Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor?…
Against the hard absolutism of the parable of the potter and the clay the righteous instincts of the heart have often protested. Responsibility without freedom strikes us as despotic and unjust. If we are whirled about on the potter's wheel of an inflexible fate, it seems intolerable that we should be denounced for taking the shape it has given us. And what maddens us the more is that not being free, we should yet be called into account and held responsible. No effort of ours, it seems, can alter our destiny; yet the stain of demerit clings to us if we fail to shape it. It is like charging the rivers with guilt for their inability to run up a hill when God's decree of gravitation forbids it. All this we find, or think we find, in the image of the potter and the clay. And no doubt, read in its connection with the rest of the passage, it seems a vindication of the right of God to do what He likes — of His right to be arbitrary, to make selections on principles of favouritism. An image or argument, however, that lands us in such a conclusion — that issues in a disproof of the righteousness of God, carries in it its own condemnation. As the impersonation of eternal justice, He must choose and do what is fair — what commends itself to our pure moral instincts. He must reverence the laws He has stamped on our nature. He must live out from the perceptions of the right He has given us to live by. The image of the potter and the clay, of the vessels made to honour and the vessels made to dishonour, are emblematic of certain inequalities that prevail among men. You have these two inequalities; first, as to our sphere in life; secondly, as to our moral constitution. Now, let us look at this question a little more closely. First, one man's lot is favourable to the cultivation of the Christian temper, while another's is not. That, I suppose, is inevitable. As there are some races who seem to exist only to be the serfs of the world, delvers in the field, toilers in the mine, so there are individuals elected by Divine decree, fashioned of dull and lethargic temper, to whom all life in the higher human interests has been denied. They cannot rise to the far empyrean, fanned by the wing of the albatross and the eagle; but must be content to skim with heavy flight near the earth's surface. Well, if the Potter has made them so, let them so accept the destiny and the doom assigned. Let them do that in the strong conviction that the great Judge will take into account the conditions of life in which He placed them, and ask only if their achievements were equal to their opportunities. To them, little having been committed, from them little shall be required. Your sphere, your work in life, then, is the element given you in which to work out whatever greatness of character is possible within it. It defines your opportunities. These may be few, narrow, unpoetic. But there they are: and faithfulness within them will secure for you the same cordial greeting given by God to him who, having ten times your chances, gives back to the great Householder no more in proportion than you. Secondly, there are diversities of nature among men. You have one man with a sweet nature in him, perfectly and rightly disposed towards goodness and God. You have another, with whom life is a ceaseless struggle, who cannot put the victor's foot on his frailties, and who at the end will die, having redeemed little of the wilderness within from its waste and wildness to the peaceful fruitfulness of the garden of God. It strikes you as unfair to ask these men to live in equal nearness to God. It is like asking the vessel made of common earth to have the glitter and beauty of Etruscan ware. Now, what are we to say to those hapless souls to whom fate has denied the moral materials of which the saintly character is formed — whom the Potter has made of common clay? That they will be condemned for not being the richest porcelain? for not attaining the moral beauty which the rigorous necessity of destiny and providence forbid? Surely not? A fine nature is a communicated blessing. It is not the acquisition of one's own will — not the fruit of one's own endeavour. No merit is ascribed to a man who is what he is because of something given him, not acquired by him. If much has been given in a man's moral endowments, much will be required of him; but to whom little has been given, of him little shall be asked. The ideal man of angel temper is different from the ideal man of a dull and sluggish soul. Both may be perfect after their kind. The injustice will not come in till God expects from both vessels the same finish and beauty. The clay vessel may be perfect as a bit of delf; it has its own perfection: the vessel made to be a bit of alabaster or Etruscan ware cannot have more. In conclusion, then, our lot and our nature — whatever these are, tractable or intractable — are given us as the element and the materials out of which we are to evolve a certain ideal character. The lot and the nature are our fate — for them we are not responsible. The character is the product of our own freewill — for it we shall answer.
Parallel VersesKJV: Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?