The Politics of Overflowing Love—Philippians 1:3-11 (Amy Allen)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

‘And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.’ The notion of love overflowing in knowledge is odd to modern Western ears, accustomed as we are to a divide between reason and affections. However, such a love that overflows in knowledge could transform much of our politics.

I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Merriam-Webster defines “love” as “a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person.” Although debate continues regarding the particularities of the Greek types of love, Paul likely means by “agape” (in Philippians 1:9), something very similar.

This is problematic, though, to 21st century Western sensibilities; we prefer to separate our affections from our knowledge. One is subjective and volatile, while the other we prefer to think of as objective and reliable—for whatever any of those categories are worth. In the 1st century, however, Paul operated under completely different categories.

Paul lived in a world where Jesus could declare—expressing common rabbinic teaching of the time—that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27a).

In this world, knowledge and affection are not separate from one another. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin. Paul’s appeals to ethos, or emotion, fall right alongside his appeals to logos, or reason. They are equally legitimate as tools of persuasion, equally a part of what makes up the workings of a person.

So, then, what does Paul mean when he exhorts the Philippians to let this love “overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight” (1:9)? No longer are they side by side, such that Paul is exhorting the Philippians to overflow with both love and knowledge; but rather, their love is to overflow with knowledge. The former is subordinated to the latter.

The Greek preposition that the NRSV translates “with” can also be translated as “in” (NASB, NKJV, NIV) or “by.” The interpretive question has to do with the relationship between love and knowledge and insight. I propose that, given Paul’s appeal for unity later in the letter (2:1-18; 4:2-3), his prayer for the Philippians is that their love might begin to heal their divisions. How might this occur? By means of knowledge and insight. Therefore, I translate Philippians 1:9: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more by means of knowledge and full insight.”

This week, as the world continues to reel from the terror attacks in Paris last month, and as politicians continue to roadblock Syrian refugees as a result of a possible link between one of the terrorists and Syria, as gun shots continue to rip through places of peace such like clinics and schools the world over, my prayer for our representatives and our world is that our “love may overflow more and more by means of knowledge and full insight.”

My prayer is that we learn to put others before ourselves. My prayer is that we learn how to accurately assess risks … and that when the risk is higher for another person that it is for ourselves, that we be willing to take on that risk out of love and concern for our fellow human beings. Indeed, my prayer is that we begin to follow the example of Jesus so much that even when the risks may seem to grow, we take seriously the full humanity and basic rights of all God’s children everywhere across the world—whatever their nationality or religion may happen to be.

Further, my prayer is that such love, born out of true discernment, will indeed help us to determine what is “best” (1:10)—not just for ourselves, but for our fellow human beings, and for our world. These are the things that are “most excellent” (1:10, NASB). These are the things that produce a “harvest of righteousness” (1:11) to the glory and praise of God.

The Philippians want peace. They want what is easy and simple and are beginning to bicker when it is not as simple as they wished. The pax Romana promised peace for Roman citizens, but only at the expense of the subjugation of the majority of people in the Empire, whom Rome subdued in order to win their coveted peace. Jesus does not promise peace (cf. Matthew: Jesus did not come to bring peace but a sword). Rather, he promises justice—righteousness.

In the day of Christ, such righteousness will effect peace. But until that day, there will be danger. There will be terror. There will be injustice as hateful people in the world continue to resist the righteousness of God’s peace. My prayer for us within the Christian Church universal as we await that day, is that we number ourselves among those from whom love overflows rather than hate, fueled by fear.

In the words of Malala Yousafzai, wise beyond her years, “With guns you can kill terrorists. With education you can kill terrorism.”

My prayer, as I echo Paul’s prayer, is that with all knowledge and discernment—spurning the vitriol of selfishness, fear, and hate—we let our love overflow … for one another and for our neighbors. And that through us love be the sign of God’s Kingdom as it makes itself known here on earth.

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