The Dawn of Midnight/14 - Only a Father who is never indifferent offers mercy

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 23/07/2017

170723 Geremia 14 rid“Atheist brother, nobly thoughtful, looking for a God I do not know how to give you, let’s cross the desert together. Deserted in the desert, we go beyond the forest of the faiths, free and naked towards the naked Being, and it’s where the word dies that our path should end.”

Davide Maria Turoldo, Canti Ultimi  (Last Songs - rough translation from the Italian original)

Life could be told as the story of its crises. The Bible is full of these stories, but we do not notice it because we seek truth, religious words and consolation in biblical texts. And so we lose the most wonderful pages of the Bible that only open to us when we manage to reach to the men and women behind the words of YHWH, to those human beings who have spoken it. The biblical word does not change us until we let ourselves be touched in the flesh by his men and women, until we give them permission to enter the innermost rooms of our soul and enter them as concrete people with a name and a story, with their wounds, doubts and curses. Too many times the Bible has little or no saving effect because we allow it to touch us only a little or not at all. Sometimes, very rarely, a biblical character is able to force the threshold, to slip into the narrow hole of the house left open by mistake. The character becomes a more real and concrete person like our friends or children. The furnishings of the interiors and the bedrooms are all mixed up. If it is Jeremiah who then enters, the house is turned upside down, and perhaps in the general chaos we can become poor again as for things and God, and finally feel the spirit that cannot blow freely in the houses with closed doors and in guarded and protected temples. Too many people are left out of the spiritual horizon of the world because when he comes to see us he enters a house with closed windows which is too full of well-ordered things and insufficient oxygen to breathe.«Questa parola fu rivolta a Geremia da YHWH quando il re Sedecìa (...) gli mandò Pascur e il sacerdote Sofonia per dirgli: "Consulta per noi YHWH perché Nabucodònosor, re di Babilonia, ci fa guerra; forse YHWH compirà per noi qualcuno dei suoi tanti prodigi, in modo da farlo allontanare"» (Geremia 21,1-2).

"This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, when King Zedekiah sent to him Pashhur (...) saying, »Inquire of the Lord for us, for Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon is making war against us. Perhaps the Lord will deal with us according to all his wonderful deeds and will make him withdraw from us«” (Jeremiah 21:1-2).

From the beginning, Jeremiah has constantly announced the arrival of the enemy, the occupation of the country, the coming of a great misfortune. But the leaders of the people and the priests did not want to listen to him as they were under the spell of the false prophets and believed that the temple was unconquerable and Jerusalem could not be beaten. Now, years later, Nebuchadnezzar falls to the gates of the city and begins the siege; but the leaders of the people, caught up in the nationalist ideology, continue to think that they will be saved, that YHWH will ultimately do one of “his wonderful deeds”. Jeremiah continues to say and keeps repeating exactly the opposite of what the people want to hear. He cannot do anything else as he is not the master of the words he says.

He does not give any room to feelings, but prophesies, ruthlessly, the imminent, total misery of the people he loves. It is this fragile force that makes him radically faithful to the word even when the tragic nature of the historical moment could have created that human pietas and attenuated the hardness of words, clearing the colours of scary sceneries. We would have done it and still do it, but the real prophets don’t. Jeremiah prophesies the only possible and good choice: yielding, accepting defeat, failure, waking up, and admitting the end of the illusion: “He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war” (21:9). However, even though the enemy has surrounded the walls of the city, the deluded leaders still don’t believe him: “you who say, »Who shall come down against us, / or who shall enter our habitations?«” (21:13)

Here we can understand the immense value of that friend - prophet or not - who has the courage to announce our having to surrender when false prophets and illusions keep blinding us. The value of the friend who tells us that we just have to bring the books to court, let the one we loved so much fly away, sell the community school carrying the heritage of the days of our first love, yield to the angel of death, to be able to embrace him as a good friend. And then hear inside us again: "Blessed are the meek.” But people and communities have an invincible resistance to believing in the word that demands yielding, because we all love illusions and false consolations too much. And so while the defeat is evident to all, we, often advised by false prophets, continue to deceive ourselves, to invest endless energies in the wrong struggles, when only an "amen" could really save us.

