St John Chrysostom’s Homiletic Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Posted by Dim Bulb on February 15, 2012
The following has been excerpted from the Saint’s Thirty-second Homily on First corinthians 12:27-13:3. The entire homily can be found here.
1 Cor 13:1. “If I speak with the tongues of men,”
What is, “of men?” Of all nations in every part of the world. And neither was he content with this amplification, but he likewise uses another much greater, adding the words, “and of angels,-and have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.”
Dost thou see to what point he first exalted the gift, and to what afterwards he lowered and cast it down? For neither did he simply say, “I am nothing,” but, “I am become sounding brass” a thing senseless and inanimate But how “sounding brass?” Emitting a sound indeed, but at random and in vain, and for no good end. Since besides my profiting nothing, I am counted by most men as one giving impertinent trouble, an annoying and wearisome kind of person. Seest thou how one void of love is like to things inanimate and senseless?
Now he here speaks of the “tongues of angels,” not investing angels with a body, but what he means is this: “should I even so speak as angels are wont to discourse unto each other, without this I am nothing, nay rather a burden and an annoyance.” Thus (to mention one other example) where he saith, “To Him every knee shall bow, of things in heaven and things on earth, and things under the earth,” (Philipp 2:10) he doth not say these things as if he attributed to angels knees and bones, far from it, but it is their intense adoration which he intends also here he calls it “a tongue” not meaning an instrument of flesh, but intending to indicate their converse with each other by the manner which is known amongst us.
Then, in order that his discourse may be acceptable, he stops not at the gift of tongues, but proceeds also to the remaining gifts; and having depreciated all in the absence of love, he then depicts her image. And because he preferred to conduct his argument by amplification, he begins from the less and ascends to the greater. For whereas, when he indicated their order, he placed the gift of tongues last, this he now numbers first; by degrees, as I said, ascending to the greater gifts. Thus having spoken of tongues, he proceeds immediately to prophecy; and saith;
1 Cor 13:2. “And if I have the gift of prophecy.”
And this gift again with an excellency. For as in that case he mentioned not tongues, but the tongues of all mankind, and as he proceeded, those of angels, and then signified that the gift was nothing without love: so also here he mentions not prophecy alone but the very highest prophecy: in having said, “If l have prophecy,” he added, “and know all mysteries and all knowledge;” expressing this gift also with intensity.
Then after this also he proceeds to the other gifts. And again, that he might not seem to weary them, naming each one of the gifts, he sets down the mother and fountain of all, and this again with an excellency, thus saying, “And if I have all faith.” Neither was he content with this, but even that which Christ spake of as greatest, this also he added, saying, “so as to remove mountains and have not love, I am nothing.” And consider how again here also he lowers the dignity of the tongues. For whereas in regard of prophecy he signifies the great advantage arising from it, “the understanding mysteries, and having all knowledge;” and in regard of faith, no trifling work, even “the removing mountains;” in respect of tongues, on the other hand, having named the gift itself only, he quire it.
But do thou, I pray, consider this also, how in brief he comprehended all gifts when he named prophecy and faith: for miracles are either in words or deeds. And how doth Christ say, that the least degree of faith is the being able to remove a mountain? For as though he were speaking something very small, did He express Himself when He said, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard-seed, ye shall say to this mountain, Remove, and it shall remove;” (S. Matthew 17:20) whereas Paul saith that this is “all faith.” What then must one say? Since this was a great thing, the removing a mountain, therefore also he mentioned it, not as though “all faith” were only able to do this, but since this seemed to be great to the grosser sort because of the bulk of the outward mass, from this also he extols his subject. And what he saith is this: “If I have all faith, and can remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
1 Cor 13:3. “And if I below all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing.”
Wonderful amplification! For even these things too he states with another addition: in that he said not, “if I give to the poor the half of my goods,” or “two or three parts,” but, “though I give all my goods.” And he said not, “give,” but, “distribute in morsels,” so that to the expense may be added the administering also with all care.
