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RS/MP Lesson 30: “Charity” (Gospel Principles Manual)

Posted by Robert C. on March 18, 2011

As study notes for this lesson, I’m going to focus on two scriptures that I think play a prominent role in this lesson: Matt 5:44–45 (the rain falling on the just and unjust) and 1 Cor 13:8 (charity never faileth).

Matthew 5:44–45: “he . . . sendeth rain on the just and the unjust”

I think it is worth considering Matthew 5:43-47 as a unit:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

The main point of this passage might be summarized by saying that love is universal and unconditional (to be provocative, you might ask the question whether love is really unconditional by mentioning Elder Nelson’s claim that love is conditional—see here for a link and discussion). What I think is particularly interesting is the sense in which this idea is linked to the question of perfection. What does unconditional love have to do with being perfect?

It seems to me like the very definition of being perfect given in this passage is to be unconditionally loving. The final phrase, verse 48, reads “Be ye therefore perfect.” The only way I can make sense of the contextual placement and wording of verse 48 is to understand that unconditional love is being presented as constituting the very essence of being perfect, at least in the sense of the verse 48 injunction.

Can you think of a better reading that is as true to the text here? If so, what is it? If not, how does this reading of the passage suggest we should think about striving for perfection?

For an excellent discussion of this perfectionism in Church culture and theology, see Jim F.’s recent Patheos post, “Being Perfect; Perfect Being.”

1 Corinthians 13:8: “charity never faileth”

A famous verse in this famous chapter of scripture is verse 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.

I like this verse, and its poetic expression regarding the incompleteness of the knowledge that we have in this life. But what does this verse have to do with charity? Why is it placed here? (This very question might make for a good though question to get class members thinking and reading the scriptures more carefully.)

Besides looking at the immediate context for clues on answering this question, it is useful to recognize the allusion here back to 1 Cor 8:1ff, “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.”

Back to the more immediate context of chapter 13, Paul is contrasting what endures with what will end (alternate translations do not say that prophecies will fail, but that they will end). What I think is fascinating is the way in which Paul describes our knowledge as ending. When we eventually come to know God face-to-face, the partial knowledge that we have of God now will effectively end (either because the partial nature of our knowledge will come to an end, or because our propositional knowledge of God will become moot, because of our direct experience).

Paul contrasts the abiding nature of faith, hope and charity to the way in which knowledge, prophecy and the gift of tongues will end. How can we understand this contrast?

I think there’s a kind of inversion going on here in terms of how we are typically inclined to think about knowledge. That is, oftentimes we think about knowledge as perfected faith. But I don’t think we can really make sense of Paul’s teaching here using this notion. Rather, we have to think about faith as suspending knowledge (thus faith works like suspension cables supporting a bridge in terms of undergirding knowledge, but faith also works in the absense of knowledge as described in Alma 32 where knowledge, once obtains, renders faith dormant). Faith, then, is better conceived as that which produces knowledge.

Love, too, can be understood this way. I think there is a dangerous tendency in the Church to love only conditionally. We like to focus on good works and righteousness and to focus on them so much that we effectively only offer love (to our kids, friends, fellow ward members, etc.) as a kind of reward for good behavior. Although I do think that it is natural (and scriptural, as I argue in defense of Elder Nelson’s point at the link above) to show more love in response to good works, it is imperative that we love unconditionally (also).

The very essence of grace and charity is rooted in loving first, before any meritable works or acts are exhibited. Charity mandates that we love unconditionally. God “first loved us” (1 John 4:19), unconditionally, and if we understand and receive this love with genuine gratitude, we can’t help but feel this love flow through us toward those around us, regardless of their circumstances, weakenesses, foibles, habits, etc. Exhibiting this kind of love is the only kind of perfection that I think is really worth pursuing.

4 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 30: “Charity” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

  1. […] Upon the Word tackles the charity lesson in Gospel […]

  2. Clint J. said

    This post was beautiful in its simplicity and insight. Thank you. There is natural (fallen, prideful) tendency to withhold love based on judgement, rather than to love the sinner or offender, but ultimately each of us is Seen as we may become and not as we now struggle. It would seem that, in our Father’s perfect eyes, our worth is not contingent upon a single act, but according to our divine potential and the being which our acts, attitudes, and our Savior’s grace ultimately produce of us. Perhaps then, at least an element of Charity is to learn how to understand and apply that same divine valuation to others: to see and know as we are Seen and Known.

  3. Clint J said

    My original reason for posting was to actually pose a question to those more culturally and contextually versed than myself. Specifically, what can we understand from Jesus’ frequent references to the publicans in this passage (i.e., “do not even the publicans so?”) and similar references in many other passages? Obviously, it is not meant as a jab or a smear toward the publicans, but what extra dimension do these publican references add to Jesus’ teachings?

  4. Robert C. said

    Clint, sorry I didn’t see your question before.

    Matthew was a (former) publican, so I think it’s significant to read this verse in that light. My understanding is that the publicans had a reputation for being fairly self-interest, sometimes thieves even, who could make extra money by over-taxing people (see a brief note here). I think the implication here is basically that even self-interested people love their friends, so it’s not very praiseworthy.

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