The Greatest of These
First Corinthians 13 contains Paul’s famous treatise on agape, which in most modern translations of the Bible is rendered as “love.”
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. . . . Love never ends. . . . And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:1-3, 13:8, and 13:13 NRSV).
Paul’s not talking about eros, erotic love. Nor is he talking about our desire for comfort or companionship, our longing for the touch a friend or the blessing of a god. When Paul writes about a love greater than gifted speaking, wiser than knowledge or prophecy, more valuable than the strongest faith, and more precious than giving away all we possess, he is talking about a love bigger than our day-to-day relationships and interactions. His love could arguably be translated, as it is in the King James Bible, as charity.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains, but have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. . . . Charity never faileth. . . . And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity (1 Cor 13:1-3, 13:8, and 13:13 KJB).
The Greatest of These Is Charity
What, in this context, does charity mean? According to Colin Grant, in his article about agape, charity is a divine love. It is like “God reaching out to humanity, providing the assurance and inspiration” we need to love and take care of others  or, as he later puts it, “agape offers a deliverance from self.” . When we love in this sacred way, we love selflessly.
Charity is a form of service. Christian charity, or generosity, comes out of one’s sense that one is loved by God. That divine love then overflows from our hearts onto others. When we offer charity, when we give to the poor, we’re not just being kind and good. We are also, according to Hebrew and Christian thought, serving God.  In Europe during the Middle Ages, Gary A. Anderson explains, the church taught “that one actually encountered the presence of God in the poor.”  Thus, as implied in the Gospel of Matthew, to give to the poor meant one was giving to God.
I Was Hungry
Jesus is telling a series of parables. In the last one, “The Judgment of the Nations,” he talks about a king in heaven. When souls die, they go up to this king who says to them:
“'. . . for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matt 25:25-40 NRSV).
By doing for these “least,” we earn a place in heaven. If Paul is correct, though, it is not enough to go through the motions. To earn that place at the king’s right hand, we must give to others with love. That’s because the love that reflects God’s love and that treats the poor and vulnerable as if they were Jesus in the flesh brings heaven into our hearts.
Heaven doesn’t come to us in the future. We find it now. When we show a true charity that arises out of love, compassion and joy swell within our own hearts, and there, heaven will be. That’s what true charity can bring.
These days, however, we don’t think of charity as offering heaven. Indeed, it often has a negative connotation.
At a previous hospital where I worked, patients who could not pay their bill were invited to request “charity.” Some of them took exception to this word. They were not “charity cases.” They weren’t indigent or crippled or incapable of taking care of themselves. Maybe they were going through hard times, but they could manage their lives. Because of how they understood the word “charity,” some of them refused to apply to the hospital’s financial assistance program.
That’s not surprising. People often look down on those of us who need help. Whether we can’t pay our electric bill, don’t have the money to buy food, or need a tent to sleep in and a jacket to keep us warm, we may feel shamed by those who give to us. We want to be grateful for anything we receive, but it can be hard when it’s food we don’t like or clothing that’s too small.
Sometimes those who give place conditions on what the needy receive. For instance, some Christian organizations make their guests to listen to a sermon before they can eat. Other organizations require people to look for work or agree give up a lifestyle considered immoral, such as addiction or prostitution. Some people have proposed that food stamp cards be programmed to refuse payment for “unhealthy” items such as soda or candy. Charity can be a way to control others rather than reflect the love of the divine.
“The Bogus Trinity”
Perhaps that vision of charity was behind the thinking of one of our members who said, “Faith, hope, and charity sound bogus.”
What did he mean by that? It’s hard to know. After all, communication is tricky. Words are complex, with multiple meanings and even more associations. What, for instance, is faith? Who believes and in what? How do we use faith in our lives; how do we abuse it? Can we survive without a faith in something?
Hope, too, can be life-giving, as when we endure hurricanes and torture by believing that one day this, too, will end. Is that not hope? Yet hope can also trap us in dreams of the future. Are we not better off when we live in the moment, the eternal now?
Just as faith and hope can be both helpful and unhelpful, so can charity. Generosity can arise out of love. It can be a selfless serving of God and humanity, an honest meeting of Christ in the other person. Alternately, charity can be a means to control those who are not fortunate enough to live the privileged lives of the generous. Such an attitude is often justified by the belief that if the indigent and marginalized had a bit more self-determination, morality, and religion, they could tidy up and join the middle class.
No wonder another member of our group suggested that this column could be called “the bogus trinity.” Faith, hope, and charity can be lies.
Living Out True Charity
On 82nd Avenue in Portland, Rahab’s Sisters, offers true charity. These women serve other women and gender-nonconforming individuals who are, as they write on their website, “marginalized by poverty, houselessness, sex work, violence, and substance use.”
