Connections 02.11.2018: The Clay Treasure

2 Corinthians 4:1-12

These days, as I watch my daughters continue to grow and mature in so many ways, I find their creations from early childhood more and more precious. The first face Natalie drew at age two: big, round, hollow eye circles and a straight horizontal mouth line. The tiny handprint Samantha made at age four with paint on a ceramic tile. The picture frame Natalie constructed at age nine by gluing on buttons of all colors and sizes. The flower vases Samantha painted at age five that now sit at either end of our TV stand. The gorgeous, colorful paintings of flowers made by both girls over the years that hang on the wall by our kitchen table.

All of these artistic creations are precious because when I look at them, I think of the essence of my children. I think of Samantha’s intense focus on any project she attempts; that intentionality translates into her interactions with the people in her life. I think of Natalie’s playfulness and glee; that fun spirit also translates into her interactions with the people in her life. Their artwork may be small, fragile, and delicate, but each piece is beautiful and priceless to me because it makes me think of my girls.

Is this how God sees us? We too are small, fragile, and delicate. Paul writes in our passage that we are “clay jars.” Knock us off the table and we crash to the floor, shattering into pieces. Confront us with life’s struggles and we fall hard, our grief shattering us into pieces. But within each of us is a spirit that God treasures. When God looks at us, I believe God sees the essence of who we are. Our gifts, our potential, our powerful stories, our hopes. When God looks at us, God sees us as beautiful and priceless.

And because of God’s love for us, we are, as Paul says, able to endure. God’s power gives us power. Jesus’ life gives us life. No matter what we face in the clay jar of being human, we can be confident that we are treasures to the God of all.

Discussion

1. What items in your home remind you of special people? How do you feel when you look at these items?
2. How are people like clay jars? Why might Paul have used this image?
3. Why are clay jars useful? What happens when they break?
4. Why are our human bodies useful? What happens when they break in various ways (illness, grief, addiction, etc.)?
5. When God looks at you, what do you think God sees?

Reference Shelf

Verse 7 presents a fine summary of what is coming. It begins, “But we have this treasure in clay jars.” The treasure is surely God’s gift of the glorious ministry of Spirit about which Paul has been speaking, but the stress falls on its being held in clay jars. A clay jar (or earthen vessel as some interpreters prefer) is fragile, easily broken, disposable. How, then, does it hold such glory? Indeed, why does it? “So that,” Paul says, “it is evident that the extraordinariness of the power is from God and not from us” (v. 7b). Paul will spend the next part of the letter expounding on this key thought.

In vv. 8-9 Paul presents a “catalogue of hardships” that are structured in an “A, not B” form. Such lists were common rhetorical devices in the Greco-Roman world. Paul includes them also in 6:4-10; 11:23-27; and 12:10. Ancient sages used them to insist that external circumstances did not govern their lives. Paul uses this one similarly, but he also says more with it.

“In everything” Paul says he is afflicted (the same verb, thlibe, as in 1:6), but not left without an avenue of escape, at a loss but not totally at a loss, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed (vv. 8-9). Some scholars wonder if v. 8b (“at a loss but not totally at a loss”) contradicts 1:8 wherein Paul said he “despaired even of living.” Some scholars wish to specify the “meaning” of the second part of each antithesis. For example, some insist the latter terms must indicate that God intervened to change Paul’s actual circumstances, while others believe that only Paul’s attitude toward his hardships changed. I wonder if such concerns miss the point by ignoring the rhetorical effect of Paul’s argument, especially in a possible context of Corinthian triumphalism. Paul is a preacher “on a roll” here, insisting in these “A not B” ways that despite the hardships faced, and despite its fragility, the clay jar did not break.

Mitzi L. Minor, 2 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009) 87-88.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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