But Jeremiah's non-adulator oracle to his king does not end there. Jeremiah prophesies and announces not only that this time (unlike what had happened to the Assyrians through Isaiah's intercession) YHWH would not intervene to save the people, but will even act "against" Jerusalem: “Then Jeremiah said to them: »Thus you shall say to Zedekiah, ‘Thus says the Lord (...) I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and strong arm, in anger and in fury and in great wrath.’«” (21:3-5)

The God of the Alliance, the promise, Sinai and the Law does not intervene but puts himself on the enemy’s side. How come? Had YHWH not often been revealed to his people as the faithful God?

In these events, therefore, we can grasp something very important in the biblical grammar of pact and faithfulness. The first interpretation to those who read the story of betrayal and idolatry narrated by Jeremiah is that of a God who moves into a register of reciprocity, which looks very similar to the reciprocity of contracts: the people did not respect the covenant, have been prostituted to other gods, so God terminates the contract and applies the penalties for the event of non-fulfilment. Jeremiah's reading also suggests this interpretation, and we should take it seriously - it is always important and desirable to take the message emerging from the first and immediate reading of a biblical text (and every text) very seriously.

There is a great message contained in this first simple and immediate reading, too. The experience that Israel has of YHWH is that of a faithful God because he is a God of the word. Idols do not make covenants; they do not terminate them or apply the sanctions of the pact, because they are simply pieces of wood, mute and dead. The biblical God is a living God, he is faithful because he is alive, so if he is alive he also respects the covenants he makes with the people. Israel, and then Christianity and all of the Western World have learned to realise the seriousness of human pacts and contracts, because they have had the experience of a God who is the first to respect them. The Covenant is a bilateral commitment and remains a real alliance until one party's faithfulness is the precondition for the other's. Through the voice of the prophets, therefore, the biblical God taught us that the first to take the covenants seriously is God himself, and that all instances of unfaithfulness have very serious consequences. Only a serious and trusting God could be the foundation of a civilization of people able to keep their covenants and promises, and to be responsible for the consequences of broken pacts, unfulfilled promises and lies about our primary relationships.

The biblical God, as we know, is not only familiar with the conditional reciprocity of pacts: he is also capable of other kinds of love, up to the inconsistency of the agape. But if God had revealed to us an agape-love that skips and forgets the love of the covenants and promises, his word could not have become the spiritual and moral basis of the lives of men and women where love is placed before everything through conditional faithfulness to reciprocal pacts and promises. Those of marriages, societies and businesses, of communities that live by many relationships but first by that very secular love that manifests itself in pactional words and in alliance. These are real words because of their reciprocity; they live and nourish life because they are conditional, as long as we respect them together, but they end when the reciprocity ends. Then we also know that there are many marriages, businesses and communities that survive because a person decides to go ahead and not to give up despite the unfaithfulness of others. But first there is the weekday reciprocity of alliances, which is the cement of our society, without which our faithfulness-without-reciprocity could not even be understood, and would disperse in the void of our words-worth-nothing. It is the truth of the pacts and contracts that makes the non-reciprocity of the agape immense.

The Bible - the Ancient and New Testament - revealed to us a God who is able to go beyond the register of reciprocity. He taught us to forgive seventy times seven, he revealed to us a face of a God who gives his life to the enemies and the ungodly. But he still called all this an alliance, a covenant - albeit a new covenant. So it was still reciprocity: all new but still and always reciprocity. The god-without-reciprocity is the pharaoh, who is totally separated, indifferent and disconnected from his subjects, though deciding on their life and death. The biblical God is not an indifferent God towards our reciprocity; he is capable of going beyond the pact, but remains a pactional God. We could not have been able to understand the merciful Father if, yesterday and today, we had not experienced the pain, anger and abandonment that our prodigal children were giving to us by breaking pacts and leaving us. It is this pain caused by non-reciprocity that can reveal the value of a different God who is waiting for us on the threshold of reciprocity - and it is from there that we can find reasons and strength to continue to wait for our children, husbands or unfaithful fellows of our communities. Thank you, Jeremiah, for having shown us - at all costs - the trustworthy God's face, because he is faithful to the promises. Without the total consummation of that first covenant, without discovering the value of God's reciprocity, we would not have understood the new covenant. Our pacts and contracts would be devalued and emptied. We would not have understood that extraordinary reciprocity that one day we called Trinity. And we would not have understood the real gratuitousness, the agape, which can shine in all its beauty of paradise only when we have learned the value of faithfulness to our pacts and alliances.

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