The Sunday Called Quinquagesima


A revised version of this collection of commentaries, entitled Stir Up, O Lord, has been published in paperback format and as an e-book (for all major e-readers) by Sacristy Press. Buy now »

or the Next Sunday before Lent 

O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth:… that most excellent gift of charity…
1 Corinthians 13
Luke 18:31-43

Love is one of the most abused words in the language, most frequently confused with desire and not infrequently with lust; and it is one of the curiosities of tradition, the triumph of sentiment over meaning, that St. Paul’s great hymn of love in 1 Corinthians 13, is commonly read at weddings. The thought behind this is simple enough; that because the couple are in love they wish to hear the praise of love but it does not correspond with “that most excellent gift of charity” cited in the Collect. The love of a marrying couple is voluntary and, although we might never expect it to be easily practised, there is the general expectation that it will be both mutual and rewarding to both parties as givers and takers whereas the love in all three readings is of a very different kind, given without expectation of reward and often with the expectation of the opposite. For all its strivings and benefits, married love is, in Paul’s words, a childish kind of love. Grown-up love is more exacting.

The ultimate love which constitutes Paul’s model is the love of Jesus for each of us, supremely and sublimely expressed in his death on the Cross—the Gospel acts as a Lenten prologue to the events which will culminate in the Triduum—but Luke, the most skilful craftsman and anthropocentric of the evangelists, points up the awesome mystery of Christ’s love for us in the simple tale of the blind man. The love which Jesus shows him in curing him of his affliction is contrasted with the rebukes of those who were walking in front of him telling the man to keep quiet; but he will not and in this brief encounter we are reminded of the denial of Jesus by his followers and the faith of the repentant thief. The cost of his passion was incalculable to the disciples but they had still not learned, in spite of countless similar incidents, about the extent of Jesus’ love for the poor and weak.

When Paul has faithfully gone through all the issues raised with him, out of the almost interminable complexities of Romans this great hymn emerges with crystalline clarity. Paul says that whatever importance may be attached to other matters, love is our ultimate purpose and takes precedence over proclamation, faith, benevolence and even martyrdom. This is a crucial point in Romans because Chapter 13 is set against a plethora of other but secondary requirements and that point is relevant today in the broader context of our church life where ritual and doctrinal purity, judgement, the perceived requirements of Scripture and even hierarchical status are given priority over love. We should also note that the term “charity” in this context is frequently confused with benevolence when Paul is clear that it takes precedence.

Paul’s list of love’s positive attributes (inter alia): “suffereth long… envieth not… vaunteth not itself… is not easily provoked… beareth all things… never faileth” corresponds closely with Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death: “delivered unto the Gentiles,… mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: and they shall scourge him and put him to death.”

There are three aspects of love which need further consideration here. First, there is no element of reciprocity in love. We should not love our children and then complain if they do not love us. We love our children so that they may love their children. Love is not a boomerang where something we send out comes back, it goes on and on and on. Secondly, love has nothing to do with liking and is most eminent when it is bestowed on people we do not like. In this sense—and many parents will recognise this—it is possible and necessary to go on loving a person we do not like. Thirdly, one of the true elements of love is to respect difference. We are now so able to select the people we spend time with that we may be losing the practice of tolerance which is a necessary prerequisite for love (cf Fifth after Epiphany).

Love is the essence of our faith but, as Timothy Radcliffe points out (What Is The Point of Being A Christian?) that does not make us better people, just more exacting aspirants. Jesus sets us an example we cannot hope to replicate and Paul’s demands are scarcely less exacting but, without negating Paul’s ranking, we have faith in the saving Grace of Jesus and in the hope of his Resurrection when we shall see him “face to face”.

It is tempting to think that the faith of the blind man is being contrasted with the lack of faith of Jesus’ followers but in fairness Luke says that the meaning of the journey to Jerusalem was hidden from them; they could only see “through a glass darkly”. We, like Paul, are children of the Resurrection and have no such escape clause. We have before us in the Gospel the pattern of the love of Jesus for all of us and in the Epistle we have its human encoding. Knowing what we know, and loving as we should love, let us never rebuke those who seek Jesus, even if we think (as his followers clearly did) that the man was (selfishly though understandably) seeking a cure. Where they saw selfishness, Jesus saw faith. That is a hard lesson for us but just as he loved his followers nonetheless, so he loves all of us now.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Is 13 a suitable wedding text? If not, what other readings would you suggest?
  2. Why is loving so difficult?
  3. Consider Romans 13 as a critique of the contemporary Church
  4. What childish things must we leave behind?
  5. Compare Romans 13 with your favourite poem or song about love.

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)