Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Also in this series: Love, **actually** is… (part 1)
The first post in this series established the premise that popular understanding of love, especially as it is advertised around Valentine’s Day, is one that has become skewed in favor of romantic love or eros. However, the love to which Christians are called is agape, or self-giving love, in imitation of Christ and His ultimate act of love on the Cross. And so we continue our exploration of what this agape love looks like as we examine the words in the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Love is kind.
Of all the descriptors in this Scripture passage, the word “kind” strikes me as the least specific. Perhaps this is because the word “kind” is often understood as a mere synonym for the more generic word “nice.” When we say that someone is “kind” to others, what do we mean? What does a love of kindness look like?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective “kind” as: naturally well-disposed; having a gentle, sympathetic, or benevolent nature; ready to assist, or show consideration for, others; generous, liberal, courteous. It seems as though a life of kindness is characterized by attentiveness to others and a willingness to serve. I think the word “benevolent” is particularly apt here, defined by the OED as “desirous of the good of others, of a kindly disposition, charitable, generous.” I find this definition more helpful. Thanks to the transitive property, we can conclude that a kind person is “desirous of the good of others.” A kind person is willing to give of self in order to bring about the good of others – agape.
And so I turn from intellectual understanding found in the dictionary to Incarnational embodiment found in the Gospels. It seems as though every recorded moment of the life of Jesus could come under the definition of “kind.” Even when He was cleansing the temple or silencing those who would trap Him, Jesus did so out of a desire for the good of others, even for those who wished Him dead. Jesus calls us to this life of radical kindness by exhorting us: “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44), and He gives us the ultimate example of this paradigm-shifting love.
Hanging on the Cross, Jesus cries out, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Even in the agony of imminent death, even in the devastation of betrayal, even in the face of hatred, Jesus loves. He desires the good of others. He is benevolent. He is kind.
Love is not jealous.
With this phrase, St. Paul shifts his description from what love is to what it is not. Love is not jealous. Love does not envy. Love does not desire for itself that which rightfully belongs to the other.
Put another way, love is grateful. Love sees the gifts already bestowed in abundance and humbly acknowledges them precisely as gift. There is no “grass-is-greener-syndrome” when one loves. And with this lack of jealousy comes the incredible freedom to rejoice in the gifts given to another as readily as we rejoice in those gifts given to us.
In imitation of Paul’s shift to definition by negation, we turn to the infancy narrative of Matthew’s Gospel for an example of love destroyed by jealousy. Sadly, there are many biblical examples of people enslaved by their jealousy of others, but perhaps we see it most readily in King Herod. Blinded by his jealousy of the newborn King of the Jews, Herod resorts to horrific actions in order to grasp onto his power, and orders the massacre of innocent children.
By complete contrast, there is a beautiful example of the freedom born of love without jealousy in the Gospel of Mark: John says to Jesus, “‘Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us’” (Mk 9:38). The disciples, perhaps meaning well, express jealousy on behalf of Jesus because they wanted to protect His status and His name from those not in “the group”. Yet Jesus teaches them in His reply that His is not a leadership prone to jealousy. He desires to share His power with all who would call upon His name so that all may be one in Him. Jesus transcends cliques and distinctions by saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40), thus eliminating His disciples’ need to grasp onto that which has been revealed to them. Instead, Jesus compels them not only to share what they have received, but also to rejoice when they encounter other recipients of the same grace. Freed from jealousy, the disciples (and we) can acknowledge with joy and gratitude the gifts uniquely bestowed by God upon every person; freed from jealousy, we can love as Jesus loves.