Signpost for Sunday 4 September, 2016: Jer 18:1-11; Ps 139:1-6,13-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33.
The readings this week are enough to put anyone off, aren’t they.
Even Psalm 139, which contains some of the Bible’s best poetry, comforts on the one hand and bothers on the other. Why the Lectionary misses out verses 7-12 I have no idea, especially as these are the verses that assure us that God is always with us, no matter where we may be. Instead we only get to read the verses that invoke a very dodgy notion of predestination, lack of free will.
Then Jeremiah comes along, takes us to the potter’s shop and we could be forgiven for getting the idea again that God is moulding us and we have little choice over the matter, other than to cause the potter to smash his work and start again.
It’s an idea that fits neatly with Genesis 2:7 when YHWH first makes something out of dirt (or mud): “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Does this Jeremiah passage echo that image of YHWH? Almost certainly it would have for Jews living between 627 BCE and 589 BCE.
Fortunately I came across another way of looking at it, courtesy of Professor John C. Holbert. This involves thinking about 2 Corinthians 4:7 – “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” And when we realise that the potter in Jeremiah isn’t someone making fine ceramic artworks but simple household pots it becomes a tenable view. The day-to-day clay pots of the ancient world were unglazed and they often broke. As Holbert puts it: “In this light, the parable of the pots is less about the ability of God to respond to our good or evil acts, than it is about God choosing us to contain the gospel, despite the fact that we too often do evil acts and despite the fact that we are all finally cracked pots.”
Then I came to Luke and the most difficult passage of all. Not just the most difficult this week either, but difficult full stop. I am simply not going to hate my father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters.
Some scholars suggest it’s verse 27 that we should look at in an historical and dramatic light to explain the real meaning. The idea being that when Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” he if referring to what the crowd cannot yet know – that he is going to die on the cross, and they/we must take these last steps towards Jerusalem with him and be prepared to suffer a similar fate. As far as I know, Jesus does not refer to the cross before his death in any other Gospel. So I’m not at all sure I agree that’s what Jesus might mean. It remains for me a very difficult passage.