Earthen Vessels

Today’s first reading is one of my favorite passages from St. Paul: “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7). It points out one of the great paradoxes of this life of discipleship: it leads to glory, but entails suffering along the way. What is this treasure?

The context of Paul’s writing suggests three possibilities:

  • the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of [Jesus] Christ” (4:6);
  • the gospel of the glory of Christ” (4:4); and
  • this ministry” (4:1), referring to the ministry of the new covenant in Christ.

It is the metaphor of the “earthen vessels” (sometimes translated “jars of clay”) that is striking. It echoes Jeremiah’s oracle of the clay vessel in the potter’s hands (Jer 18:1–6). It evokes a container that is ordinary and fragile. It is an apt metaphor of our precarious embodied existence.

The paradox is that glory is revealed through suffering which St. Paul describes:

“afflicted in every way, but not constrained”— although he is constantly afflicted, he is not left without the means of deliverance.

perplexed, but not driven to despair” — It is sometimes only in retrospect, through the eyes of faith, that we come to appreciate how God was indeed present to us in our sufferings and gave us his assistance. Paul’s repeated experience of God’s deliverance has taught him that there is no reason to despair.

persecuted, but not abandoned” — Paul’s experience is that God is ever with him as the Father was ever with Jesus.

struck down, but not destroyed” — While sufferings and hardships for the sake of the gospel are a reality, the Apostle knows that it is only the rejection of this gospel that leads to destruction.

Paul reminds us that we do indeed have a precious treasure, the power of the gospel. Moreover, we do have the Spirit’s power at work within us. Rather than despair, we are invited to rely even more on God’s grace so that we can share with others the treasure we have received.

If we can do that then we are disciples, “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in [us]

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