From the Prophet Jeremiah:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Jeremiah 18:1-11 (NRSV) – March 13, 2013.)
Years ago, my wife and I were active in the Cursillo community in another state. In fact, we met through that community, so it was very important to us. We participated in the three-day weekends; we took part in the reunions; we even had the “De Colores” bumper-stickers on our cars. At that time, folk masses and simple guitar-accompanied choruses were also popular in the Episcopal Church and a lot of the music used in the Cursillo movement spilled over into church on Sundays and at other times. A favorite of many people was a tune which mixed Jeremiah’s potter metaphor with some of Jesus’ language from the Gospels:
Abba, Abba Father
You are the potter
And we are the clay,
The work of your hands
Mold us, mold us and
Into the image,
Of Jesus your Son
Of Jesus your Son.
Father, may we be one in you,
May we be one in you,
As he is in you,
And you are in him
Glory, glory and praise to you
Glory and praise to you
I remember sitting with my table groups during the Cursillo weekends and at nearly every one one of the speakers would ask that we sing this song, and then would talk about how God molds each individual into a Christ-like figure. But that isn’t what the song says, at all! Nor is it what Jeremiah prophesies in this pericope! This isn’t about individuals.
The song, following Jeremiah’s lead, speaks of a group being molded: “Mold us . . . Fashion us.” Us not me. God the potter in Jeremiah’s prophecy molds “the house of Israel,” a nation, a kingdom, not the individual residents of that house or nation. Certainly, as a part of that group each member may be, must be changed, but the emphasis is on and the prophecy is about systemic, group-wide change, not individual transformation.
When a potter molds a pot, a drinking vessel, a piece of sculpture, he works with a mass of clay. The mass is made up of molecules, but the potter does not concern himself with these small, constituent bits. He does not work with each molecule. He pushes this way and that on the mass, and the individual molecules, most of which are never directly manipulated by the potter, move and change as the mass moves; most are shoved about not by the potter but by their neighbors. The potter may, from time to time, work with smaller bits, but always with the intention that that bit will add to the value or beauty of the whole. His concern is with the larger work.
Of course, Jesus was concerned about individual people. He loved the one lost sheep separated from the ninety-nine; he searched for the one of ten coins that was missing. His reason for doing so, however, was restoration of the community. The ninety-nine were incomplete without the missing lamb; the “round ten” were not round without the missing coin. He sent the Samaritan women at the well back into her city (John 4); he rescued the woman caught in adultery from being stoned, but sent her back into her community, saying “Go your way” (John 8); he raised a little girl from death, restoring her to her family whom he instructed to nourish her (Mark 5).
Jesus was concerned about individuals, but he was committed to the ideal of community in which there would be a close relationship between members. His disciples were related not just individually to him, but also to one another. He formed them into a group that would give itself mutual support, a community that would reach out to others and invite them in. Yes, he said, the first commandment is to love God, but there is a second, equal commandment — Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39 NRSV)
St. Paul used the metaphor of “the body of Christ” to describe the church: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27 NRSV) God the potter molds the church and each of us get shoved into our proper place as the potter works. At times, the potter may work with an individual bit, but the potter’s attention is on the whole. God the potter’s concern was with “the house of Israel;” God the potter’s concern is with the Body of Christ, the church.
It’s too bad modern English doesn’t have a clearly plural form of the pronoun you. That used to be the plural pronoun and thou was the singular. Perhaps we should create a new plural form or borrow one to use in translating Scripture. We could render God the potter as sounding like a Southerner: ” Can I not do with y’all just as this potter has done?” Or like a Pittsburgher: “Can I not do with youse just as this potter has done?” We might find God’s accent annoying, but at least we would understand what was meant!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.