A number of years ago, I met with some of their leaders to better understand their ministry. I hoped the Universalist Recovery Church could replicate it. From them, I discovered that they treated those who sought their assistance treated with respect and dignity. They didn’t quote scriptures at them or attempt to reform prostitutes or convince addicts to stop using drugs. Their “guests” were asked what they needed, and attempts were made to meet their needs, even if it meant offering things like sheer stockings, slinky underwear, and condoms that the volunteers might not approve of. After all, this wasn’t about the volunteers. It was about the women being served.
Charity as a Relationship
True charity requires a relationship, a connection between the one helping and the one being helped. If we give from an agape love, that is charity. Then we will not only improve the lives of those we serve, but our lives will also be improved. We will be changed. Those who help out at Rahab’s Sisters might seek reward in heaven or self-satisfaction, but they gain something more. When we get to know the people we offer charity to, when we listen to their stories with open minds, we learn who they are, but we also learn who we are. Our hearts grow wider and we grow in wisdom.
Those who show true charity give out of faith, hope, and love. In a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim community, the members proclaim a faith in a god whose own love encourages such generosity. We need not be religious in this way to have a faith that we can make a difference in someone else’s life.
We also offer charity because we have hope. If we believe life can improve, that people can change, that love can overcome hate, we’re more likely to be generous than if we have lost hope. And without love, or charity, in our hearts, we wouldn’t even bother.
Limits of Charity
But charity is not an unmitigated good. Centralized assistance through government agencies, such as those designed to help the poor get stabilized, can be more beneficial than one-time handouts. An adequate food stamp program, for instance, would not only be more efficient than food banks and soup kitchens, but also more dignified. People wouldn’t feel so ashamed, they wouldn’t have to travel and wait hours on line, and they could buy and cook food they want to eat. Also, if we changed the structure of our capitalist system, fewer people would need assistance in the first place.
Besides, individuals and churches don’t have the capacity to help all those who need help. According to Anderson, this became a significant concern during the 16th-century in England, when Catholic monasteries were destroyed, their hospitals and almshouses with them. Begging increased astronomically. The citizens became overwhelmed. They needed the civic government to step in and assist the poor.  In many cases, the government did.
This was a blessing, but it also created a distance between the poor and those who served them. Whether we support programs through our taxes, or we give to nonprofits, our money may do good for those who benefit, but it does little to change us.
Charity That Comes From Love
No matter what sort of charity we offer, and no matter who offers it, giving to the poor and vulnerable will always be controversial. We will disagree on how best to help those in need, and we will argue over who deserves that help. Some people take advantage of any generosity. The poor and marginalized might contain Christ within them, and when we serve them, we might be serving Jesus, but that doesn’t make every one of them a saint. Just as wealthy people can be nasty, so can the poor.
But if the charity we offer arises out of love, we offer it not only to those we like or who we think deserve it or who speak politely or act gratefully or seem to have kind hearts. We offer charity to whoever claims to need it, because charity isn’t about good or bad or right or wrong. It’s about the love of the holy. We offer charity not because it improves the soul of the one who receives, but because it improves our souls.
Faith, hope, and charity may be bogus sometimes, but they don’t have to be. Perhaps Paul was right. Maybe we do all need faith and hope. Certainly, we need charity, the kind of charity based on love.
No matter how far we have come in this world, no matter how rich or famous, we couldn’t have gotten where we are if others had not paved the roads on which we drive. We might have worked hard, but we didn’t do everything ourselves; we might have planned carefully, but we didn’t create our own luck. All of us depend on the goodwill and charity of others, to one degree or another.
If we allow it to, charity can change our hearts. We volunteer, serve, offer charity for all kinds of reasons. Just because we give doesn’t mean we’re saints. We bring our full selves to whatever we do. If that self is judgmental and scornful, if we think service is about spreading the word of our god, we may need to be humbled a bit before we learn true charity.
But regardless of why we sit at the table, if we deign to volunteer, at least we are there. Once there, anything can happen. We can learn to open our hearts to the person in front us, to see in that person a reflection of the divine. If so, we will change. Then we might discover that, though we think we are the ones who give, in actuality, we are the ones who receive.
In faith and fondness,
- Grant, Colin, “For the Love of God: Agape,” The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 24, no. 1, 1996, pp. 3–21, 4, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40016679. Accessed 5 Sept. 2020.
- Ibid 7.
- Anderson, Gary A.. Charity : The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition, Yale University Press, 2013, 18.
- Ibid 6.
- Ibid 9.
Photo by Tom Parsons on Unsplash
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