EVERY one has asked himself the great question of antiquity as of the modern world: What is the summum bonum -- the supreme good? You have life before you. Once only you can live it. What is the noblest object of desire, the supreme gift to covet?
We have been accustomed to be told that the greatest thing in the religious world is Faith. That great word has been the key-note for centuries of the popular religion; and we have easily learned to look upon it as the greatest thing in the world. Well, we are wrong. If we have been told that, we may miss the mark. I have taken you, in the chapter which I have just read, to Christianity at its source; and there we have seen, |The greatest of these is love.| It is not an oversight. Paul was speaking of faith just a moment before. He says, |If I have all faith, so that I can remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. |So far from forgetting, he deliberately contrasts them, |Now abideth Faith, Hope, Love,| and without a moment's hesitation, the decision falls, |The greatest of these is Love.|
And it is not prejudice. A man is apt to recommend to others his own strong point. Love was not Paul's strong point. The observing student can detect a beautiful tenderness growing and ripening all through his character as Paul gets old; but the hand that wrote, |The greatest of these is love,| when we meet it first, is stained with blood.
Nor is this letter to the Corinthians peculiar in singling out love as the summum bonum. The masterpieces of Christianity are agreed about it. Peter says, |Above all things have fervent love among yourselves.| Above all things. And John goes farther, |God is love.| And you remember the profound remark which Paul makes elsewhere, |Love is the fulfilling of the law.| Did you ever think what he meant by that? In those days men were working their passage to Heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments, and the hundred and ten other commandments which they had manufactured out of them. Christ said, I will show you a more simple way. If you do one thing, you will do these hundred and ten things, without ever thinking about them. If you love, you will unconsciously fulfil the whole law. And you can readily see for yourselves how that must be so. Take any of the commandments. |Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.| If a man love God, you will not require to tell him that. Love is the fulfilling of that law. |Take not His name in vain.| Would he ever dream of taking His name in vain if he loved Him? |Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.| Would he not be too glad to have one day in seven to dedicate more exclusively to the object of his affection? Love would fulfil all these laws regarding God. And so, if he loved Man, you would never think of telling him to honour his father and mother. He could not do anything else. It would be preposterous to tell him not to kill. You could only insult him if you suggested that he should not steal -.how could he steal from those he loved? It would be superfluous to beg him not to bear false witness against his neighbour. If he loved him it would be the last thing he would do. And you would never dream of urging him not to covet what his neighbours had. He would rather they possessed it than himself. In this way |Love is the fulfilling of the law.| It is the rule for fulfilling all rules, the new commandment for keeping all the old commandments, Christ's one secret of the Christian life.
Now Paul had learned that; and in this noble eulogy he has given us the most wonderful and original account extant of the summum bonum. We may divide it into three parts. In the beginning of the short chapter, we have Love contrasted; in the heart of it, we have Love analysed; towards the end we have Love defended as the supreme gift.