But not even yet have I pointed out the whole of the excellency, until I bring forward the testimonies of Christ which were spoken concerning almsgiving and death. What then are His testimonies? To the rich man He saith, “If thou wouldest be perfect, sell what thou hast and give o the poor, and come, follow me.” (S. Matthew 19:21) And discoursing likewise of love to one’s neighbor, He saith, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man may lay down his life for his friends” (S. John 15:13) Whence it is evident, that even before God this is greatest of all. But, “I declare,” said Paul, “that even if we should lay down life for God’s sake, and not merely lay it down, but so as even to be burned, (for this is the meaning of, “if I give my body to be burned,”) we shall have no great advantage if we love not our neighbor.” Well then, the saying’ that the gifts are of no great profit without charity is no marvel: since our gifts are a secondary consideration to our way of life. At any rate, many have displayed gifts, and yet on becoming vicious have been punished: as those who “prophesied in His name, and cast out many demons, and wrought many mighty works;” as Judas the traitor: while others, exhibiting as believers a pure life, have needed nothing else in order to their salvation. Wherefore, that the gifts should, as I said, require this, is no marvel: but that an exact life even should avail nothing without it, this is what Christ appears to adjudge His great rewards to both these, I mean to the giving up our possessions, and to the perils of martyrdom. For both to the rich man He saith, as I before observed, “If thou wilt be perfect, sell thy goods, and give to the poor, and come, follow me:” and discoursing with the disciples, of martyrdom He saith, “Whosoever shall lose his life for My sake, shall find it;” and, “Whosoever shall confess Me before men, him will will I also confess before My Father which is in heaven.” For great indeed is the labor of this achievement, and well nigh surpassing nature itself, and this is well known to such as have had these crowns vouchsafed to them. For no language can set it before us: so noble a soul doth the deed belong to and so exceedingly wonderful is it.
But nevertheless, this so wonderful thing Paul said was of no great profit without love, even though it have the giving up of one’s goods joined with it. Wherefore then hath he thus spoken? This will I now endeavor to explain, first having enquired of this, How is it possible that one who gives all his goods to feed the poor can be wanting in love? I grant, indeed, he that is ready to be burned and hath the gifts, may perhaps possibly not have love: but he who not only gives his goods, but even distributes them in morsels; how hath not he love? What then are we to say? Either that he supposed an unreal case as real; which kind of thing he is ever wont to do, when he intends to set before us something in excess; as when writing to the Galatians he saith, “If we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that ye receive let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8) And yet neither was himself nor an angel about to do so; but to signify that he meant to carry the matter as far as possible, he set down even that which could never by any means happen. And again, when he writes to the Romans, and saith, “Neither angels, nor principalities, nor powers, shall be able to separate us from the love of God;” for neither was this about to be done by any angels: but here too he supposes a thing which was not; as indeed also in what comes next, saying, “nor any other creature,” whereas there is no other creature, for he had comprehended the whole creation, having spoken of all things both above and below. Nevertheless here also he mentions that which was not, by way of hypothesis, so as to show his exceeding desire. Now the same thing he doth here also, saying, “If a man give all, and have not love, it profits him nothing.”
Either then we may say this, or that his meaning is for those who give to be also joined closely to those who retire, and not merely to give without sympathy, but in pity and condescension, bowing down and grieving with the needy. For therefore also hath almsgiving been enacted by God: since God might have nourished the poor as well without this, but that he might bind us together unto charity and that we might be thoroughly fervent toward each other, he commanded them to be nourished by us. Therefore one saith in another place also; “a good word is better than a gift;” (Ecclesiastes chapter 18, verse 16 and Ecclesiastes chapter 18, verse 17) and, “behold, a word is beyond a good gift.” (Ecclesiastes 18:16 and Ecclesiastes 18:17) And He Himself saith, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice” (S. Matthew 9:30; Hosea 6:6) For since it is usual, both for men to love those who are benefited by them, and for those who receive benefits to bemore kindly affected towards their benefactors; he made this law, constituting it a bond of friendship.
