paul being enthralled by romance. But when we examine Paul’s hymn to love, it quickly becomes clear that his understanding of love is different than the normally accepted understanding. In fact, in Paul’s understanding, there are two distinctive qualities of love, both of which can surprise us.
The first is this: For Paul, love is not a feeling; it is an action. Paul does not describe love by giving an account of its impact upon our emotions. Instead, he simply lists the actions that people who love do. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not jealous. It is not pompous. Love is not inflated or rude. Love does not seek its own interests. It is not quick tempered, nor does it brood over injuries. It does not rejoice over wrongdoing, but it rejoices with the truth.
This list of actions—treating other people with kindness and respect, forgiving past hurts, and rejoicing in goodness—is the way that Paul defines love. He really does not care how we feel about doing any of these actions. What he cares about is that we do them. So contrary to the Hollywood notion of love that seizes our hearts and sweeps us off our feet, true love for Paul is a decision to act in a particular way. It is not falling into love, but it is living love in every circumstance.
This leads to the second distinctive and surprising characteristic that Paul ascribes to love. For Paul, love is a vocation, a ministry, a responsibility, a way of giving witness to our faith in God. Paul knows that actions of love are powerful and have the ability to draw others to the person who does them.
Several years ago there was a feature article in one of the major newspapers of our country about a man who collected tolls for the turnpike. His name was Sam and he worked at a busy interchange where there were six tollbooths. But Sam’s line was always two, three, or four times longer than any of the other booths at that exit. For some reason, people were willing to wait five or ten minutes longer in order to pay their toll to Sam.
When the reporter from the newspaper explored this phenomenon, he found that the reason for it was rather simple: Sam was a consistently kind and positive person. He would greet everyone with, “Good morning. How’s the family?” He would add personal comments, “Oh, I like your new glasses.” This simple approach of kindness, patience, and goodness drew people to Sam. They were willing to wait longer simply to see him. As one of the drivers who was interviewed for the article said, “My job is a rat race from nine to five, and I go from one problem to another. So I need a cup of strong coffee and a few kind words from Sam before I begin my day.”
Actions of love have the power of drawing people to those who do them. This is why Paul wants the Corinthians to act with love because such actions are a powerful witness to a God in whom we believe.
Now, the article in the paper did not say whether Sam was a Christian or not. But, if he was, his actions would make his faith credible to others. People can disagree with our doctrines. They can remain unimpressed by our worship. But everyone is attracted by actions of love. This is why Paul tells the Corinthians that they are to treat others with kindness, patience, and forgiveness, in a way that uplifts what is good. He tells them to do this not to make them feel warm and satisfied but to witness to the God who loves us. When we treat others with love, we draw them to believe in God—a God in whom it is worth believing.