4th September - Hugh Perry
Jeremiah 18, 1-11
The message in this passage is clearly that Yahweh is able to work with Israel as the potter works with clay. Maurice Andrew writes that up to this point the book is positive about Israel’s future. However at chapter 18 verses 7-11 the focus moves from the positive activity of the potter to the clay that has its own capacity to choose what happens to it. Then suddenly the address is switched to Judah and Yahweh becomes a potter shaping evil against them. This is intended as a strong warning for them to turn from their evil ways.
Some of this passage is repetitive of what has been said in this gospel previously and appears to be directed to those who are responding to Jesus with total enthusiasm without comprehending that he is going to Jerusalem to his death. Apparently only Jesus has faced the issue of his death and the others very likely see this as a march towards a confrontation where they will ultimately triumph. Fred Craddock suggests they may well ‘be investing a good deal of emotion in the projected clash: Galilee versus Jerusalem, peasants versus power, laity versus clergy, Jews versus Romans, Jesus versus the establishment.’ Bill Loader suggests that "Hating" family and "denying" self are closely related. Jesus is calling people to abandon their own self-serving constructions of themselves that limit the full participation in the discipleship journey.
Such change equally demands abandoning family constructions which are destructive and unhealthy and embracing constructions of oneself and one's family which affirm life and hope and love.
The call of the gospel invites people to think hard about what they are doing, using as much common sense as a builder or a king preparing for battle.
Our reading opens with Jesus saying. ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself, cannot be my disciple’. (Luke 14: 25 NRSV)
That is undoubtedly a challenging reading for Father’s Day and when we turned to it at our Wednesday study group someone immediately said ‘I hate this reading.’
The Good News Bible softens the verse somewhat by translation it. ‘Whoever comes to me cannot be my disciple unless he loves me more than he loves his father and his mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and his sisters, and himself as well’. (Luke 14:25 GNB)
Where the New Revised Standard Version translates as much as possible word for word, the Good News Bible translates a phrase, sentence or paragraph at a time and in this case you may have noticed it changed the order. That method of translation is interpretive and in this case I think the translators have allowed their 20th century western world view and sensibilities to take away some of shock of Luke’s recording of Jesus’ original rhetoric.
This is the opening statement designed to shock the listeners into paying attention and leads into the short parables that follow.
Writing of this passage in his online commentary Bill Loader makes the point that ‘To read Jesus as enjoining literal hatred of one’s family is to miss the point and mishear the rhetoric. But such shocking rhetoric reflects a view that families can constrict growth, become oppressive demons, and bring death rather than life’.
Further more in his conclusion Loader dispels any idea that Jesus’ call to discipleship is an ancient form of ‘doing your own thing’ or finding true happiness in spontaneous self-fulfilment adrift of all others’ claims and free of care. Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to be on the journey that will lead to Jerusalem and the cross. In this section of the Gospel Jesus is making it clear that his call is not to some self focussed feel good philosophy but Jesus’ call is an invitation to engagement in radically inclusive love. Jesus’ call to discipleship involves living from the life of the God of love, and living in solidarity with all who share that love. The risk is that people will not always agree with making that choice because it is likely to conflict with their world view, ideologies and cunning schemes.
We have previously looked at the call of the fishermen as an example of discipleship interfering with the expectations of a family business.
For a more contemporary example we need look no further that the first few episodes of Tom Scott’s television series on the life of Sir Edmond Hillary. We see Sir Edmond holding his father in great respect and his father determined to give his son the best of opportunity to do well in life. There is evidence of a solid if somewhat strict Christian upbringing and commitment to peace. However, Hillary senior’s vision was limited to his bee keeping enterprise and looked towards his son’s being settled with families and working in the family business.
He wanted the best for his family but the vision of both his son and his grandson in turn standing on the world’s highest mountain would never have featured in his wildest dreams. Neither would he have imagined the tremendous good that the work his son began with the Sherpa people would result from the values he installed in his son.
The film showed tense standoffs between a young Edmond and his father who felt his son was wasting too much time gallivanting around. Yet in that family tension the biting icy winds of the Southern Alps brought the call to Sir Edmond Hillary that changed lives and immortalised him on our five-dollar bill.
The link with our reading is the family tension Scott brings out in his movie, the call he illustrates with stunning views from mountain peaks and the lives transformed by the journey chosen.
