The needle’s eye of the awaited word

The Dawn of Midnight/26 - The haste of easy answers establishes the roots of fear

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 15/10/2017

171015 Geremia 26 ridIf God exists, today, more than ever before, he needs someone who, if he does not know who he is, can say at least who he is not. We need to change God in order to preserve Him, and so that he may preserve us ".

 Paolo de Benedetti, Quale Dio? (Which God?)

When and if one day the moment of encounter with the Bible arrives, if it is a chaste encounter (because it does not use the Bible for one's own happiness), free (because we are ready to discover new realities and to really change any belief in religion) and gratuitous (because we don't want to convert anyone other than our own heart), friendship with the biblical word becomes a wonderful education in the intimacy of the word and words. We finally begin to love poets, to understand them more and differently, we begin to thank them in the soul. We discover the depth of wisdom, we learn to distinguish it from natural intelligence and talents, to then find it, in abundance, among the poor - and then listen to them to learn. If we then have the courage and resilience to reach to the prophets, the discoveries become more and more shocking and great. For example, we can sense something about the relationship between the different words present in the Bible. It is understood that when the word of YHWH arrives, in various ways and times, in the soul of the prophets it is only a word of God, but as soon as it reaches the mouth from the soul and is then said, it also becomes a word of Jeremiah, Isaiah or Amos.

The entire Bible is the fruit of this stupendous dialogue between logos and flesh, a word hosted in the soul and a word spoken with the mouth, between obedience and freedom. This word is completely God's word, it is completely the prophet’s, and it is completely of the relationship between the prophet and God. This is how we arrive at the Trinitarian mystery of the biblical word. But if the journey proceeds and saves freedom above all along the way, from the encounter with the intimacy of the word one can also arrive at another idea and experience of God, even of its foundation. We begin to get to know another God, we see him step out of religions and temples to move into factories, inside the immigrants' boats, into gaming halls and the desolate streets of the night. The idols love altars and sacrifices; the biblical God is comfortable only in places that a god the-way-he-is-supposed-to-be should not attend. Because it is only there that he succeeds in resurrecting every day. Religions will not withstand the shock of pain and love generated by the third millennium unless they become something different from what they have been in the previous millennia. And if Christianity is to have a future as religious humanism (and not only as culture and tradition) it will be a Christianity that will be reborn, once again, from the Bible.

In that "remnant" of Judah who had not been deported to Babylon and now camped in Bethlehem, there was also Jeremiah. That group of survivors is dismayed and lost; they don't know what to do. And so they draw on the extreme resource. They go to Jeremiah and tell him: “Please hear our petition and pray to the Lord your God for this entire remnant. (...) Pray that the Lord your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do” (42:2-3). Words full of trust, which seem, and perhaps are, sincere. Jeremiah responds: “I have heard you... I will certainly pray to the Lord your God as you have requested; I will tell you everything the Lord says and will keep nothing back from you” (42:4). And they replied: “Whether it is favourable or unfavourable, we will obey the Lord our God” (42:6). A very beautiful dialogue, rich in emotions and pathos, as well as mutual trust, where YHWH from "your God" becomes "our God” in the end. These words had the capacity of opening the door to a radical change in the attitude of the people that was tried and made mild by such suffering.

Time passes, and it is only after "ten days" (42:7) that Jeremiah receives the word. Ten very long days for a frightened, scattered and wounded community. We can imagine the movements of the heart and bodies in that camp at Bethlehem. Johanan and the other commanders probably went to Jeremiah’s tent, and maybe, at times, they also dared to cross the threshold to ask if the word had arrived for them. Why did Jeremiah wait for ten days, in such tremendous time, when the days were as long as months or years? Simply because the prophets, when they speak in God's name, are not masters of the content or timing of that word. The false prophets speak on command because, simply, they have nothing true to say. This long time that passes between the question and the answer is yet another proof of Jeremiah's honesty and of the truth of his prophecy. The prophets are beggars of the different word that they must proclaim. They ask, and then they can only wait for it, being poor as everyone else, never certain that the word will arrive. They are ignorant watchmen of the night (Isaiah 28), who can and must listen to and receive all questions without being able to give all the answers. The prophet is the man and woman of expectation, who is surprised and moved each time because the word that could come did really come - who knows what the prophets feel at that moment when they sense that the word is being formed in their womb!? Every true, donated word is a birth, taking all the time of gestation, birth pains and labour. The true word can only become flesh in the fullness of time - and the land of Bethlehem will see it again.

