“But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.” — 2 Corinthians 4:7
One Saturday afternoon, I was hearing confessions at my regular weekend parish, in the pastor’s confessional. There were already some people in line, so I was in a hurry to take his nameplate down and stick a handwritten one of my own outside the door. I was doing a bumbling job of it, when one of the men in line broke the silence and said, “Ahh, I don’t think anybody cares, Father.” In other words, he didn’t care that it was me in the confessional; he just wanted to go to confession! Not a big self-confidence booster, but it was a reminder about the One in Whom I am supposed to place my confidence.
This story occurred to me again while writing this article, on the thirteenth anniversary of my priestly ordination (June 3). I began with a familiar verse from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, in which the Apostle refers to himself and his fellow ministers as “earthen vessels.” This image suggests fragility, simplicity, and being not quite up-to-the-mark. I mean, no one would choose to hold a treasure in an earthen vessel, if he had something more worthy.
No one except God, it seems. In fact, the Lord has spent all of salvation history filling earthen vessels with priceless treasures. And He uses those vessels to distribute His treasures to His people. The Bible is filled from front-to-back with examples of very earthy vessels being entrusted with God’s treasures.
Take Moses, for example. We know that he protested when the Lord first called him to lead the Israelites, saying he was a poor speaker, “slow of speech and tongue” (Ex 4:10). Yet the Lord answered him, saying, “Who gives one person speech? Who makes another mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, I will assist you in speaking and teach you what you are to say” (Ex 4:11-12).
Moses was not the first, and he was far from the last, example of God’s choice of earthen vessels. Abraham seemed too old to have children—the Letter to the Hebrews says he was “as good as dead” (11:12)—when he was promised countless descendants and then begat Isaac. David and Jeremiah had the opposite problem, seeming too young for the tasks appointed to them.
Generally, the kings of Israel were about as earthy as vessels can be, and several were far worse than earthy and serve more as warnings than as examples for us. And moving backwards a bit, Judges 7 contains a favorite story of mine—that of Gideon’s battle against the Midianites. This victory was made more glorious by the fact that Gideon was only allowed to fight with the three hundred soldiers who lapped-up their water like dogs. I can see myself in those canine-style water-lappers.
There are plenty of New Testament examples that could also be named here. Think of the weakness of all the apostles. Think of St. Paul, who admits in Second Corinthians 11:6 that he’s an “untrained” speaker. Then there’s the story in Acts 20:7-12, in which St. Paul is preaching at Troas and keeps going until midnight. A young man named Eutychus found the situation so somniferous that he dozed off and fell out of a third story window. Fortunately, he survived, but it does make St. Paul a kind of patron saint for priests who struggle with loquaciousness.
A final biblical example comes in the form of a story from my own life. Several years ago, when I was working in the Chancery here in the Archdiocese of Detroit, I used to walk downtown as often as I could, both for the exercise and to soak up the atmosphere. One afternoon in the early autumn I knew the Tigers were playing a playoff game, so I walked to Comerica Park, did a couple of laps around the stadium, and headed south on Woodward Avenue towards the office. I made it about a block down Woodward when a man called out to me.
He was a middle-aged, African American man. I had been working downtown for a few years at this point, so I knew the local homeless population reasonably well and didn’t hesitate to stop and see what this man wanted. He gave me an earful, as often happens in these encounters, but he didn’t ask me for money, which was unusual. Instead, he started—well, I don’t know what to call it except to say that he started prophesying about me, predicting that in the next year I would receive a new assignment. He said I was headed to “(my) own church”—in fact I was headed to our seminary—and that God was going to “expand my territory” (it seems he had read The Prayer of Jabez). I thanked him for his very hopeful predictions, and his parting words to me referenced the story of Balaam’s ass in Numbers 22. He said, “Father, if God can speak through a donkey, then He can speak through a drunk!”
My word of consolation is that if God can speak through a donkey and through a drunk, he can also speak through me or you. We might sometimes doubt whether God can speak through us, but we shouldn’t. He can, and to say otherwise is a lie.
In a highly critical world such as ours, it is easy to get “psyched-out” by our weaknesses. The magnitude of God’s call can also intimidate us and make us realize our inadequacy. In some ways, a little intimidation can be a good thing. But our weaknesses should not cause us to doubt our God-given vocations.