But the point proposed for enquiry above is, How, after Christ had said that both these belong to perfection, Paul affirms, that these without charity are imperfect? Not contradicting Him, God forbid: but harmonizing with Him, and that exactly. For so in the case of the rich man, He said, not merely, “sell thy goods, and give to the poor,” but He added, “and come, follow Me.” Now not even the following Him proves any man a disciple of Christ so completely as the loving one another. For, “by this shall all men know,” saith He, when He saith, “Whosoever loseth his life for My sake, shall find it;” (S. Matthew 10:39 and Matthew 10:35) and, “whosoever shall confess Me before men, him will I also confess before My Father which is in heaven;” He means not this, that it is not necessary to have love, but He declares the reward which is laid up for these labor, Since that along with martyrdom He requires also this, is what He elsewhere strongly intimates, thus saying, “Ye shall indeed drink of My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with;” (S. Matthew 20:23) i.e., ye shall be martyrs, ye shall be slain for My sake; “but to sit on My right hand, and on My left, (not as though any sit on the right hand and the left, but meaning the highest precedency and honor) “is not Mine to give,” saith He, “but to those for whom it is prepared.” Then signifying for whom it is prepared, He calls them and saith, “whosoever among you will be chief, let him be servant to you all;” (S. Matthew 20:26) setting forth humility and love. And the love which He requires is intense; wherefore He stopped not even at this, but added, “even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many;” pointing out that we ought so to love as even to be slain for our beloved. For this above all is to love Him. Wherefore also He saith to Peter, “If thou lovest Me, feed My sheep.” (S. John 21:16)
And that ye may learn how great a work of virtue it is, let us sketch it out in word, since in deeds we see it no where appearing; and let us consider, if it were every where in abundance, how great benefits would ensue: how there were no need then of laws, or tribunals or punishments, or avenging, or any other such things since if all loved and were beloved, no man would injure another. Yea, murders, and strifes, and wars, and divisions, and rapines, and frauds, and all evils would be removed, and vice be unknown even in name. Miracles, however, would not have effected this; they rather puff up such as are not on their guard, unto vain-glory and folly.
Again: what is indeed the marvellous part of love; all the other good things have their evils yoked with them: as he that gives up his to love. Why, he will so live on earth as if it were heaven, every where enjoying a calm and weaving for himself innumerable crowns. For both from envy, and wrath, and jealousy, and pride, and vain-glory and evil concupiscence, and every profane love, and every distemper, such a man will keep his own soul pure. Yea, even as no one would do himself an injury so neither would this man his neighbors. And being such, he shall stand with Gabriel himself, even while he walks on earth.
Such then is he that hath love. But he that works miracles and hath perfect knowledge, without this, though he raises ten thousand from the dead, will not be much profited, broken off as he is from all and not enduring to mix himself up with any of his fellow-servants. For no other cause than this did Christ say that the sign of perfect love towards Him is the loving one’s neighbors. For, “if thou lovest Me,” saith He, “O Peter, more than these, feed My sheep.” (S. John 21:15) Dost thou see how hence also He again covertly intimates, in what case this is greater than martyrdom? For if any one had a beloved child in whose behalf he would even give up his life, and some one were to love the father, but pay no regard whatever to the son, he would greatly incense the father; nor would he feel the love for himself, because of the overlooking his son. Now if this ensue in the case of father and son, much more in the case of God and men: since surely God is more loving than any parents.
Wherefore, having said, “The first and great commandment is, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” he added, “and the second-(He leaves it not in silence, but sets it down also)-is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” And see how with nearly the same excellency He demands also this. For as concerning God, He saith, “with all thy heart:” so concerning thy neighbor, “as thyself,” which is tantamount to, “with all thy heart.”
Yea, and if this were duly observed, there would be neither slave nor free, neither rulernor ruled, neither rich nor poor, neither small nor great; nor would any devil then ever have been known: I say not, Satan only, but whatever other suchspirit there be, nay, rather were there a hundred or ten thousand such, they would have no power, while love existed. For sooner would grass endure the application of fire than the devil the flame of love. She is stronger than any wall, she is firmer than any adamant; or is thou canst name any material stronger than this the firmness of love transcends them all. Her, neither wealth nor poverty overcometh: nay, rather there would be no poverty, no unbounded wealth, if there were love, but the good parts only from each estate. For from the one we should reap its abundance, and from the other its freedom from care: and should neither have to undergo the anxieties of riches, not the dread of poverty.
