Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
As Valentine’s Day draws ever nearer, we draw nearer to the heart of St. Paul’s message in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians (apologies for the terrible pun). Thus far, we have reflected on what it means to be patient and kind, as well as what it means to not be jealous, pompous, inflated, rude, or self-seeking. This week, mere descriptors of love gradually give way to even more profound truths about what it truly entails, and we continue to look to Jesus as the model of how to live lives of self-giving love.
Love is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury.
Love does not rejoice over wrong-doing, but rejoices with the truth.
In the first of these brief sentences, St. Paul sets up a remarkable contrast: the quickness of the temper versus the slowness of forgiveness. It seems as though the two are established as an inverse relationship: the more readily we give into our temper, the more reluctant we probably are to forgive. The second sentence provides a sort of foil to the first: one who is quick-tempered and broods over injury is also probably the sort of person who rejoices over wrong-doing; however, one who rejoices in the truth transcends all such pettiness. One who rejoices in the truth has indeed been “set free” (cf Jn 8:32) of the need of human validation, the lack of which can so often lead to quick-temperedness, brooding, or schadenfreude. We see this freedom incarnated in Jesus, who is the truth, and who calls us to rejoice in Him so that we might also be set free.
Everyone likes to be right. Whether it’s in class, at work, or even just in conversation, I don’t know a single person who enjoys saying or doing something they believe to be right, only to be told that they’re wrong. Unfortunately for pretty much everyone, not everyone can be right about everything all the time. Even the geniuses get it wrong at some point or another. And realizing that you’re wrong can be a real blow to a person’s pride. When confronted by personal error, I often go into defensive mode, desperate to assert that I can still be right about something. My wounded pride gives way to my quick temper, and pain is the inevitable result. On the other hand, realizing that someone else is wrong can be just as damaging to our ability to love; whether that someone has done something wrong to us, or just done something wrong in general, the human tendency is to hold on to our wounds or nurse a vendetta. All of these reactionary tendencies enslave us to ourselves and cut off our ability to give ourselves in love to others. Jesus shows us a “still more excellent way” (cf 1 Cor 12:31).
Throughout His ministry, Jesus was faced with people who wanted to be right; Pharisees and scholars of the law often sought to trap Jesus in His words, either to prove that they themselves were right, or to prove that He was not who He claimed to be. Think of the famous scene when the scribes and Pharisees confront Jesus with a woman caught in adultery. Their tempers are heated; they are convinced of their own rightness; they are out for blood. The scribes and Pharisees rejoice in the misfortune of this woman and they seize the chance to make an example of her, to exploit her sinfulness as an opportunity to manipulate Jesus. When they demand a similar snap judgment from Jesus, He instead bends down and starts writing in the dirt. In this moment, I imagine that Jesus was praying, asking His Father to enlighten His heart so that He might respond in love for all involved, both the woman and her accusers. And amazingly, He does just that: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). In this response, Jesus not only demonstrates unbounded compassion for a sinner, but He also silences her accusers by reminding them of their own fallibility and teaching them the dangers of acting in quick-tempered hatred. And in the next moment, Jesus demonstrates that He does not wish to brood over the woman’s wrongdoing. Instead, He, the sinless One, the only One who could condemn her, forgives her. Jesus does not soften the fact that she has done wrong; he does not rejoice in her wrongdoing by any means, but he calls her to move beyond it. He calls her to the truth. When faced with her remorse, Jesus does not browbeat the woman with her sinful behavior. He does not even give her a stern talking-to. He simply offers her the chance to change, and promises to forget her past actions if she will leave them behind as well, saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 8:11). He extends the same offer of love and freedom to us, calling us to move beyond our human pride and sinfulness so that we might rejoice in the truth of the love that forgives.