As people of faith we are called to see the hand of Jeremiah’s master potter who moulds our lives and the lives of families, communities and nations in Tom Scots biographical story of Sir Edmond Hillary, our Gospel reading, and many other stories
The beauty of the image of the potter’s wheel is that the clay is moulded and reshaped. Life may take us in a wrong direction but God can always reshape from miss-direction, build on our changes and call us to new beginnings. Jeremiah presents a judgement image in terms of God using other nations to destroy a sinful Israel and Judah but he also includes hope:
‘And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it.’ (Jeremiah 18:9)
But the gospel image of the discipleship journey is an evolving journey just as our world is an evolving world.
In a recent post on his Facebook page Bishop Spong wrote:
There never was a time when we were created perfect and fell into sin and needed to be rescued. We are evolving people; we are not fallen people. We are not a little lower than the angels. We're a little higher than the apes. It's a very different perspective.
It’s a perspective not only of an evolving people but an evolving world, continually in the potter’s hand. Pottery is an art that is not always totally in the potter’s control. Glaze is painted on to pots but changes in the kiln. The potter has an idea of how the glaze might change but, like any artist, is open to serendipity and has the ability to make the most of surprises. Even on the wheel the skilled potter can be inspired but an unexpected change in the shape of the clay can turn it into something new and different.
In any sort of logic Jesus’ arrest and execution was a disaster and vindicated the attempt of Jesus’ family to restrain. ‘When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He is gone out of his mind.’ (Mark 3:21)
However, the Spirit of the Resurrection turned disaster into victory and changed the world leaving us to ask what sort of world we would have without a determined Jesus and disciples inspired by his teaching and his faithfulness, even in the face of a brutal Roman Empire structured to resist change.
What would New Zealand and Nepal be like if a young Hillary had not resisted his father and his school’s efforts to press him into a predetermined shape. Moulded like an industrialised pressed pot rather than shaped by the creative spinning wheel of the artist potter?
Where would our Antarctic research be if Hillary knew you couldn’t reach the South Pole on a Ferguson tractor. What would have happened to that amazing adventure if Hillary had accepted his limited role of laying down fuel dumps for the planned British triumph of a motorised crossing of Antarctica. That call to amazing adventure and defiance came, not so much from the icy polar winds, as the persistent nagging of Peter Mulgrew, ‘Lets go to the pole Ed’
Antarctica finally took the life of Peter Mulgrew on the 28th of November 1979 when Air New Zealand Flight 901 ploughed into Mount Erebus, killing all 257 on board. But in the ongoing turning of the master potter’s wheel Peter’s widow became the second Lady Hillary giving a renewed enthusiasm for life to both her and her new husband and ongoing inspiration to countless people.
The clay on the potter’s wheel is all one clay and its interconnectedness brings amazing coincidences and connections into our lives. As someone who’s reading as an adolescent was improved by Hillarys books I can’t look at five dollar note without a quickening of the pulse.
All of our actions and reactions have effects beyond our understanding and are part of the shaping of the clay by the divine hand.
Nevertheless, our own persistence and perseverance is part of our shaping and the shaping of our world. Fitting into the carefully cotton wool cocoon of those most dear to us may not always be our best way forward, even if breaking out may cause family strife.
In his memoirs Joseph Masters outlined his plans to move to the Wairarapa and leave his Perry son in law in charge of their carpentry business in Wellington. He does not describe any great family disagreement but tersely writes ‘My daughter came to me and said ‘The business does not suit my husband, we are coming to the to the to the Wairarapa with you.’
Undoubtedly my life and the lives of many others would have been different if one of my infant distant forefathers had not made the three day crossing of the Rimutaka Ranges in a basket strapped to Masters bullock. There is also evidence in that account of a strong willed great, great, great grandmother whose genes have both blessed and cursed many of us.
However as we move through the gospel reading Jesus moves on from the challenge of family connections that may stifle the call to discipleship and the risks involved in the discipleship choice to the need to plan and be aware of the choices made.
This seems a great endorsement for strategic plans but the context of the story of the general and the tower builder with the family tension makes such plans subject to serendipitous opportunity and divine call. Certainly when we look at the Gospel reading alongside Jeremiah’s potter’s hands metaphor the determination to move past even loving family restraint and open ourselves to unexpected possibilities and risk is reinforced.
The call of Christ is a call to discipleship that holds risks, tensions and possibilities which shapes our future and shapes our world.
Christ calls us to the discipleship journey of tension, calamities and triumphs that are all moulded by the hand of a loving God into an ever evolving loving future.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p. 463.
 Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), p. 181.