Potter’s Clay (A reflection on Jeremiah 18.1-11)

One of the preferred teaching tools in the Bible is the parable, an extended metaphor used to explain some truth about our relationship with God. Often these are left uninterpreted in the text and so it’s up to us to explore their depths. This can be frustrating as a reader who just wants to understand and move on. But as a seeker, I like that the text trusts us enough to spend time with these images and experience them as mysteries — as depths to be experienced, not riddles to be solved. Even when these parables or metaphors are interpreted, it’s often the case that the explanation doesn’t quite seem to line up with the image. There’s a space between image and interpretation. If we take this at face value, it can feel deeply unsatisfying. But I find that, if we take the time and care to sit with these spaces, they often offer us the deepest wisdom. 

I say all this because, for me at least, the reading from Jeremiah today has one of these spaces where the interpretation provided in the text feels a bit off.

The passage begins with God summoning the prophet to a potter’s shed. There Jeremiah sees the potter reshaping a pot that wasn’t up to his standards. Jeremiah is then told that just as the potter is able to change his mind about the pot and reshape it according to his will, so too has God changed God’s mind about Israel and is now planning “evil” and is scheming against them. It ends with a call to repentance.

To me, these two outcomes seem very different: What Jeremiah saw was a potter reshaping a pot until it was right. But the interpretation sounds more like the oracle in the prophet Isaiah, where judgment is described as “a potter’s vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a sherd is found for taking fire from the hearth, or dipping water out of the cistern” (Isa 30.14). 

So what do we make of this? I think there is a message hope here for us. Jeremiah didn’t see a potter smashing a pot in disgust, but one patiently working it into something beautiful. And, from our privileged position of hindsight, we can see that, despite how they experienced it at the time, Israel was not destroyed by the Exile. Rather, the Exile transformed them and their understanding of God into something beautiful and more mature. It was an impossibly difficult experience that involved tears of grief — they felt shattered like a pot tossed aside by a disgruntled potter — but they were brought through it, and when they were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their community life, they did so with a reinvigorated and renewed faith. The Exile they thought was evil was in fact a creative act of their faithful God.

And the same is true for us. We all have our rough edges and uneven spots, areas of our lives that God longs to smooth out in us. This process doesn’t feel good. It hurts. It feels evil and like we’re being schemed against — just as Jeremiah was told. These seasons where we are being reshaped and re-formed are often painful, but the intent is good, and we can indeed experience them as good if our hearts remain soft and supple enough to allow the potter’s hands to work in us.

This is where repentance comes in. Repentance is less about acknowledging the wrongs we’ve done (though this is an important consequence of repentance) than it is about being flexible enough in our minds and hearts to be able to perceive differently about our lives. This isn’t always easy, and so we have many practices — from journaling to examinations of conscience like the Examen to sacramental confession and reconciliation — to help keep us from getting too hard and set in our ways to be workable. 

Victor Frankl famously said that there is a space in between a stimulus and our reaction to it; so too is there a space between an image and its interpretation, and between an event in our lives and the meaning we assign to it. The good news is that we can learn to explore these spaces with curiosity rather than closed and judgmental minds.

God isn’t finished with any of us. Life offers a constant challenge for us to be better than we’ve been. Whether this challenge shatters us, or whether we allow ourselves to be molded into something beautiful is up to us.

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