Prophecy does not include incentives

The Dawn of Midnight/17 - It is decisive to recognize who uses the past to kill the future

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 13/08/2017

170813 Geremia 17 ridAnswer not a fool according to his folly, / lest you be like him yourself. / Answer a fool according to his folly, / lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

Proverbs 26

Many words are used to describe work, one of them is: travail. Trabalho, travaglio, trabajo all derive from the Latin trepalium, which meant yoke (for animals). It was a shaped wooden bar, with ropes and laces attached to it. It was similar to the horizontal arm of a cross. Over time, the yoke has become a symbol of submission by animals or people and a symbol of slavery. Peoples have fought for and attained freedom and justice by breaking up the yokes of slavery, and have been freed from these travails and tribulations. No one loves being subjugated, being put under a yoke by others. Only the subversive and radical message of Jesus of Nazareth could use the image of the yoke to express the bond between him and his disciples: it is light and gentle, but still a yoke. Perhaps, in using this paradoxical image, the evangelist, here too, had Jeremiah in mind: “this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord. Thus the Lord said to me: »Make yourself straps and yoke-bars, and put them on your neck.«” (Jeremiah 27:1-2).

Jeremiah receives another incarnate word, a verb by YHWH that speaks through the flesh of the prophet. It is not about rhetorical techniques, nor even tools to shock and then seduce the public. These are words of YHWH, like the others, like the pitcher, the belt, the baskets of figs, like Isaiah's nakedness, like Ezekiel’s sleeping on his side. Baruch, Jeremiah’s faithful chronicler also reports the explanation of that gesture (“Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon... All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson” 27:6-7), but when they saw the subjugated prophet come, perhaps everything was already quite clear to those ancient men who used the many non-verbal languages.

There were representatives of neighbouring peoples in Jerusalem who went there to make an alliance and war against the Babylonians, supported by the nationalist illusions of their “prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your fortune-tellers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, »You shall not serve the king of Babylon.« For it is a lie that they are prophesying to you” (27:9-10). Jeremiah continues his battle against the illusions produced by the professionals of lies.

The confrontation with the false prophecy reaches a peak in the next chapter, which is also one of the dramatic summits of the entire book, when Jeremiah is publicly faced and challenged by another prophet:

Hananiah, an exponent of the prophets of salvation and the nationalist ideology of the temple: “Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, »Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord's house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon«” (28:1-3).

After the many attacks on Jeremiah we have already seen, another prophet comes to face him, a 'colleague' who works in Jerusalem just like him, probably a figure of some importance among the prophets of the city. Baruch, the narrator of the episode is the one who calls him 'prophet'. For the people, therefore, Hananiah is a prophet like Jeremiah, both of them are accredited as prophets among the people and the priests. At the beginning of the story we do not know whether Hananiah is a true prophet or a false one. Certainly his contemporaries did not know it either, and we do not have to know. If we want these words to touch us in the flesh, we must go down with Jeremiah, see him fight with Hananiah, and discover who the true prophet is of the two is and why.

First of all there is something not obvious but important: Hananiah's discourse is the same as that of Jeremiah. He, too, starts his speech by the prophetic phrase ‘thus says the Lord,’ and then calls God by the name from the Covenant (YHWH). His message, however, is the opposite of Jeremiah’s - no submission to Babylon. In front of the people and the temple, the two prophets appeared as two competitors selling the same 'product', with a decisive difference: that of Jeremiah had a very high price, while that of Hananiah was offered free of charge. True prophets know how to maintain high prices without giving in to the demand of the people for discounts and sales, because prophetic dumping is the death of true prophecy.

The first dramatic turn is Jeremiah's first answer: “the prophet Jeremiah said, »Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord make the words that you have prophesied come true«” (28:6). His first word is 'amen', which in this context means 'I wish it were as you say.’ Jeremiah does not love peace and freedom less than Hananiah and the people, but he cannot tell illusions to console them. And so he continues with a complex discourse which includes something very important: “The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace (shalom), when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” (28:8-9). Jeremiah calls the ancient prophetic tradition into question, those who “preceded you and me” (another acknowledgement of Hananiah as a prophet), and reminds that those prophets were prophets of misfortune, and they were true prophets. On some rare occasions the prophets have also prophesied salvation, but it was the historical verification of their prophecy that decided on the truth of their words. As if to say that it is far more common that a true prophet prophesies “war, famine, and pestilence” than prosperity and peace. The prophecy of misfortune is most likely to be authentic, and we can confirm it ex ante, before the events predicted actually take place. That of salvation can only be validated ex post. Why? The explanation can be found in the gratuitousness of true prophecy.

