The Greatest Thing in the World

A little while ago I signed up to receive Holy Trinity Brompton’s ‘The Bible in One Year’ daily email (which can be signed up to here – Today’s offering was entitled The Greatest Thing in the World, and contained three readings, one of which was the very familiar 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13.

Normally, I can’t help smiling slightly when I think of that bit of Scripture. It always reminds me of weddings, that Nice Bible Reading that is picked out by most couples, normally surfacing at various nuptials that I have been to not as a guest, but as a singer. It’s ‘ah’-inducing, makes the congregation feel warm and fuzzy as they contemplate the love of the happy couple. The problem is, I’ve heard it so many times, it seems like it’s becoming devoid of meaning for me, and has reduced to some fluffy nice-sounding saying that’s a bit too Love Actually to be taken seriously.

Have you ever had that, where a text you know really well seems elusive somehow, and you can’t get at what it really means anymore? I get it a lot. Partly, this is from singing in evensong so regularly, where the awesomeness of the traditional English text of the Magnificat has become so dead to me I can’t listen to it without humming some setting or other. But it also happens with the Lord’s Prayer (both in traditional and modern translations) and even with stereotypical ‘Christian’ phrases like ‘edifying’, ‘soften hearts’, even some of Jesus’ own words like ‘repent and believe the good news’. What does it actually mean?

The relationship between words and meaning, along with my thoughts on what this has to do with Scripture, will have to wait for a further post (it’s something I’ve been idly thinking of a fair bit recently, crossing over with Linguistics as it does, but I have few coherent thoughts at this stage). Today, however, I read ‘The Message’ translation of some of the verses I quoted above, and, rather than thinking about wedding dresses, pretty flowers and cooing relatives, was struck fully by the self-sacrificing nature of love, the ‘greatest gift’ that I know St Paul is describing in this part of his letter  (‘be struck’ is, incidentally, another of those phrases that now eludes meaning for me …) I rejoiced that sometimes something as simple as reading a familiar text in another translation really does help me to engage with it.

The Bible in One Year email also told of a missionary who vowed to take the reading and substitute the word Love with her name, and stop where she got to a characteristic which she knew was not true of her. The plan was to do this every day until she died, in the hope that by the end of her life she might be able to say the whole thing. Awkwardly, I gave it a little go. It was embarrassing to do. And so humbling. Substituting Love with Jesus was easy, however, highlighting even more the difference between mine and my saviour’s behaviour and attitudes. If ever someone was going to ask me to formulate some sort of response to the recent rioting, I’d start right here, and challenge every single person to try substituting their name where Love is, that’s rioter, politician, media commenter, those who helped clear up, parents of those involved, school teachers, those whose property was looted. It might remind us of how we all too easily have one standard for ourselves and one for others. It might remind us of the perfection of God, who is love, manifested in Jesus dying for us and rising to new life so that we can share in his new life. It might make us more fully aware of our own sinfulness. It certainly did me. Why don’t you try it?

‘Love never gives up [‘Love is patient’, NIV]
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first”,
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end’

(vv.4–7, The Message).

4 thoughts on “The Greatest Thing in the World

  1. I have been lucky enough *not* to have heard this passage so often at weddings that it has become evacuated of resonance for me. It helps, though, to read the whole of the letter ignoring the chapter divisions and the headings. This passage comes to form the climax of the whole letter and is in fact a manifesto for the church; read as such it becomes challenging in two distinct ways, I think: (a) in that it addresses quite a lot of our intra-congregational and broader denominational spats; and (b) the conventional (and appropriately Pauline) association of love with marriage reminds us that marriage is the basic mission unit of the church, and was perceived as such by Paul. A not insubstantial number of Paul’s apparently controversial teachings on marriage and gender relations come into a much better focus in this light.

  2. Thanks Bro. I always read it within the context of spiritual gifts (since it is sandwiched between sections on this), and love surpassing even those as the greatest gift. But what intrigued me more is this idea of language losing meaning the more we know a text. I’ll grant it isn’t irreversible, and certainly I’m not advocating ‘renewing’ texts (e.g. translations etc) as a general principle, otherwise it’ll get as tiresome that I can’t get meaning out of a text that’s always changing as it was with the original.

  3. I love ‘The Message’, particularly the beautitudes which are really illuminating in that translation. Big fan of those Corinthians verses too – not sure about ‘Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have’. This doesn’t seem the same to me as ‘Love does not envy’. Surely it is okay to have aspirations to have more food if one is hungry, for example?

    • Hi Vicky – thanks for your comment. I’ll agree that ‘Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have’ doesn’t necessarily mean the same as ‘Love doesn’t envy’. I am not clued up in NT Greek enough (yet!) to be able to tell you which one is ‘closer’, if indeed it’s possible. You’ll know from translating yourself that phrases can have subtle nuances which aren’t captured when one tries to map foreign words onto English words. This can result in ‘multiple meanings’, if you like, or even English words carrying nuances that the Greek perhaps does not, or vice versa. Indeed, the nature of translation and what the text meant at the time is notoriously difficult to pin down anyway (as is the difficulties that arise when so much time has passed between author and reader contact, and when texts are well known and loved in particular translations – something I’ll probably blog on in future). As for your question about having aspirations to have more food if one is hungry – I really don’t know. Perhaps my brother has some thoughts? Hunger is obviously instinctive, like pain, whereas coveting isn’t, so perhaps that’s where the distinction lies, as there’s obviously nothing sinful about being hungry. If one’s hunger leads one to envy or covet others’ possessions (in this case, food), then it’s still sinful, I’d say. Mind you, I’d argue that sinfulness can be pretty instinctive too, so maybe that doesn’t work as a distinguishing feature. That’s a very spur-of-the-moment, not particularly coherently grappled together answer. You’ve got me thinking – which is exactly the purpose of this blog, so thank you!

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