Familiarity does not always breed contempt, but it can dull awareness. Consider, for example, St Paul’s reflection on love in his first Letter to the Corinthians. We think we know it so well; we hear it regularly at weddings; (although very often, when it is being read, I notice a rare stillness in the congregation). It will be heard in churches this weekend. Let me offer two comments.
First of all, Paul speaks of outstanding gifts, some natural, such as the ability to speak all languages, “the tongues of men and angels”, and the capacity to grasp the deepest truths, “understanding all the mysteries there are”, others spiritual, such as faith to move mountains, and even a readiness to sacrifice one’s own life. But “without love”, he explains, all these gifts are worthless.
So, we might wonder, what is this thing called love? What is this quality or reality without which even such overwhelming gifts have no value? How exceptional is it? And what are the implications for us? How heroic are we expected to be?
But then Paul goes on to say that love is actually rather ordinary, a matter of being kind and patient, never jealous, boastful, or conceited, and never rude or selfish. It does not take offence and is not resentful. Indeed, this all seems ordinary enough. No great heroics are required. We all know we’re not perfect. We fall short. We can be prickly, irritable and impatient, sometimes big-headed, sometimes boorish, sometimes too self-centred or oversensitive. But, by and large, we reckon we score well enough as kind and patient, understanding and considerate.
The genius of Paul’s teaching is to draw out our need to be loving, because without it our other gifts, however outstanding, are fatally flawed, and then to identify the daily reality of that loving with qualities which, shortcomings notwithstanding, we presume we possess. We may, of course, be deluding ourselves a little because the package, taken together, is powerful. All the same, it doesn’t seem that exceptional or too far beyond us. That is the first lesson we can take to heart.
The second, however, is extraordinary. Paul observes that love “delights in the truth”, but then adds immediately that it is “always ready to excuse”. What can that mean? If we delight in the truth, we must be ready not only to rejoice in what is good; we must also be prepared to confront what is wrong. How then can we be ready always to excuse? When harm has been done, especially to someone we love, how can we excuse it? If we care for the truth, we must not acquiesce in what is wrong. But perhaps that is not what is being asked of us.
Many years ago, I knew a young girl who was knocked down on a zebra crossing. She was not killed, but her injuries were severe. The driver, young and drunk, did not stop, but he was caught and sent to prison. The girl’s parents visited him there, not to vent their anger, but out of concern for his welfare. When their visits became known, some people were outraged. Those parents, however, were not indifferent to dangerous driving. They just recognised that the driver, too, was a victim.
When faced with wrong, however terrible, we must not lose sight of the possible good in the wrongdoer, whether a relation or friend, colleague or enemy. We must not confuse the doer with the deed. When Paul instructs us in loving, he wants us to remember that.
It is not an invitation to naivety. Look around. The alternative is retaliation, the spiral of violence and unrelieved darkness.