Yes, But the Greatest of These is Charity
On Wednesdays our principal, Dr Hittner, would begin the assembly program with a selected reading from the Bible. Passages considered doctrinaire or sectarian were avoided, so we heard many Psalms and, occasionally, passages from the Books of Isaiah or Micah. The New Testament passage I remember being read was I Corinthians 13, Paul’s magnificent hymn to “faith, hope, and charity.” It was read somewhat regularly, maybe three or four times a year, since it was one of only a few passages read from the New Testament. These Bible passages were read without comment, following the Pledge of Allegiance, and then the assembly began. It was the Fifties and this was one of the largest high schools in Philadelphia. Nobody was excused from all-school assembly. Boys came in trousers, wearing good shirts and ties. No jacket required. No T-shirts allowed. Girls wore skirts and blouses.
The passage from I Corinthians has stuck in my mind ever since as a sort of religion-neutral encouragement to be compassionate. Because of that high school experience, I always link it with Micah, chapter 6, with its passionate injunction, “What does the Lord require of you, O Man, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Justice and compassion, ah yes. They belong together in everyone’s walk through this world – no matter what your “race, color, or creed” as we used to say.
Recently in contemplating I Corinthians 13 – “for the greatest of these is charity” (“love” in the new translations) – I was struck by something that has lain hidden in my consciousness all these years. It was sparked by comments of St Augustine, the great bishop and theologian in the 4th and 5th centuries. In commenting on this passage, Augustine says that faith and hope will disappear beyond this life, but charity will remain. He reasons thus: we will not need faith, because our faith will either be confirmed or not and thus will pass away. We will not need hope because the object of our hoping will have been achieved. For Augustine, this object is the vision of God granted to the blessed. So hope will pass away. Toss in knowledge, too, for “it will cease.” But charity or love – ah that’s different – for it will remain. His conclusion is simple: “The three virtues of faith, hope, and charity are necessary for this life; but after this life, charity alone will suffice.” As Paul says, imperfect things pass away, but love? That never passes away.
This is a sobering thought. It means that the arguments people spend so much time on, the arguments that can proceed even to the level of violence by one believer against another, are not worth a hill of beans once we are gone. Return to Micah once again. What counts is to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” After this life is over, and no matter what may lie beyond it, the main event will have been the justice we pursued and the love we poured out toward others.
When we die we will probably not say, “Gee if only I had gone to one more meeting or scored one more business deal.” What will count will be the selfless love we showed to others. The medieval classic, The Imitation of Christ, rests on this thought. We are not called to imitate the faith or the hope of Christ, if we are Christians, but his love and compassion. That’s where the path leads. To express love and compassion is at once more human and more divine than all of our knowledge and faith and hope.
published 07 May 10