When a prophet announces misfortunes and sorrow, above all to "great kingdoms," all he gets in return is persecution and suffering because, as we can see, the leaders and the people do not love prophets of misfortune. However, when a prophet envisions that prosperity and peace for the people that they want, this prophecy will most likely produce consensus, success, power and wealth - temptations that are always very strong, at times invincible. So it is far more plausible that the one who announces what the leaders of the people do not want to hear is a true prophet. This reasoning has an extraordinary sapiential force. We have no assurance that the prophet of misfortune is not false (or crazy) - certainty does not exist when it comes to such great things to decide on. With no incentives but only costs to prophesy, the prophecy of misfortune is more likely to be authentic.

The message came clear and strong to Hananiah (and probably also to the people who attended the temple). His reaction produced another unpredictable and impressive scene: “Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke-bars from the neck of Jeremiah the prophet and broke them. And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, »Thus says the Lord: Even so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years«” (28:10-11). It’s a violent and spectacular gesture, which had to appear like a clamorous duel victory and a clear sign to see which side was the real oracle.

At this point the text shows us a confused and helpless Jeremiah. He was used to persecutions and defeats. This time, though, the difficulty he encounters is of a different nature. Another prophet, in the name of the same God, prophesying with the same prophetic authority, with an equal and opposite action breaks the symbol of Jeremiah, denies the contents of his prophecy and proposes another one, with the opposite sign. But there is something deeper to consider here. The reader of the Bible as well as the contemporaries of Jeremiah knew that Hananiah was directly linked to the authentic tradition of the Covenant. In the Torah, in the Psalms, we find many references (Gen 27:40; Psalm 18) to the yoke broken by YHWH to free his people from slavery: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt... And I have broken the bars of your yoke” (Lev 26:13). But Ananias found great support especially in Isaiah, who had obtained the miraculous liberation of Jerusalem from the Assyrians from God about a hundred years earlier. So the conviction of the inviolability of the temple and the city was based on a great miracle by a great prophet. That historic truth from earlier days – which was older and therefore more authoritative – had become an ideology, because it prevented the acceptance of the word of another prophet saying something true but different in a different historical moment. We fall into ideology whenever the truth of yesterday becomes the eclipse of the different truth of today, because it becomes an idol. Hananiah, perhaps in good faith, was leading his people astray, bringing them to the massacre, but not in the name of a false prophet or foreign gods - he was doing it in the name of tradition and a miracle of a true prophet. He used the past to kill the future. The most powerful and infallible ideologies, whether religious or secular, are not the unfounded ones, but those that are absolutely well-founded on some true words and facts of yesterday that silence and blind the true words and facts of today.

Jeremiah does not respond to Ananias. He stays silent. Breaking and desecrating the sign of the prophet is the greatest outrage. The gesture is a flesh-word, and there is no other gesture to answer the destruction caused by it: one flesh cannot be replaced by another, nor can one child be substituted by another. If the words said in the Bible are 'forever', the prophetic gesture is 'forever and ever'. After a gesture of profanation the prophet can only be silent. To say new words the gift of a new word of God is needed, and if and until it comes, the prophet remains mute and defeated: “...Jeremiah the prophet went his way” (28:11). This is a wonderful form of the meekness and humility of heart that accompanies and nourishes the extraordinary strength of the prophets.

YHWH sent a new word, and Jeremiah answered Hananiah: “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie” (28:15). Hananiah died within a year, disappearing from the Bible after this transient passage. But from the heart of the book of Jeremiah, Hananiah will always remind us of the danger of all the ideologies of tradition that kill the true prophets of today in the name of those of yesterday.

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