Thursday of Week 17 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 18:1-6

Today, Jeremiah visits a potter.

The three chapters, of which today’s reading is the beginning, consist of lessons that God taught Jeremiah at a potter’s workshop. The date is believed to be before 605 BC. The message is clear: as the potter has total control over his clay and makes of it what he wills, so is the Lord master of his people. They are like clay in his hands.

Once again we see how the prophet uses a symbol from daily life to give a message about God’s relationship with his people. (Remember on Monday we had the image of the loincloth.)

The Jerusalem Bible makes the following comment (edited):

“The time of this enacted parable is before 598 BC, since the great disaster (the exile into Babylon) has not yet taken place. Symbolic gesture had accompanied the preaching of the earliest prophets, of Samuel for example, or Ahijah of Shiloh, and of the false prophet Zedekiah. This procedure was not simply a dramatisation of the spoken prophecy: it was a pre-enactment of the event threatened or promised, in such a way that the event itself became as inevitable as the gesture was irrevocable.”

The same phenomenon recurs among the ‘writing’ prophets. Hosea’s whole mission is inextricable from a symbolic action which in turn is his private predicament, namely, his difficult marriage. With Isaiah the symbolic gesture is found less frequently, though cf. Is 20 and the symbolic names he gives to his children.

Jeremiah performs, or interprets, many symbolic actions: the almond tree and the pot; the hidden loincloth (though this seems only to have been enacted in vision); the potter; the jug; the figs; the yoke; the buying of the field. To which we may add that his life itself is a symbol and that his sufferings (though he gives this no emphasis) identify him in advance with the nation itself about to suffer, and make him foreshadow the suffering servant of Yahweh.

Later, Ezekiel was to perform more symbolic actions: the brick ‘besieged’; the rationed food; the hair; the mime of the exile; the pot; the two sticks; and he too, like Hosea, interprets his personal experience symbolically: his illness, his wife’s death, his dumbness and recovery.

Symbolism of this kind is also found in the New Testament, for example, the fig tree cursed by Jesus and the prophecy of Agabus in the Acts 21:11 in which by a symbolic gesture he prophesies the future arrest of Paul.

In today’s reading Jeremiah is told to go down to the potter’s house. It was probably situated on the slopes of the Valley of Ben Hinnom near what was known as the Potsherd Gate (perhaps because broken and discarded pottery was piled there).

The prophet sees the potter working at his wheel. The wheel consisted of two horizontal stone disks. Both were attached to an upright shaft, one end of which was sunk permanently into the ground. The potter would spin the lower wheel with his foot and work the clay on the upper wheel which was also turning.

Jeremiah noticed that if the vessel being made turned out wrong, which happened often, he would start all over again to get exactly the shape he wanted. It is worth noting that the Hebrew word for “going wrong” here is the same as that describing the ruined loincloth in Monday’s reading.

The message is then given. Can God not do with his people just as the potter does? “Yes, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so you are in mine, House of Israel.” It is an image found elsewhere in Scripture. And the Hebrew word for ‘potter’ is translated elsewhere as ‘Maker’ with reference to God.

The lesson tells us a number of things.

– Man proposes but God disposes. We can make as many plans as we like in our lives but in the end we are always the subject of forces totally beyond our control. This applies to all, rich and poor, powerful and weak.

– This does not mean that we are to go through life passively and fatalistically and just let things happen to us. We cannot just write off things as “fate” or say that “I am an unlucky person”.

– What it does mean is that we are actively to seek what God wants from us in life and actively to accept what clearly is his will for us. Life and freedom and peace consist in making God’s will and our will to be in perfect harmony. I want what he wants. As Paul puts it, writing to the Romans, “Does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one?” (Rom 9:21)

God may be a potter but he is a good one and wants to produce the very best product possible. For that, though, he needs my cooperation. I cannot make life in the way that I want it but, by allowing myself to be moulded by him, I can be all that I can be.

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