The Dawn of Midnight/16 - Recognizing and enriching the prophetic family in the world
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 06/08/2017
Once Rabbi Mosche of Kobryn said, 'I see that all the words I said did not even find one who had welcomed them in their heart. The words that come from the heart, in fact, go into the heart; but if they find none, then to the man who said them God gives the grace that they do not err without a dwelling, but they all return to the heart from which they came out’ ... Some time after his death a friend said, 'If he had someone to talk to, he would still live.'
Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim (rough translation from the Italian quote)
Even if every prophet has his own unique personality and his own name, prophecy is a collective experience. It forms a community, a tradition, and those who join in continue the same race, fight the same battles, give new words to the same voice. Every true prophet is created by the prophets who preceded him and nourishes the prophets that will come after him. This generative spiritual chain is the root of faithfulness to the word, because every prophet knows that he is writing a chapter of a book that will be completed by others, and if there are some words missing from a chapter, or if it is partial and needs editing, those who continue writing it will find some adulterated material in their hands, they will not have the words they need to write their own chapters and so the final outcome will be poorer and worse.
The prophets’ faithfulness to the word makes us understand a more universal kind of truth, which concerns every generation and every word. Today's art and poetry feeds upon the faithfulness of yesterday's artists and poets to their word, and if a poet betrays his word, he impoverishes tomorrow's poetry. When a parent confuses or betrays their word that they have inherited, the children find themselves in the hands of miserable or false words to write their lives with - behind bad lives written by our children there often lies the betrayal of our words. Communities are lost when someone betrays the first charismatic word in the process of conveying the tradition. Crossing deserts of betrayed words does not lead to any promised land, because the map that leads from Egypt to Canaan can only be written with faithful signs and words.
"After Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken into exile from Jerusalem Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, together with the officials of Judah, the craftsmen, and the metal workers, and had brought them to Babylon, the Lord showed me this vision: behold, two baskets of figs placed before the temple of the Lord. One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten." (Jeremiah 24:1-2). We are facing a new vision of Jeremiah, the meaning of which YHWH immediately reveals to him: “Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah... I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord... Like the bad figs...so will I treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt.” (24:5-8)
The theology of the 'remnant' is at the centre of biblical prophecy because it speaks of the profound nature of biblical humanism and its typical form of salvation. ‘Great’, ‘strong’ and ‘many’ are the characteristics of empires, the pharaoh, armies, all of which are places where God is not and where man is denied. Even in the Bible, and even in prophetic tradition, we find a spirit that has linked salvation to strength and to the ‘Lord of Hosts’; but along this we find another one that did not prophesy a victorious messiah appearing on the horizon on a white horse, but was expecting a suffering servant, an emmanuel, a baby in a manger. Without the true prophets communities – even those born from the purest spiritual charismas – soon turn into empires headed for conquests, converts and power, and forget about the poor truth of the little remnant. And, eventually, they perish.
Even in Jeremiah we find the tradition of the 'remnant', but the greatness of this prophet reveals a truly profound and subversive dimension to it: the 'remnant' is not to be found among those who remained at home, escaping the first deportation but between the exiles in Babylon. The good basket is the one taken away. This is not just a wise reading of the present and future events of Jerusalem and Judah, or just a criticism of the corruption of priests and prophets. We can also find a great message about the logic of the salvation of communities and people here. In those days, an observer in Israel having seen a significant part of the people deported and exiled, forced to live among a tyrannical, idolatrous people, without a temple, prophets or priests, even if he had believed the prophecy of the 'remnant' he would place it in the part of the people that remained, because it was still possible to pray in the temple, celebrate the Shabbat, and because there were still spiritual and religious leaders. Jeremiah, on the other hand, says that the 'remnant' that will be saved and will continue the Covenant is now among the deportees, surrounded by the processions of very high and shining foreign gods, without the religious apparatus and the guardians of YHWH. Salvation will not come from those who remained in the religion and the temple, but from those who were led out and away, into an idolatrous land.
