Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
— 1 Corinthians 13:1
The greek term agape is translated as 'charity' in the KJV but as 'love' in most other versions. Both translations are inaccurate, but I think the KJV comes closer in meaning, given that the word 'charity' itself had a different meaning in the 1600s to the way we use it today. This is clear from the third verse of chapter 13, And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor...and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Giving all your goods to feed the poor would certainly be considered charity today—the height of charity in fact. But here we read that without charity such giving is as nothing. What then did charity mean? Perhaps something closer to the word agape itself: the unconditional love of God for man and of man for God.
Charity today is a patronising act of the rich bestowing their leftovers on the poor—their excess/unwanted goods or money they can't figure out how to spend on themselves. Charity makes us feel good about ourselves, and in that sense is ultimately a selfish act. It has little to do with God-love. I think the authors of this quote on compassion get to the heart of this.
"We cannot suffer with the poor when we are unwilling to confront those persons and systems that cause poverty. We cannot set the captives free when we do not want to confront those who carry the keys. We cannot profess our solidarity with those who are oppressed when we are unwilling to confront the oppressor. Compassion without confrontation fades quickly to fruitless sentimental commiseration."1
God-love, agape, is not soft love, and certainly not niceness. It is tough, confrontational love that requires an active response as much as, possibly more than, an emotional one. The translation of agape to the (nowadays) generic word 'love' loses the essence of these passages, reducing the permanence of God-love to the temporary nature of eros or even philia, the former, as the divorce rate attests to, changes according to whim and circumstance, the latter less so, but still impermanent.2
When we read And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. this is not intended to be a sentimental reading for the romance of a wedding, but rather a call to play an active part in the Christian movement, in harmony with God.
1 From Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Douglas A. Morrison, Henri J.M. Nouwen and Donald P. McNeill, p.124
2 The four different words for love used in the Bible, and all translated as either 'love' or 'charity' are discussed in great detail in The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis, 1960