Jeremiah was aware that the climate of trust was deteriorating hour after hour, that the probability of accepting the word that was maturing in that expectation became smaller every minute. He probably had an opinion right away about the right choice for the people to be made, but he had learned throughout his long life to distinguish the voice of the man Jeremiah from what YHWH whispered inside him. He also thought that the word expected from YHWH would most likely be similar to what he had told them at other times - trust the Babylonians, and stay in your homeland under their protection. But he chose to wait until the end. Perhaps those long ten days were necessary because the voice of his personal opinion was loud. The stronger the honest prophet’s own ideas are, the more difficult and slower the process of discernment of spirits must be. This process, which is extremely delicate, does not always come to fulfilment. One of the typical sufferings of prophets with strong personalities (like Jeremiah) is to prevent their ideas from covering out God's voice - it is very easy for a true prophet with a strong personality to turn into a false prophet, if the strength of their voice rejects the other voice. The so-called “sins against the Holy Ghost" cannot be forgiven - above all to prophets. At other times the process is jammed because the severity of certain moments and the prophet's compassion for his own people suffering in the waiting makes them speed up time, so that the answer comes on the eighth or ninth day. That unanticipated day is the decisive day. One of the most precious qualities of prophets is to be able to resist under the tent as people crowd around asking, crying and screaming for the gift of the word.

Jeremiah managed to persist until the tenth day, and, finally, he spoke. But can tell us that ten days were really the right amount of time, that the right day was not the eleventh or the twentieth? It is the Bible that tells us this, because if Jeremiah, in that decisive passage of his and the people’s life had chosen the wrong day, everything would have changed, his story would have ended differently, and perhaps his book would not have arrived to us, or would have come as very different. This is the mysterious but true "infallibility" of the biblical word. “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your petition, says: ‘If you stay in this land, I will build you up and not tear you down; I will plant you and not uproot you” (42:9-10). The word that Jeremiah received for the people was a great, strong and important word. We find ourselves in the company of the vocational words of Jeremiah, those of the first day. But this time, however, they are not the same words. YHWH told Jeremiah that he would "uproot and tear down”, “build and plant" (1:10). Now, at the end of his life, he receives a word that also becomes the fulfilment of his vocation: not destruction and uprooting, but only construction and new life. In those ten days, not only did he mature a word for the people, but the waiting also generated a new word for Jeremiah. However, in those ten long days many things changed. The feelings of new trust and mutual assurance changed radically. Fear and insecurity had taken over again, and the "basket of figs" left in Judah got rotten once again (ch. 24). And they say to Jeremiah: “You are lying! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, ‘You must not go to Egypt to settle there’” (43:2). The long wait generated a real word, but it got rejected by the community, despite the solemn promises that they had made to YHWH and Jeremiah.

This failure of Jeremiah helps us to perceive something more than the sense of that waiting or his vocation. “Who knows how the people would have responded to YHWH's oracle if I had spoken right away, without waiting for so many days?” “Would they also have chosen to disobey?” Perhaps Jeremiah actually did ask himself these questions after the umpteenth failure of his word, especially if on that tenth day he realized that YHWH's word was exactly the word that he himself would have given them immediately. Or, perhaps, the word of remaining in the homeland only matured in the last minute of the tenth day. We do not know. We only know that the first and tenth day's words, even if they are the same to the letter, they are not in spirit. Jeremiah could know it from experience that there was a 99% chance that the word would arrive and it would be similar to his own. But there was that tiny 1%, a mustard seed that can move mountains, that different eye of the needle where sometimes camels pass. Jeremiah had to risk everything to save that infinitely little chance. The prophets can only do this. Sometimes we, too, saved ourselves because someone wanted to believe in the 1% probability of our innocence and beauty, when 99% said otherwise. In the Bethlehem camp, the people failed to pass through that eye of the needle. But we, thanks to the faithfulness of Jeremiah, can continue to hope.

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