Earthen Vessels

"We hold this treasure in earthen vessels" (2 4:7).

In another life I taught high school theology in Texas.  I had a senior student who had read beyond his years and thought about the dilemmas and ironies of life in ways that taught me more than I taught him.

In one of our classes, we discussed the difficult sayings in today's Gospel passage in which Jesus calls us to a higher standard than the letter of the law. Someone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed sin with her. It is better to pluck out your eye and cut off your hand or foot than use it to desire or do something evil.  Anger in the heart is the equivalent of murder.

These sayings are so stark, many preachers avoid them or approach them as hyperbole. But my student understood them to  mean that every human being is a sinner. Everyone lusts and murders in their heart. If everyone who was tempted to use their eyes or bodies to do evil had instead plucked out an eye or cut off limbs, the only people in heaven would be cripples and the blind. The simple incontrovertible fact is that everyone sins. Even if they do not act, everyone thinks about and carries out shameful desires in their heart.  Is there any hope for us if this is so.?

Fortunately the Lectionary wisely links today's Gospel with St. Paul's words to the notoriously sinful community he founded at Corinth. We hold the treasure of God's grace in earthen vessels. Our human lives are not made of gold, silver or bronze, but of simple clay.  We break easily, and cannot claim that the grace we hold has anything to do with our accomplishments or worthiness.  God's forgiveness is gift to sinners. Our ability to overcome evil and grow in love is also a pure gift.  God makes us lovable by loving us. Christ died for us while we were still sinners.  This is what keeps us from despair when we fail and have to begin again. 

We go to God together as sinners called to holiness by the grace of God.  Sometimes, the greatest gift we can offer each other, the greatest show of encouragement, is to share our own failures.