Each Christian disciple needs to discern and follow God’s call without worrying too much about whether he or she is up-to-snuff or not. God calls, and He equips. We don’t come “mission ready” on our own.
Of course, there can be Christians for whom their life’s sailing has been pretty smooth so far, who tend to be too relaxed, and who need a word of warning. I think of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke Skywalker is speaking with Yoda about his future mission and says with all the confidence of youth, “I’m not afraid.” Some people need a Yoda in their lives to say with the conviction of wisdom and experience, “You will be. You will be.”
Every disciple of Jesus Christ, and not just those with more obvious weaknesses, “hold(s) this treasure in earthen vessels.” Every one of us ought to approach our vocations with a healthy dose of that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. And, on a more pragmatic level, even the best-equipped Christian must one day come to a point at which he or she realizes, “I’m not enough for this task.”
God does cast down the mighty from their thrones, and one of the ways He does this is to place us in situations that are clearly beyond our abilities to navigate successfully. Business people refer to the “Peter Principle,” which says that an upwardly mobile worker is eventually promoted to a job at which he is incompetent. That principle can apply to any of our lives.
In my second parish assignment, I was asked to be the point-person for the parish’s charitable outreach, sort of a one-man St. Vincent de Paul conference. One afternoon a woman came to the parish office to ask for help after being evicted from her apartment. I listened to her story and it sounded like it was legitimate. I could tell that the woman—let’s call her “Rose”—suffered from a mental disability, but that she was sincere and was really in trouble.
Of course, it turned out she had been warned multiple times before finally being evicted. It also turned out that she had exhausted her family with requests for money, and they had basically cut Rose off. So she was alone in the world, had no job, and now no home. What she did have was a cat, and enough earthly possessions to fill the Pentagon Building, all of which were piled into mountains on the front lawn of her apartment building, for all of her neighbors to see.
I had no idea what to do for such a person, in such a situation. Fortunately our pastoral associate was a religious sister who had lots of experience and was more than willing to help. We had decent financial resources at this parish, so we were able to rent Rose a hotel room, a storage unit, and a U-Haul truck, but it became clear that she would never be able to bring even half of her belongings to the storage unit. On top of that, it began pouring down rain, and it was getting dark. I can remember very distinctly, watching Rose agonize over possessions as if they were children she had to leave behind, standing in the dark and the rain and thinking to myself, “How did I get into this?”
By God’s grace, things worked out that night. Rose ended up at peace and with her basic needs met. And that’s really the point. We face all kinds of situations in which we don’t have what it takes, but those are blessed opportunities to turn to the One Who has enough to meet every challenge. Saint Paul does not refer only to God’s power, but to His “surpassing power.” In Ephesians 3:20, Paul describes the Lord as “him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine.” And not only that, but He does it “by the power at work within us.”
I referenced the Magnificat earlier, saying that God casts us down from our thrones when we become “mighty” with pride. But He is all the more eager to lift us up when we are lowly, when we humble ourselves and turn to Him with utter dependence and confidence. So we have every reason to fear the Lord and stand in awe of the power of His grace, but we also have every reason for confidence despite our weaknesses, and even because of our weaknesses, that God will act powerfully in and through us.
This should serve as some consolation to all of us as we consider your own fragility, our own weaknesses. To use Paul’s “vessels” metaphor, you may not be a silver goblet. You may be more of a McDonald’s super-sized plastic cup. But you can be the Lord’s super-sized plastic cup, and that’s what makes all the difference.
How does Jesus come before us in the Eucharist? Not with a profusion of verbal eloquence, like a great orator. Not “wowing” his people, like a dynamic youth minister. Not arguing his opponents into submission, like a stupendous theologian who battles heresy with eloquence and wit. He comes before us as the One Who has died, but Who lives, and Who wants us to share His life. He loves us enough to come under the appearances of simple, earthly things.
Christ wants us to be good, sometimes even great, in His service, but what He most wants of us is that we appear before our brothers and sisters as those who have also died—to ourselves—and who yet live—in and for Christ. He wants us to love His people enough to share His grace with them, from the earthen vessels we are, “so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God” (2 Cor 4:15).
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