The older I get, the more difficult I find it not to be cynical about other people. I would imagine that my experience is not untypical of many others too. When we are young, we tend to look up to others: initially it is our parents, then perhaps our teachers at school, or perhaps a Sunday School teacher or even a minister at church, and may be later still a politician or a leader of industry. But as we grow older, we discover that all these men and women whom we idolised have feet of clay. There seems to be a skeleton in everybody’s closet. Or if not a skeleton, then we discover that they are beset with all kinds of warts or foibles. An American author, Ambrose Bierce, once said: “A saint” is “a dead sinner revised and edited”.
As the Black Lives Matter movement is painfully reminding us, even the greatest have feet of clay. Here in the UK the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol has been toppled; the statue of Winston Churchill in London has been boarded up; and the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford is under threat. However, the truth is that all heroes have flaws. Take for instance Martin Luther King, a great Baptist preacher who more than anybody else was responsible for ending segregation in the USA: he was a womanizer who had a host of extramarital affairs. Similarly many of today’s celebrities in the world of entertainment and sport have all kinds of flaws, to which for the most part their followers tend to turn a blind eye.
The term ‘feet of clay’ comes from a troubling dream in which Nebuchadnezzar saw a gigantic, extraordinarily brilliant and awe-inspiring statue (2.31).The head was made of gold, the upper torso and arms were of silver, the lower torso and thighs of bronze, the legs of Iron, and the feet a mix or iron and of clay (2.32-33). The clay made the statue “brittle” (2.42), so that when a stone “from the mountain” struck the statue, the whole statue collapsed sand, amazingly, all its components were blown away like chaff, “so that not a trace of them could be found” (2.35). Daniel in his interpretation describes how each component represented a different empire: according to the commentators the gold represented the Babylonian empire; the silver the Medean empire; the bronze the Persian empire; and the iron and clay the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Antioch in Syria. As for the stone, it represented God’s everlasting kingdom (2.44). The message is clear: at the end of time God’s kingdom alone will prevail. In the words of Dale Ralph Davis: “Kings and kingdoms, presidents and dictators, democracies and tyrannies and monarchies come and go and enter the landfill of human history” (The Message of Daniel: His kingdom cannot fail 2013). Alternatively, wrote Ronald Wallace “the statue can stand for our little empires, domestic, social, business, financial or ecclesiastic in the midst of which some of us sit enthroned, trying in vain to find security and satisfaction” (The Message of Daniel: The Lord is King, 1979).
However, we cannot just point the finger at others. All of us are flawed in one way or another; all of us have feet of clay. Or in the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Cor 4.7, God has entrusted the message of the Gospel to ordinary, fallible people like us, who he describes as “clay jars” (NRSV; similarly NIV) or “common clay pots” (GNB). The jars or pots Paul had in mind were the small pottery oil lamps to be found in any home of that time. There is perhaps a double metaphor present. On the one hand, the cheapness of these clay lamps represents the very ordinariness of those to whom the message of the Gospel has been entrusted. Treasure in common clay pots – what a contrast! On the other hand, the fragility of these clay lamps represents the frailty and weakness of those to whom the message of the Gospel has been entrusted. The message of God’s power is entrusted to fallible people – what a contrast!
Although today we regard the Apostle Paul as a giant of a man, he knew that he had feet of clay – indeed, not just feet. He was very conscious of his shortcomings. Indeed, some of his critics were not slow to point out his failing. To quote one critic “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor 10.10). Physically he appears not to have been an impressive character. But Paul knew he had other shortcomings too. He could never forget that he had once persecuted the church of God: as he wrote to Timothy: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am foremost” (1 Tim 1.15). When he compared himself to a common clay pot, Paul was not exhibiting false modesty: he recognised his own weakness and fallibility. What was true of Paul, is true of every Christian leader. Along with their strengths, they also have their weaknesses. Much as we need to honour them, we must not’s not fall into the trap of putting them on a pedestal of perfection. What is true of Christian leaders is true of everybody: none of us are without faults and weaknesses. Yet God has entrusted to the message of his Gospel.
The one exception, of course is Jesus. Even if we put his life under the sharpest of microscopes, we discover that his life bears the closest of scrutinies. The Apostle Peter who spent almost every day of three years with Jesus, could say of him that he was “without defect or blemish” (1 Pet 1.19). Similarly. the writer to the Hebrews wrote that he “was tempted in every way that we are, but did not sin” (4.15 GNB). Jesus may have been human, but he was more than human. Napoleon, in exile on the island of St Helena, wrote:
“I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires, and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and whatever other religions the distance of infinity… Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and his will confounds me. Between him and whoever else in the world, there is no possible term of comparison. He is truly a being by himself…. The nearer I approach, the more carefully I examine, everything is above me – everything remains grand, of a grandeur which overpowers. His religion is a revelation from an intelligence which certainly is not that of man… One can find absolutely nowhere, but in him alone, the imitation or the example of his life… I search in vain in history to find the similar to Jesus Christ, or anything which can approach the gospel. Neither history, nor humanity, nor the ages, nor nature, offer me anything with which I am able to compare it or explain it. Here everything is extraordinary”.
Jesus is the one true hero, in whom we will never be disappointed.