And why do I mention the advantages arising from it? Yea, rather consider how great a blessing it is of itself to exercise love; what cheerfulness it produces, in how great grace it establishes the soul; a thing which above all is a choice quality of it. For the other parts of virtue have each their troubles yoked with them; as fasting temperance, watching, have envy, concupiscence, and contempt. But love along with the gain hath great pleasure, too, and no trouble, and like an industrious bee, gathering the sweets from every slower, deposits them in the soul of him who loveth. Though any one be a slave, it renders slavery sweeter that liberty. For he who loveth rejoices not so much in commanding, as in being commanded, although to command is sweet: but love changes the nature of things and presents herself with all blessings in her hands, gentler than any mother, wealthier than any queen, and makes difficulties light and easy, causing out virtues to be facile, but vice very bitter to us. As thus: to expend seems grievous, yet love makes it pleasant: to receive other men’s goods, pleasant: to receive other men’s goods, pleasant: to receive other men’s goods. pleasant, but love suffers it not to appear pleasant, but frames out minds to avoid it as an evil. Again, to speak evil seems to be pleasant to all; but love, while she makes this out to be bitter, causeth speaking well to be pleasant; for nothing is so sweet to us as to be praising one whom we love. Again, anger hath a kind of pleasure; but in this case no longer, rather all its sinners are taken away. Though he that is beloved should grieve him who loves him, anger no where shows itself; but tears and exhortations, and supplications; so far is love from being exasperated: and should she behold one in error, she mourns and is in pain; yet even this pain itself brings pleasure. For the very tears and the grief of love, are sweeter than any mirth and joy. For instance: they that laugh are not so refreshed as the that weep for their friends. And if thou doubt it, stop their tears; and they repine at it not otherwise than as persons intolerably ill-used. “But there is,” said one, “an unbecoming pleasure in love.” Avaunt, and hold thy peace, whoever thou art. For nothing is so pure from such pleasure as genuine love.
For tell me not of this ordinary sort, the vulgar and low-minded, and a disease rather than love, but of this which Paul seeks after, which considers the profit of them that are loved; and thou shalt see that no fathers are so affectionate as persons of this stamp. And even as they who love money cannot endure to spend money, but would with more pleasure be in straits than see their wealth diminishing: so too, he that is kindly affected towards any one, would choose to suffer ten thousand evils than see his beloved one injured.
“How then,” saith one, “did the Egyptian woman who loved Joseph wish to injure him?” Because she loved with this diabolical love. Joseph however not with this, but with that which Paul requires. Consider then now great a love his words were tokens of, and the action which she was speaking of. “Insult me and make me an adulteress, and wrong my husband, and overthrow all my house, and cast thyself out from thy confidence rewards God:” which were expressions of one who so far from loving him did not even love herself. But because he truly loved, he Sought to avert it was in anxiety for her, learn the nature of it from his advice. For he not only thrust her away, but also introduced an exhortation capable of quenching every flame: namely “if on my account, my master,” smith he, “knoweth not any thing which is in his house.” He at once reminds her of her husband that he might put her to shame. And he said not, “thy enamored,-a mistress, of a slave. “For if he be lord, then art thou mistress. Be ashamed then of familiarity with a servant, and consider whose wife thou art, and with whom thou wouldst be connected, and towards whom thou art becoming thankless and inconsiderate, and that I repay him greater good-will.” And see how he extols his benefits. For since that barbarous and abandoned woman could entertain no lofty sentiment, he shames her from human considerations, saying, “He knoweth nothing through me,” i.e., “he is a great benefactor to me, and I cannot strike my patron in a vital part. He hath made me a second lord of his house, and no one hath been kept back from me, but thee.” Here he endeavors to raise her mind, that so at any rate he might persuade her to be ashamed, and might signify the greatness of herhonor. Nor did he stop even here, but likewise added a name sufficient to restrain her, saying, “Because thou art his wife; and how shall I do this wickedness? But what sayest thou? That thy husband is not present, nor knoweth that he is wronged? But God will behold it.” She however profited nothing by his advice, but still sought to attract him. For desiring to satiate her own frenzy, not through love of Joseph, she did these things; and this is evident from what she did afterwards. As that she institutes a trial, and brings in accusation, and bears false witness, and exposes to a wild beast him that had done no wrong, and casts him into a prison; or rather for her part, she even slew him, in such a manner did she arm the judge against him. What then? Was then Joseph too such as she was? Nay, altogether the contrary, for he neither contradicted nor accused the woman. “Yes,” it may be said: “for he would have been disbelieved.” And yet he was greatly beloved; and this is evident not only from the beginning but also from the end. For had not his barbarian master loved him greatly, he would even have slain him in his silence, making no defence: being as he was an Egyptian and a ruler, and wronged in his marriage-bed as he supposed, and by a servant, and a servant to whom he had been so great a benefactor. But all these things gave way to his regard for him, and the grace which God poured down upon him. And together with this grace and love, he had also other no small proofs, had he been minded to justify himself; the garments themselves. For if it were she to whom violence was done, her own vest should have been torn, her face lacerated, instead of her retaining his garments. But “he heard,” saith she, “that I lifted up my voice, and left his garments, and went out.” And wherefore then didst thou take them from him? since unto one suffering violence, the one thing desirable is to be rid of the intruder.
