Last week in First Corinthians we read about the diverse spiritual gifts that make up the one body of Christ. This week our reading begins, “Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way.” What follows if, of course, the sublime hymn to charity of 1 Corinthians 13.
Our reading from 1 Corinthians 13 has important connections with 1 Corinthians 12, in both directions. On the one hand, chapter 13 interprets chapter 12. Chapter 12 discusses all the various individual gifts – but urges the Church to be bound together. Chapter 13 says that the way we are bound together is through charity. That’s why our reading from chapter 13 says things like “If I speak in human and angelic tongues” – because love is correcting and completing the less important gifts, such as tongues, about which we read in chapter 12.
On the other hand, chapter 12 interprets chapter 13. Chapter 12 is about all the different kinds of gifts. Talking about those diverse gifts helps emphasize that they are gifts, not things that come naturally to us. (A holy old friend used to smile about the line in 12:28 about the gift of “administration”: he had that gift, but many of us do not.) In chapter 12 we see that God – God – has made us each special. In chapter 13 we talk about what is not unique; charity is the call of all Christians. But chapter 12 reminds us that this too is a gift, “the greatest spiritual gift,” “the more excellent way.” The love that binds us together is itself God’s greatest gift.
The Old Testament reading, from Jeremiah, and the Gospel, from Luke 4, obviously harmonize. Jeremiah is being sent to preach, among opposition: “gird your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them.”
Jesus is doing the same: last week we heard that he stood up in his home synagogue to preach, telling them that the passage from Isaiah, “he has anointed me to bring glad tiding to the poor,” is fulfilled in him. This week, the people are angry at him: if he is the Messiah, why won’t he give them any miracles? “They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.” Already at the beginning of his ministry, they want to kill him. But, as with Jeremiah, God protects him: “Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.”
First Corinthians gives us a key to these readings. As with First Corinthians, there is a struggle in our Gospel between partial, passing gifts and the ultimate gift. They want a miracle: “Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.” He doesn’t give it to them.
Or rather, he does – but he gives them a more excellent miracle. He preaches good news to the poor. And he survives their attacks. They say, “Physician, cure yourself” – and in fact, God does maintain Jesus’s health. But Jesus tries to teach them that the miracles they want are only partial. Those other miracles are only there to bring us to the Gospel of love. If we prefer bodily healings to the Gospel message, we have turned it all upside down.
God is our strength. There are limited gifts that help remind us of this truth. But what we must discover through those gifts is that love is the greatest, most spiritual gift, the more excellent way. Let us discover that love, too, is a gift.
What would change if you thought of love as a spiritual gift, not a natural endowment?