Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Fine china - The Instructor on costly vessels

This is a continuation of my series on Clement of Alexandria and his book, "The Instructor." If you are new to this series or are unfamiliar with Clement and his book, you may want to first read the introduction to this series. You may also want to read the introduction to Book 2 of The Instructor as it give advice on how to understand Clement and his writings.
"And so the use of cups made of silver and gold, and of others inlaid with precious stones, is out of place, being only a deception of the vision. For if you pour any warm liquid into them, the vessels becoming hot, to touch them is painful. On the other hand, if you pour in what is cold, the material changes its quality, injuring the mixture, and the rich potion is hurtful. Away, then, with Thericleian cups and Antigonides, and Canthari, and goblets, and Lepastæ, and the endless shapes of drinking vessels, and wine-coolers, and wine-pourers also." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 3)
The Shakers, being a Christian sect formed in the later eighteenth century, believed that "Beauty rests on utility." Now we know that this is not entirely true, for there is much beauty that has nothing to do with utility, such as the beauty of a sunset or a rose, but aside from the beauty of God's creation, chasing beauty in man's creation apart from its utility is vain. It is vanity, for example, to place a greater value on the dish then its contents when the excessiveness of the dish offers nothing to its contents in way of quality or quantity.
"For my part, I approve of Plato, who plainly lays it down as a law, that a man is not to labour for wealth of gold or silver, nor to possess a useless vessel which is not for some necessary purpose, and moderate; so that the same thing may serve for many purposes, and the possession of a variety of things may be done away with. Excellently, therefore, the Divine Scripture, addressing boasters and lovers of their own selves, says, 'Where are the rulers of the nations, and the lords of the wild beasts of the earth, who sport among the birds of heaven, who treasured up silver and gold, in whom men trusted, and there was no end of their substance, who fashioned silver and gold, and were full of care? There is no finding of their works. They have vanished, and gone down to Hades.' Such is the reward of display." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 3)
Speaking of the "reward of display" Jesus said that, "do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full." (Matthew 6:2) How vain it is to seek the rewards of this lifetime and, in the process, forfeit eternal rewards yet to come. There is nothing wrong with nice things, but when used for show only, in order to demonstrate by them our wealth, refinement, and good taste, we receive our reward in full here and reap emptiness and loss in the age to come. In using things to seek the praise of men, we place impediments in our lives to receiving true praise form God. Jesus said, "How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?" (John 5:44) When we seek the fame, honor, and praise from men we weaken our faith and our relationship with God.
"What we acquire without difficulty, and use with ease, we praise, keep easily, and communicate freely. The things which are useful are preferable, and consequently cheap things are better than dear. In fine, wealth, when not properly governed, is a stronghold of evil, about which many casting their eyes, they will never reach the kingdom of heaven, sick for the things of the world, and living proudly through luxury. But those who are in earnest about salvation must settle this beforehand in their mind, 'that all that we possess is given to us for use, and use for sufficiency, which one may attain to by a few things.' For silly are they who, from greed, take delight in what they have hoarded up." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 3)
Those things we buy out of necessity and without extravagance are those things which we use freely and are willing to share with little regard to their return. How hard it is to obey the Lord's command to share with those in need if we are worried about the safety and return of things of great price? Worried to lend them out lest they be broken, lost, or never returned. With costly things we are forever fretting over them, always concerned for their protection and well keeping, setting our focus on things and not people.
"It is a farce, and a thing to make one laugh outright, for men to bring in silver urinals and crystal vases de nuit, as they usher in their counsellors, and for silly rich women to get gold receptacles for excrements made; so that being rich, they cannot even ease themselves except in superb way. I would that in their whole life they deemed gold fit for dung... But the best riches is poverty of desires; and the true magnanimity is not to be proud of wealth, but to despise it. Boasting about one’s plate is utterly base." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 3)
In our extravagances and seeking after expensive and luxurious items, we must ask ourselves, "Is it worth it?" Do we really need gold dishes and costly glasses? Do we really need the latest and greatest and most costly things? After all, is anyone really impressed? Man maybe, but God no! Instead we are merely conceited, thinking we are something because of what we own rather than for who we are. Such a love for things is truly a path towards ruin.
"The Lord ate from a common bowl, and made the disciples recline on the grass on the ground, and washed their feet, girded with a linen towel—He, the lowly-minded God, and Lord of the universe. He did not bring down a silver foot-bath from heaven. He asked to drink of the Samaritan woman, who drew the water from the well in an earthenware vessel, not seeking regal gold, but teaching us how to quench thirst easily. For He made use, not extravagance His aim." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 3)
In the end, our lives should be about people rather than things. Jesus set an example of frugality and simplicity that we should follow; using the things of this life for necessity not for luxury. He did this, not because He did not have a right to these things, but because His focus was on us and not things; we were what He valued not worldly items of great price.

David Robison

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