YEAR C: PENTECOST 15
September 5, 2010
Let it not be said that God does not have a change of mind. That is part of the message of Jeremiah 18:1-11 today.
We are still in the long section of judgment oracles in the Book of Jeremiah. Today’s passage recalls the initial commission to Jeremiah by God in Jer. 1:10, to ‘pluck up, break down, and destroy’ (18:7) and ‘to build and to plant’ (18:9). In fact this passage is an interpretation of that part of Jeremiah’s call.
In a way typical of prophetic action, Jeremiah is sent to a potter’s workshop to observe the work of the potter. That work will be the means by which the Lord will convey a message to the prophet. Jeremiah watched as the potter struggled with one vessel which did not go as intended, only to see it reworked into something new. Cannot the Lord do the same with the people?
There is a point of hope in what is portrayed here which was not evident in Jer 1:10. That verse spoke bluntly of ‘plucking up’ and ‘planting’ etc. but the relation between the two was not explored there. One could surmise that since planting followed plucking that deliverance may lie beyond judgment. But the two could still be seen as mutually exclusive.
We see here in the action of the potter a more complex dealing with his creation implying a more complex dealing of God with the people. If a particular piece is not going well the potter remakes it into something else. The clay is not lost. So too with the Lord who may seek to pluck up and destroy a nation or kingdom, but if they turn from their evil then the Lord will also turn from the decision to destroy (v. 8). The word ‘to turn’ is the same as that for ‘repent’. The Lord’s plan of evil is not set in stone. There is the possibility of a change of heart if the people turn. On the other hand, if the Lord decides to build and plant only to find that the nation or kingdom does evil, then the Lord can have a change of mind in that regard too and punish the people (v. 10). The Lord’s plan of good is not set in stone either.
This is a picture of how the Lord deals with the people. The passage concludes in v. 11 with the application of the analogy to Judah and Jerusalem. We note, however, that there is only mention in this application of the Lord ‘shaping evil against’ them. There is only a plan to ‘pluck up’ at this stage, although the passage goes on in this verse to speak of the possibility of the people turning from their evil and amending their ways. The possibility of the people turning toward something more life-giving is also a reality.
The passage does not end with the limit of the lectionary selection. In vv. 12-17 we see that the people do not choose the possibility of turning but rather continue stubbornly in their own course of action. The use of the words ‘plan’ and ‘evil’ tie this response in to the Lord’s earlier planning of evil against them. Now they make their decision to follow their own ways, a decision that will only see the completion of the plucking up and destroying.
A complex relationship between the Lord and the people is revealed in this chapter. The prophet both uses the metaphor of the potter in a straight forward way and works against it to make his point about the Lord’s dealing with the people. At one level the prophet notes that the potter can rework a pot that has gone wrong. The potter is not limited by his original design or work. He can start again. So can the Lord turn and start again with the people. On the other hand the prophet introduces an element not in the image of the potter and the clay. Israel can respond to the Lord in ways that the clay cannot in the potter’s hands. While the clay can prove resistant in the potter’s hands, as indeed Israel can to the Lord, Israel has the possibility of turning itself, either toward or away from evil or good. There is an element of independence in Israel’s response that is not there in the clay. Israel can sin and Israel can repent! We see what happens in the former case as we read on in the chapter.
What is described here is a dynamic relationship where each party affects the other by its decisions and plans. The outcome of this relationship is not fixed by either party. The Lord does not treat the people like lifeless clay, simply to be moulded without resistance into any shape at the Lord’s whim. On the other hand, Israel’s response to the Lord is not solely determinative of the relationship either. God is not lifeless clay moulded simply by Israel’s sinful ways. The relationship between Israel and the Lord is a lively and life-filled one in which there is the possibility of repentance, of change, on both sides.
However, some qualifications need to be made on this picture, and they are there in the metaphor and in the passage which follows today’s reading. First, while there is the possibility of the Lord having a change of mind, this is built on the understanding of mutual turning, of a turning of one party toward the other. Verse 12, which follows today’s reading shows that there is also the possibility in this relationship that Israel can be so stubborn that no option for the Lord to turn seems likely. The passage goes on into chapter 19 speaking of the Lord’s reaction to this stubbornness. In chapter 19 another pottery metaphor is used to speak of judgment, that of a pot being smashed so that it can never be repaired. The prophet is to write on the pot. The prophet evokes what was common practice at the time. Broken pottery pieces were often used to write messages on.
Second, the image of the potter in Jer. 18:1-11 might suggest another aspect of the Lord, not yet fully evident in the prophet’s story. The potter has total control over the clay in a way that the prophet says the Lord does not assert over Israel. The potter reworks the clay if things go wrong with the intention of creating something beautiful and useful. Is there a hint in the metaphor that while the Lord is affected by Israel’s response, especially if that response is stubborn resistance, it will always be the Lord’s intent to seek ways to work good with Israel? Is that the as yet unrealised hope in this passage?
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