The redemption of the promise

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 03/09/2017

170903 Geremia 20 rid“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Martin Luther

After the great chapters of consolation, blessing and promises, after the announcement of the New Covenant, Jeremiah's book returns to the chronicle of the time of the Babylonian siege and the imminent conquest and destruction of Jerusalem (in the year 587 BC). These terrible days will accompany us to the end of the book, where the prophecy and the life of the prophet will be fulfilled. The next deeds and words are conveyed to us by Baruch, the faithful companion and secretary of Jeremiah, whose name now makes its first appearance in the text. Going back to the story, we find Jeremiah prisoner of King Zedekiah. We already know the main point of the accusation, because it is the very heart of his prophetic mission: “Why do you prophesy and say, »Thus says the Lord: Behold, I am giving this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall capture it«” (Jeremiah 32:3). Although denied by the false prophets, the heads of the people and the priests of the temple, the prophecies of Jeremiah are therefore coming true.

In this context of despair, we suddenly come across another great episode: the prophetic purchase of a land. His cousin (Hanamel) offers him the right of pre-emption on a land in Anathoth, the birthplace of the prophet, not far from Jerusalem. Jeremiah buys it, because “I knew that this was the word of the Lord” (32:8). It is a new prophetic gesture, this time taking the form and language of economics directly. The sign uses the words and actions of a contract, the sale of a real estate, a market exchange. The pitcher, yoke and belt were also human artefacts, therefore the fruits of labour and human oikonomia. But now the economy comes into play explicitly, and for the first time the prophecy speaks through economic words, it is embodied in money, seals and contracts. What could be a more beautiful and true form of secularity than the biblical one? The word of YHWH becomes 17 shekels of silver: “I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions and the open copy. And I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch the son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of Hanamel my cousin, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase...” (32:10-12).

As often happens when we have to deal with decisive acts (as prophetic gestures always are), important words are hidden in the details. Jeremiah writes the contract in two copies on the same papyrus sheet, partly cut on one side, so as to keep the two copies together. He seals one of them - the other was rolled up and opened so as to be available for consultation -, he then calls the witnesses, weighs the silver on the scale (in ancient times the units of measure for coins were units of weight). He wants to be sure that everyone understands, that we understand that he has entered into a true, perfect contract ("according to justice and the law": 32:10), that he really bought that land, in front of witnesses. And so words, gestures and objects that belonged to the repertoire of the few professionals in the sector now become one of the most solemn signs of the entire biblical prophecy.

When the word 'redemption' is heard, many things come to mind to the reader of the Bible. Job's cry calling for a redeemer/Goel who hadn't yet arrived on his pile of manure, and who wouldn't arrive (ch. 19). Or the story of Ruth, which reveals another splendid detail of these ancient redemption contracts: “to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other” (Ruth 4:7). But that purchase by Jeremiah, above all, evokes Abraham, his contract for the purchase of land for Sarah’s tomb: “and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants” (Genesis 23:16). The Bible is also this, a patrimony of ordinary life of men and women, where a yoke and a contract contain the same dignity as Sinai. Is there a truer secularity than this? This beautiful and liberating secularism of the Bible is increasingly rare in our time, where too many believe that the words and gestures of the economy, work and contracts are too human and simple for us to be able to perceive prophetic words and gestures in them, because the only deeds and words worthy of God must be those formed within the temple by the experts of the religion. And so we continue to talk about a God who is increasingly distant from the true life of people, and - as Jeremiah repeats it to us - also from the Bible.

Jeremiah, Ruth and Abraham, therefore, tell us that only death and a bride can be compared to the solemnity and seriousness of a prophetic gesture, which for this reason must be described and remembered in all its details. And then kept in an amphora, safeguarded above all, inside the Bible: “I charged Baruch in their presence, saying, »(...) Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware vessel, that they may last for a long time«” (32:13-14). And they have been preserved for a very long time, even for us today.

The masterpiece of this episode lies in the explanation that Jeremiah gives of his prophetic gesture. Every time I read it again it moves me and says new words to me: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15). A grandiose verse, a song to humanity - the Bible speaks a lot about God, but above all it speaks about men and women, and their infinite dignity.

Jerusalem is about to be destroyed, the people exiled. The fields, the vineyards and all economic activities are no longer worth anything. No one sells because nobody is so careless as to buy land on the vigil of exile. Perhaps the only people who were able to buy, hoping to speculate on fear, were the false prophets, convinced supporters of the ideology of the inviolability of the temple, certain that YHWH would save them from the siege, carrying out a great miracle. Jeremiah, however, had been prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem for forty years, and therefore he has no doubt that the city is on the brink of capitulation and deportation to Babylon. The days of devastation announced are about to really arrive. And Jeremiah buys a field. He pays it ‘in cash’, he enters into a perfect contract, with the same care as those who, convinced of having done a big deal, are attentive to all the details. And he does all this to say: Houses, fields and vineyards will be bought here again. We will work here again. This land promised to our fathers, even though today it is occupied and devastated, remains the promised land, the place of the Covenant, where we will fall in love, marry and generate children again. The destruction of the city does not destroy the word that had founded it. It does not destroy it because a prophet continues to pronounce it still. It is right here, on land like this that I am buying today, where we will still work, sign contracts, sell and buy. The purchase of that field is not only a ransom of land: it is the redemption of the future, which becomes a pledge of the return home, of a sure return, as certain as the misfortune.

He bought that land to tell all this to the king and his people who did not believe him, who put him in prison to kill him. But also to tell us, reading these words today.

To those who, faced with the imminent and sure devastation of their own enterprise or community, when everything is already telling only and truly of the end and death, hear a voice that tells them: this destruction and this exile are real and painful, but it is equally true that we will return to living, loving and working, this death will not be the last word. This desolate land of ours will still have a future. And then he acts, makes a deed, because the words of life are never abstract or just intellectual: they are golden calves and fat calves, children, wooden crosses and rolled stones. The logos that does not become flesh does not live in the Bible, because it does not live in life. There are many ways of acting, but we will never know how many ‘fields purchased’ by someone yesterday made it possible for us to return home today. Someone who believed, resisted, made acquisitions during the long crisis - and so we can still work in that company today. Someone who today, while everyone is fleeing from the disillusioned and frightened town, keeps and cares for a garden, does not let a plant die taking care of it in the secret of the room, makes a tree grow, to say that in that house, in that community, in that family life will continue, and it will be true life - the promised land is full of gardens and plants watered at night by those who want to continue to believe, despite everything. The prophets know how to do these things, and whoever does these things resembles the prophets, is like them and is one of them, even if he does not know it - the earth is full of prophecy. Sometimes we learn of some of these gestures, but there are always many more of them that we will never discover. Just as we cannot know how much ‘land’ that we are buying today in the time of devastation is creating the spiritual conditions so that tomorrow someone can return, to cultivate it and continue to live on it.

Jeremiah had prophesied that the exile would last seventy years. So he knows that the land he buys today will not be the land that he, already an old man, will cultivate tomorrow. That land will have a future, but it will be the future of children, men and women that Jeremiah and his contemporaries will not know. Gratuitousness is buying, with a perfect contract, a field that will feed others. It is this gratuitousness that can save the planet and our souls today: when will we return to buy land that will feed our great-grandsons? “Fields shall be bought for money, and deeds shall be signed and sealed and witnessed, in the land of Benjamin, in the places about Jerusalem"(32:44). There are no words greater and truer than these to say ‘start over' at the end of the exile: buy fields, close contracts, make acquisitions, sell and work.

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