Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Evil - A Recompense for Good?

A passage from the prophet Jeremiah (18:1-11; 18-20) strikes a responsive note because it ends with a bothersome question for us all:  "Is evil a recompense for good?"

You and I couch the question in different words:  
"Why did God cause this (fill in the blank) to happen?"  
"I don't understand it: I pray and pray, and God never answers."
"There's no justice in this world! The rich just get richer and the poor, poorer."

You could say that Jeremiah was a sort of "visual learner".  God had a message for him, but told him to go to potter's studio.  "...there I will let you hear my words."  Jeremiah watches intently as the potter works at his wheel, fashioning a clay vessel.  But he goofs (the potter, that is).  Perhaps he pressed too hard, used too much water on the clay, didn't spin the wheel fast enough; whatever, the pattern he'd set out to make was spoiled.

Jeremiah noticed that the potter didn't become upset and throw the piece of clay angrily against the wall.  Ever so patiently, "he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do..."  It was then, after watching how the potter handled the situation that God conveyed the message which Jeremiah was to proclaim to Israel.

God compares Godself to the potter, with Israel (humankind) being the clay, in God's hand.  If the people are "bad" clay, i.e., they are not as clay should be, God can still choose to fashion them into something useful, to accomplish God's purposes, if the clay will yield to God's expert touch.

If, on the other hand, people who are "good" clay, capable of being fashioned into a vessel of God's choosing, willfully allow themselves to be deficient clay, then even God will not exercise God's artistry.  God will not contradict the laws of nature which are the expression of God's creative goodness and truth.  The logical consequence, despite God's creative hand, will be the creation of a misshapen vessel.  The potter's creative purpose will have been purposely frustrated by the clay.  

"Is evil a recompense for good", therefore?? Does God cause evil in our lives: bad things to happen to good people?? Absolutely not! For God is like a potter, after all, and what is a potter like? Is the message of Jeremiah, using the image of the potter, meant to convey simply that the potter has dominion, that he "calls the shots", that the clay isn't important, that the potter exercises arbitrary control over the vessel's existence?? that he can shape ugliness and deficiency regardless of the quality of his clay?? 

Or does the prophet's message have a much different thrust? Perhaps this:
- that a potter is one whose delight is in creating, in giving things the possibility to be.
- that a potter is careful, precise, patient.
- that a potter puts something of him/herself into what is created.
- that a potter fashions things that are useful, things which benefit and serve others.

"Is evil a recompense for good?"  No.  But to say that doesn't mean that this is a complete answer, or that you and I understand or can ever fully understand the mystery of evil in the world and in our lives.  It isn't a complete answer, but it is a firm and sure answer, nonetheless, based on God's Word, revealed to us in Jesus.

The reality of being human and limited and the inheritors of our first parents' sin is that sooner or later we'll each find ourselves as spoiled vessels in the Potter's hands.  But our faith tells us that God can and does rework us into another vessel, "as it (seems) good to the potter to do."  St. Paul puts it this way:  "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies."

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