What is a life worth?
For weeks, the airwaves and internet have been saturated with killing. Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. The decapitation of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State. What should be done? What can be done? What is a life worth?
The world ignores many other lives snuffed out. The Islamic State has been systematically slaughtering Christians in Iraq. These holy martyrs join St. Bartholomew, whose feast day is today, in counting their lives worth losing.
What are their lives worth? What is your life worth? What is your life for?
Because we are selfish, “What is my life for?” is not our usual question. We ask questions like, “Am I getting enough out of life? Am I paid what I am worth? Am I treated like I think I should be? I want my life to be different. How can I get what I want?”
The Word of God says all those questions are the wrong questions. The beginning of today’s Epistle reading (2 Cor. 4:7) calls our bodies “jars of clay.” “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” What treasure? Just before this, St. Pauls tells the Corinthians about the mercy of God; because of God’s mercy, “we do not lose heart.” Why? Because we have the gospel, which means “good news.” What good news? The stuff we said in the Creed: the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
That is good news. And it’s all grounded in creation. In the verse immediately preceding today’s Epistle, Paul says, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Light is not a metaphor, a symbol of happiness or clarity. God said, “Let there be light,” even before He created the sun or the other stars. He made the scientific laws that govern our universe, and He made matter, the carbon, the clay, the dust from which He formed us.
The glory of God, Paul says, you see in the face of Jesus. Meaning what? Jesus the perfect man, crucified, is risen from the dead. In His body. Meaning that where God is, matter, material, life is not snuffed out. Life cannot be taken. Life wins. The death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s answer to the question, “What is a life worth?”
Expressing this idea, St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a living man.” God makes life. The devil makes nothing. Evil makes nothing. The power of evil only corrupts, distorts, perverts, attempts to destroy. But if Jesus is risen from the dead, then there is no place for despair, no place for sorrow. That’s why Paul and his companions could go from city to city, being beaten, robbed, laughed at, and nearly killed, finally staring martyrdom in the face, and say, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8–9 ESV).
Nothing the world does can reverse the outcome, for Jesus is risen from the dead. We have this treasure, Paul says, in jars of clay. The NKJ says “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” He means our bodies, which God made from the earth.
Our bodies are powerful and resilient, yet fragile. Bones break. Cancer corrupts. Teeth rot. Bowels convulse. Eyesight blurs. Hearing fades. “What at last does this world leave us, but a hand filled with sand, or some loss to grieve us?”
“We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” Jars of clay are easily smashed. Who will pick up the pieces? The pot cannot reassemble itself. But the Potter became the pot, the Creator entered His creation.
Psalm 139 is often referenced with regards to abortion. And rightly so, but there’s even more going on there.
Psa. 139:13 For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
God formed our inward parts, He fashioned us in the wombs of our mothers, and so abortion is an unequivocal evil, because it is smashing a jar of clay that God has made. But then David says, “I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” Who is the speaker here? It cannot be you or me, or even David. We were all formed in our mother’s womb. Only Adam was “intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” Adam is the speaker, the first-formed man.
From Adam came his wife, and from them came all of us. When God was forming Adam, He already saw all of us in that first man. When God sees us, He doesn’t see black or white, He sees children of Adam: humans. He sees jars of clay that He fashioned, beginning with that first earthen vessel, our first father.
What else does He see? He sees hideous deformities. Not just misshapen noses, but misshapen minds: souls that desire all the wrong things, hearts that lust after what is not good, mouths that mutter grievances and complaints and twist every story.
And as we see everything falling apart, from Ferguson to Washington, from Iraq to Israel to our own little plans for our own little lives, it is easy to despair, to say, “What is my life for? I am just another broken pot, a jar of clay ugly and misshapen, and soon the garbage truck will come and haul my broken vessel to the landfill, where I take my place with billions of shattered hopes and dreams. What good is any of it?”
And God says to you, “O little jar of clay, who are you to lose heart about what I have made? I made you, and I have a purpose for you. And what is more, I have a plan.”
That’s how Bartholomew could go to his martyrdom. His symbol is a knife, for he was flayed alive in Armenia. He lived out the conclusion to our Epistle, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:10 ESV)
Have you ever smelled the stench of death? Trembled over an incessantly crying baby? Had yet another argument with your spouse? Laid aside an unopened bill you knew you could not pay? Stared into another lonely evening? And said, “This is not how I thought things would be”?
I wonder if Bartholomew—or the many modern martyrs in Iraq and Syria—had similar thoughts. That’s the story of humanity, of a fallen world: none of this is how it was supposed to be.
But you have been put into your place to reflect the light that God made. You are not the light, but you reflect the light, the treasure in jars of clay. The glory of God shines whenever you change another diaper, make another meal. When you love your wife, when you submit to your husband, when you care for your child, when you honor your parents, when you help your neighbor, when you do honest work, when you smile, and especially—especially!—when you forgive sins. Then you are doing the best work, for it is the work God has made for you to do right where you are.
We probably won’t be martyrs like Bartholomew. But we bear witness, martyria, to Jesus by forgiveness and faithful work.
Your body is breaking. You are a jar of clay. But you are a jar of clay made by the master Potter. He will reassemble your earthen vessel more glorious than you can imagine. That good news is the treasure you carry around in you even now. +INJ+