How many times has it happened, and continues to happen still, that someone takes off, leaves, is taken away with violence by someone or something stronger, and those who remain interpret it as a misfortune. And then in the exile there begins a salvation that will turn out to be a blessing one day. Someone leaves a community, a home, an institution; those who remain see this departure as a curse, and their own fate to remain as a blessing. Then the story continues, and within that curse there blooms a beautiful flower of evil. Those who had remained in Jeremiah's time, protected by the ideology of false prophets and priests of the "temple", did not know that in those distant lands, under the ground of sorrow there was something new, faithful and true growing that would also save their children one day. Sometimes, part of our heart takes on a journey, it leaves us, it is taken away from home, and the part that remains cries of abandonment. But it may happen that exactly what has fled to a foreign land begins to generate a mysterious kind of salvation; it comes back and saves what remained at home and has been corrupted and deceived by ideologies and false prophets in the meantime. There are kingdoms where the banquet of the fat calf can begin in a pig shed, where the acorns flourish in mustard seeds. The truest cases of faithfulness are the unlikely ones. Those that are too linear and obvious often produce the feelings and words of the elder brother who remained ‘faithful’ in his father's house.
But if we read these verses of Jeremiah within the whole biblical tradition, we can make other discoveries. Let's go back to the Torah, and to the end of Genesis where we meet a friend of Jeremiah: Joseph. He, too, a deported and enslaved brother, without family and father, with corrupt and treacherous brothers, becomes a 'remnant' of salvation for everyone in that distant land of the pharaoh. Salvation was not there in the land of his father Jacob or among the altars of their God. It was far away, among the pyramids, in imperial prisons, in solitude, flourishing in a dream.
But for Jeremiah it isn’t enough to tell the parable of the two baskets. A few verses later he prophesies the destruction of the city and the temple: “Thus says the Lord: »...I will make this house like Shiloh«” (26:4-5). The foreseeable consequences of this prophecy promptly arrive, too: “The priests and the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the house of the Lord. ... [they] laid hold of him, saying, »You shall die! Why have you prophesied in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant’?«” (26:7-9). However, this time, the death sentence was not executed, because 'certain of the elders of the land', spoke in the assembly and said, “Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah, and said to all the people of Judah: (...) »Zion shall be ploughed as a field; / Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, / and the mountain of the house a wooded height.« Did Hezekiah king of Judah and all Judah put him to death? (...) But we are about to bring great disaster upon ourselves.” (26:18-19).
In this episode, narrated by Baruk, there are some pearls hidden. Among the people there were still some elderly who remained faithful to the tradition of the Covenant, able to hear and believe in the prophets. The real enemies of Jeremiah and the prophets were the leaders, the false prophets and the priests. The ancient and constant tension-conflict between charisma and institution, and between the periphery and centre of the empire is repeated (neither Jeremiah nor Micah were from Jerusalem). Furthermore, these elders save Jeremiah by quoting an earlier prophet (Micah). There is a rare and beautiful testimony here that reveals a general and fundamental law of the Bible to us: true prophets recall and refer to each other, they save each other even when the one that saves the other lived a hundred years earlier. And the saved one resuscitates the one that saved him.
The chapter closes with a story coming from the mouth of one of those righteous elders: “There was another man who prophesied in the name of the Lord, Uriah... He prophesied against this city and against this land in words like those of Jeremiah. And ... King Jehoiakim ... sought to put him to death. But when Uriah heard of it, he was afraid and fled and escaped to Egypt. Then King Jehoiakim sent to Egypt certain men (...) [who] struck him down (26:20-23).
There were more true prophets in Israel than those whose words the Bible has kept. YHWH's word is more abundant than the words of the Bible, and the Bible is greater than the sum of the words it contains. Uriah is the image of the many silent brothers of the prophets who, yesterday and today, do not write books and that perhaps are waiting for an 'elder of the land' to see them, talk about their lives and their blood, enriching the prophetic family of the earth.
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