But not from hence alone, but also from the subsequent events, shall I be able to point out his good-will and Iris love. Yea even when he fell into a necessity of mentioning the cause of his imprisonment, and his remaining there, he did not even then declare the whole course of the story. But what saith he? “I too have done nothing: but indeed I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews;” and he no where mentioned the adulteress nor doth he plume himself on the matter, which would have been any one’s feeling, if not for vain-glory, yet so as not to appear to have been cast into that cell for an evil cause. For if men in the act of doing wrong by no means abstain even so from blaming the same things, although to do so brings reproach; of what admiration is not he worthy, because, pure as he was he did not mention the woman’s passionnor make a show of her sin; nor when he ascended the throne and became ruler of all Egypt, remember the wrong done by the woman nor exact any punishment?
Seest thou how he cared for her? but her’s was not love, but madness. For it was not Joseph that she loved, but she sought to fulfil her own lust. And the very words too, if one would examine them accurately, were accompanied with wrath and great blood-thirstiness. For what saith she? “Thou hast brought in a Hebrew servant to mock us:” upbraiding her husband for the kindness; and she exhibited the garments, having become herself more savage than any wild beast: but not so he. And why speak I of his good-will to her, when he was such, we know, towards his brethren who would slay him; and never said one harsh thing of them, either within doors or without?
Therefore Paul saith, that the love which we are speaking of is the mother of all good things, and prefers it to miracles and all other gifts. For as where there are vests and sandals of gold, we require also some other garments whereby to distinguish the king: but if we see the purple and the diadem, we require not to see any other sign of his royalty: just so here likewise, when the diadem of love is upon our head, it is enough to point out the genuine disciple of Christ, not to ourselves only, but also to the unbelievers. For, “by this,” saith He, “shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (S. John 13:35)
So that this sign is greater surely than all signs, in that the disciple is recognised by it. For though any should work ten thousand signs, but be at strife one with another, they will be a scorn to the unbelievers. Just as if they do no sign, but love one another exactly, they will continue both reverenced and inviolable by all men. Since Paul himself we admire on this account, not for the dead whom he raised, nor for the lepers whom he cleansed, but because he said, “who is weak, and I am not weak? who is made to stumble, and I burn not?” (2 Corinthians 11:29) For shouldest thou have ten thousand miracles to compare with this, thou wilt have nothing equal to it to say. Since Paul also himself said, that a great reward was laid up for him, not because he wrought miracles, but because “to the weak he became as weak. For what is my reward?” saith he. “That, when I preach the Gospel, I may make the Gospel without charge.” (1 Corinthians 9:18) And when he puts himself before the Apostles, he saith not, “I have wrought miracles more abundant than they,” but, “I have labored more abundantly than they.” (1 Corinthians 15:10) And even by famine was he willing to perish for the salvation of the disciples. “For it were better for me to die,” saith he, “than that any man should make my glorying void:”(1 Corinthians 9:15) not because he was glorying, but that he might not seem to reproach them. For he no where is wont to glory in his own achievements, when the season doth not call to it; but even if he be compelled so to do he calleth, himself “a fool.” But if he ever glory it is “in infirmities,” in wrongs, in greatly sympathizing with those who are injured: even as here also he saith, “who is weak, and I am not weak?” These words are greater even than perils. Wherefore also he sets them last, amplifying his discourse.
Of what then must we be worthy compared with him, who neither contemn wealth for our own sake, nor give up the superfluities of our goods? But not so Paul; rather both soul and body did he use to give up, that they who stoned and beat him with rods, might obtain the kingdom. “For thus,” saith he, “hath Christ taught me to love;” who left behind Him the new commandment concerning love, which also Himself fulfilled in deed. For being Lord of all, and of that Blessed Nature; from men, whom He created out of nothing and on whom He had bestowed innumerable benefits, from these, insulting and spitting on Him, He turned not away, but even became man for their sakes, and conversed with harlots and publicans, and healed the demoniacs, and promised heaven. And after all these things they apprehended and beat him with rods, bound, scourged, mocked, and at last crucified Him. And not even so did He turn away, but even when He was on high upon the cross, He saith, “Father, forgive them their sin.” But the thief who before this reviled Him, He translated into very paradise; and made the persecutor Paul, an Apostle; and gave up His own disciples, who were His intimates and wholly devoted to Him, unto death for the Jews’ sake who crucified Him.