In the reading from 1st Corinthians from today, Paul writes what is now called a Hymn to Love. Part of it reads:
“Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, it is not pompous,
It is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
Paul wrote this letter in order to encourage love in places that he saw were in need of love. It was less a hymn praising love where Paul already saw it, than a gentle reminder to the Corinthian community to be loving in places where they were not yet loving. As is the case with any of the virtues, whether moral or theological, the question is not only “What is the ideal?,” but also more practically, “How do we get there?” Love is patient, kind, hopeful, truthful, forgiving, and centered on the well being of another rather than on oneself. Yet rarely do we become more patient or hopeful just by thinking about patience or hopefulness alone. Love takes practice.
The earlier readings give us a clue as to how to practice becoming more loving. Although the reading from Jeremiah is a reassurance of the strength of Jeremiah against his enemies, the source of that strength is in Jeremiah’s weakness. God reminds him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” God reminds Jesus of a time when he was utterly dependent upon God, his earliest days in the womb and even that his very existence comes from God and not from himself. God, and not Jeremiah, is the source of his strength. Thus Jeremiah is encouraged to do God’s will by being reminded of his utter dependence on the Lord. Similarly, the Psalm readings (from Psalm 71) speak of God as a rock and a refuge, and again remind us of our earliest, weakest state of being human: “On you I depend from birth; from my mother’s womb you are my strength.” Thus, we are asked to remember our “littleness” before God and our state as dependent creatures.
Paul says something similar to the Corinthians. He tells them not to forget that most of the gifts by which we evaluate and judge others are passing: prophecy, knowledge, spiritual gifts, all of these are partial and temporary. They are partial because no knowledge or spiritual gift comprehends all; God alone is omniscient. They are temporary because in heaven, these gifts will no longer serve the same function. Love, however, is lasting. The loves that we have while we are alive will come with us into heaven. Love alone remains. Thus, to practice love, we ought to remember our littleness, remember our dependency on God, and remember that others have beautiful gifts that we lack—and that this is a good thing. Love requires humility.