Today’s scripture is 1 Corinthians chapter 13.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor … and have not charity
(1 Cor. 13:3)
Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes!
I did not like eating my potatoes when I was a kid, and my father was an “eat everything on your plate,” kind of dad. He grew up during the depression in the 1940s in Emmett Idaho. Sometimes the potatoes would grow cold, and butter would sit un-melted staring me in the face. Other times a baked potato would dry-out and sit there until I heard the familiar words…. “You might like potatoes if you ate them when the potato was still hot.” No matter how my mother presented potatoes, they would stay on my plate until they entirely lost all desirability for anyone to eat. Over the years I crammed many cold potatoes down just to get away from the table. And just my luck, I married into a potatoes family.
I married my sweet wife in 1984. It was in that same year I met my mother-in-law, a small petite woman who lived a simple Christian life. Jean, as I called her, and my little family enjoyed many family gathering and meals. Sometimes these were significant events, but most times they were small events with my wife and children spending time at Grandma’s house. Jean was a third generation resident of a small farming community filled with family and friends.
When dinner was hot on the stove, and before we sat down to eat, Jean would dish up several plates of hot food and send a child or grandchild next door to Aunt Annie’s house with two hot meals. Others who were sick or in need got the same treatment, plates of food, piled high and deep, with more potatoes than I would be willing to eat. This did not happen just a few times, but night after night and year after year. It was something that happened when Jean cooked.
Jean was not trying to get rid of left-over food but was sure to include enough food for those she loved and those in need. She lived a truly Christian life of charity.
Jean’s charity extended to me at the dinner table too. One day my father-in-law was confused at the strange smell in the air. It smelled like the potatoes were on the way, but things just did not smell right. After the customary meals were sent out the door, my wife proudly placed a pot of rice on the table that Jean cooked-up. Someone shouted, “RICE?” Heads around the table shook from side to side, and with a look of bewilderment, my father-in-law took an extra scoop of spuds. The rice pot caused a small stir at the dinner table until everyone could see the mashed potatoes, still on the menu and on the table. Jean did that for me. Although adding rice to the family menu became a good-natured running joke among myself and the extended family, it made me happy.
Sadly, after many years, the family gathered together to clean out Jean’s kitchen cupboards, after her passing. And in her cabinets, was a bag of rice, more than ten years past the expiration date. Jean was always ready for the reluctant potato eater. Finding that old expired rice gave new meaning to the words “Charity never faileth” (1 Corinthians 13:8)
A Paradox for Charity and Giving
The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians warns people of Corinth that “Charity” must accompany any gift of the spirit or act of devotion. One of the examples he gives is about giving everything a person may own to the poor, but if the giving is done in the absence of “Charity,” the act of giving will have no profit in God’s eyes. It may seem to people that Paul is giving us a paradoxical example; someone gives everything they have to the poor, and they are not charitable?
Today we define “Charity” as the simple act of giving. In today’s vernacular, we may say…. “She gave to charity” or “He is giving to charity.” We make the word “charity” a generic term, and reduce it to a transaction between giver and the receiver. As if to say those on the receiving end of the giving transaction is “the charity.” This can be taken still further, and it could be said, the receiver is a “charity case.”
Paul states that a lack of “charity” will make giving “without profit.” How can a person who has great wealth or a person of meager means give all and still be found lacking in God’s eyes?
A clear understanding of the word charity is essential in understanding Paul. Let’s look at two different translations for 1 Corinthians 13:3:
(1 Cor. 13:3, KJV – bold, italic added)
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
(1 Cor. 13:3, NIV 2011 – bold, italic added)
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
In the Greek text of this verse we find the word “agapē.” The NIV translates “agapē” as “love, ” and the KJV translates “agapē” as “charity.”
You can see there are two renderings for a single word from the Greek text, charity, and love. The Greek word we’ll focus in on is “agapē” (ἀγάπη, pronunciation: ah guh PEH;).
A better understanding of the word charity is the word love; However this Greek word for “love” it is not just any type of love. In the Greek language, it is the highest ennobled word for love.
Biblical scholars Eugene E. Carpenter and Philip W. Comfort describe the Greek word “agapē” this way:
“In the New Testament, the word agapē took on a special meaning. It was used by the New Testament writers to designate a “volitional love” as opposed to a purely emotional love, a “self-sacrificial love,” and a “love naturally expressed by God,” but not so easily by men and women.”1
The word agapē goes beyond emotional love into a love that is “expressed by God.” The word “agapē” used in the original Greek language of the scriptures, in this case, was understood by the people of Corinth. They understood “agapē” to mean the love that God extends to his children or the highest expression of love. And as such, the paradox of giving and charity would have been substantially muted by the overall message of Paul. Paul was telling the church at Corinth that spiritual gifts are to be expressions of love towards God’s children.
The Love expressed by those found in the Gospel is void of selfish motives. Giving to be seen and recognized by the world is not Charity. In fact, any gift including speaking in tongues, moving mountains or even striking a rock to make water gush forth (see Exodus 17:6), needs to be done with self-sacrificial love or Godly love. With this understanding of love, we can better understand 1 Corinthians Chapter 13.
Divine Love is God’s Love
Divine love and Charity was clearly demonstrated by my mother-in-law. She was the embodiment of charity as she faithfully made up extra plates for her elderly family members in town. One of Jean’s spiritual gifts was a giving heart. God’s love worked through Jean and God blessed his children.
1 Corinthians Chapter 13 (KJV)
Paul discusses the high status of charity—Charity, a pure love, excels and exceeds almost all else.
1 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.
2 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, and have not charity, I am nothing.
3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
1 – Eugene E. Carpenter and Philip W. Comfort, Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2000), paragraph 3359.