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1 Corinthians: The Profound Meaning in Paul's Prescription for Marriage

01/24/2011 10:57 pm 22:57:05 | Updated May 25, 2011

The wedding crashers in the eponymous film lounge in the pews, illegitimate as cuckoos and lay their bets: What reading will be offered during the ceremony?

"First Corinthians," Owen Wilson says, and his confidence is justified. "Love is patient, love is kind ... " the minister intones, and Vince Vaughn pays up. It's a funny moment, but frankly, not a particularly impressive feat. You don't have to be clairvoyant, nor even have attended dozens of weddings to predict this: Paul's first letter to the community at Corinth provides some of the very few Bible verses remotely congenial to the modern wedding service.

If I, as a minister and frequent wedding officiate, can quote St. Paul's ringing declaration that "faith, hope and love abide ... and the greatest of these is love," from memory, the reason is that the pickins' are slim. To the extent that marriage is mentioned at all, it is taken for granted as a desirable (though not, strictly speaking, essential) precondition for the procreation of God's people. Don't get me wrong: There is no doubt marriage in the ancient near east could be a rewarding arrangement for all concerned, but the words "love" and "marriage" aren't often found snuggled together in the text.

In our enlightened times, a wedding is not generally held to be a celebration of the prospect of legitimate offspring, nor about family obligations, community stability or economic security (the fact that marriage, statistically speaking, still tends to confer these goods notwithstanding). Instead, we ask our friends and relatives to honor us with their presence, presents, and Kleenex-stanched emotion in celebrating ... love.

At least as far as our language goes, we English-speakers are promiscuous lovers. We lavish the same feeling, or at least the same word, on sexual partners, spouses and lifelong friends as we do on works of art, flavors of ice cream, Bono and the poor and downtrodden.

By contrast, even the ancient near eastern speakers of low, or Koine Greek could name their reactions with far more precision. Philos, to name one sort of love, described the way one feels for relatives and friends; philos is undergirded by loyalty and history, as well as affinity. Sexual desire, to name another possibility, along with other passions recognized as being similarly loony, was eros (and thus, "erotica.")

First Corinthians is not a passage about the transports of a fresh, hot romance, nor even the warm, friendly contentment of a long-term, committed relationship. In a sense, it's not even about love...at least, not the kind of love that can be adequately symbolized by the veil, the kiss and a heart-shaped hot tub waiting somewhere in the Poconos.

A hundred years or so ago, in fact, it's an even bet that I would be reading from the King James Version of the Bible (the one with all the thee's and thou's) and brides and grooms would be informed that "faith, hope and charity abide ... and the greatest of these is charity."

It's not a romantic word these days. Hell, it probably didn't sound all that romantic a century ago either, but maybe in those days, married couples knew they had more at stake than sex and friendship.

St. Paul, writing in Greek, used an unromantic word, too: The same word that appears in the Gospel of John in declaring God is love. That word is agape. Roman church translated that word -- agape -- into the Latin caritas, from which we get our English word "charity." Lugging our canned goods to the soup kitchen or our UNICEF boxes around the neighborhood on Halloween might make us feel virtuous, but it is a joyless sort of virtue, at least in the mind's eye, not something that goes down well with wedding cake and canapés.

While it is lovely to be in a position to offer charity, it is humiliating to have to take it, so the word has disagreeable associations, ones which no doubt the translators of the New Standard Edition hoped to avoid by substituting the all-purpose word love. It was inevitable, I suppose, but the promise and challenge of the original word, agape, gets lost in translation, and this is a pity when it comes not only to the newly wed, but also to other would-be lovers. Unlike eros, agape isn't primarily a feeling (let alone a thrill) nor is it a duty imposed by genes, tradition or simple proximity. Agape is, rather, marked by a commitment toward a way of seeing and behaving toward others, a kind of consciousness and empathy which, to put it simply, results in a radical adherence to the Golden Rule.

What are the distinguishing features of this particular love, this charity, caritas, agape? You want a list? St. Paul helpfully provided one (v. 4-8) Agape is patient, agape is kind, it is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude, It does not insist on its own way: It is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice in wrongdoings but rejoices in the truth. It hears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Agape never ends.

Should a bride and groom happen to be listening during the reading of 1Corinthians13, they might note with some alarm that Paul is setting the bar awfully high for a couple of mere human beings. And so he is: What he is describing is God's love -- the selfless, ego-less, abundant, generous love that is the highest and holiest thing human beings can imagine -- and we can always imagine more than we can achieve.

This is the sort of thing I discuss with the couples who ask me to officiate at their impending nuptials. No doubt I'm pretty tedious on the subject, in fact, but I am, after all, a minister. No young man and young woman require a religious figure to declare them ready and willing to stick it out as long as the sex is good. They don't even need a minister, rabbi, priest or imam to say "this pair of cuties are such good friends, they'll still be holding hands when they're eighty ... " In Maine, you can get a notary to sign off on your eros and philos. If it's charity you're after ... you'll need a miracle.

I thought the title of my book Marriage and Other Acts Of Charity was funny. Browsers in bookstores are also amused, but they'll confess another reaction too, when asked: They assume that the serious message behind the title is going to be, "it's really nice of women to put up with men." The have/have-not dichotomy implied by our word "charity" is unfailingly described this way, while the women nod knowingly, and the men evince a glum resignation.

"Women are better at relationships," they say. "So of course, they're better at love."

Better at philos? Eros? Maybe -- that's an argument I don't feel qualified to enter into, but from my pastoral experience, everyone is lousy at agape. The sexes are, on average, equally egotistical, self-centered and morally handicapped, though there are differences, broadly-drawn, in how they express it. The best I can say about women is that we are generally better at convincing ourselves and others that our misbehaviors are actually altruistic. (I was always very convincing on this score, and I must say, if you merely wish to appear charitable, the ability to ... well, in effect, to lie well, is a marvelous advantage, but for anyone who truly wishes to be loving, the illusion that you already are will prove the first, highest obstacle.)

Agape is wildly difficult to inaugurate and sustain under the best and easiest human relationships; in a marriage it's impossible. There is a reason celibacy so often seems to suggest itself to the spiritual seeker -- it's a lot easier to love humanity than it is to love a particular human being and the more I need, rely on, and am responsible for him, the harder it is to get my own ego out of the way of seeing, hearing and really loving him. Still, the fact that it is impossible for a human being to offer what the Christian Bible, at least, defines as divine love doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile to try. Now, more than ever, First Corinthians 13 (among other traditional readings) is worth reading (and hearing) at a wedding precisely because it doesn't describe married love, or mother love, or brotherly love, but the love that is the point and purpose of being human.