The shalom of double loyalty

Prophecy is history/19 - True prophets and masters carry the heavy loads to save others from having to bear them

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 13/10/2019

"And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed - only Naaman the Syrian"

Luke 4, 27

This blessing of a stranger with leprosy leaves us with important words regarding the logic of gifts but also regarding the choices made by those who live "in the land of exile". But the story of the "salvation granted to the Syrians" now in our world today also becomes a prayer...

Servant. Servus, that is, a slave. We read about and encounter many servants also in the Bible. For ancient-time writers these words were just ordinary words of life, because servants and slaves were a normal part of their world. But not so for us. We cannot just come upon these words and move on. Like the Samaritan we must stop and feel mercy and then bow down. We are witnesses and the heirs of millennia of love and pain trying to eliminate these words from our vocabulary and our heart - but we have not yet succeeded, not completely and not everywhere. And the Bible has helped us to erase them, these words that it wrote itself.
«Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy» (2 Re 5,1). With the story of Naaman, a prominent man among the Syrian people, we encounter one of the passages in which the Bible surpasses itself. YHWH had granted salvation to the Syrians, to a different people and an enemy of Israel. In a historical period still dominated by the idea of ​​national gods, by ethnic religion, pages were being written in Israel announcing a universal and inclusive religion. Its people began to understand that their prayers could become true if they also became the prayers of others; that their God could be "our Father" only if that "our" reached out and included everyone.

Naaman is a sick man, he is a leper. When we encounter a leper in the Bible, our heart immediately leaps to the Gospels, and then resumes its way all the way to the Sanctuary of Rivotorto in Assisi. There it finds Francis and his kiss for the leper, which marks a decisive stage in his life and in the spiritual history of Europe. This is the Bible: an ethical and spiritual journey through time and within man, which begins and begins once again on each and every page. «Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy”» (2 Kings 5,2-3). Naaman believes his servant and speaks of it to his king, who writes him a letter of introduction to the king of Israel. And Naaman departs with the letter in his hand: «The King of Israel tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”» (2 Kings 5, 6-7). The two kings do not understand each other. The logic of the powerful was not able to intercept the conversation between a servant girl, a sick person and a prophet - how many wars and sources of pain would we have been spared if we reasoned more like girls, like the sick and like the prophets!

But Elisha sent word to the king: «“Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel”» (2 Kings 5,8). Naaman the Syrian goes to Elisha, who sends him an assistant who tells him: « “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed”» (2 Kings 5,10). But Naaman considers this solution too simple. Had he made that whole journey just to dive into a river? Where are the healer's rites, gestures, words and hands? Naaman protests against this too simple a solution. On the basis of what happened with the healers of his country, he had his own idea of ​​the procedure to be followed for his healing, and he refused the one offered by Elisha because it just seemed too ordinary. It is not rare that we refuse to solve a problem because it seems too simple. We do not see the solution because we are too busy looking for it in special effects and extraordinary phenomena (2 Kings 5,11). But here too, other servants bring a blessing: «Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”» (2 Kings 5,12-13). It is the common sense of the humble, who know how to see easy solutions when the "great" look for complicated non-existent solutions. Naaman heals: «So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy» (2 Kings 5,14). It is from this healing that he begins his religious conversion: «Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant”» (2 Kings 5,15).

Naaman, a rich man, wishes to give Elisha a gift as a sign of gratitude and blessing: «The prophet answered, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.” And even though Naaman urged him, he refused» (2 Kings 5,16). In another different river (the Jabbok), the (not healed) wound generated a blessing (berakà). Here the wound is healed, but the healer does not accept the blessing. Why this rejection? Elisha marks the beginning of a new form of prophecy, a spiritual one, in a Middle Eastern context where prophetism was a trade, intertwined with earnings and trade. Here Elisha clearly wishes to stand out from the commercial prophecy practiced by the "sons of the prophets". His prophecy is all about grace, charis and gratuitousness. He did not heal others for personal interests, but because of his calling. Like all gifts, even prophecy exists in relationships characterised by reciprocity. However, especially in the beginning, when a discontinuity needs to be marked (the beginning of a calling, the birth of a new relationship, a new reality being founded ...) reciprocity, which is necessary in any ordinary relationship, can turn out to be an obstacle, because, although different, its giving-and-receiving nature makes it seem too much like a commercial contract. Thus, in certain foundational and extraordinary moments, the gift tells itself by saying no to the normal reciprocity that almost always accompanies it. It says "no" in order to then say "yes" to something deeper; because if there can be true gifts even without reciprocity, there can be no true gift without gratuitousness. Like when we give our first gift to someone that we care a lot for and we don't want any other reward than the joy in their eyes when they look at us gratefully, because “anything else” would reduce the purity and beauty of that gift of ours. Hence, in order to express that his prophecy is everything and only grace Elisha renounces reciprocity.

«“If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord» (2 Kings 5,17). That "no" to that gift generated other gifts. With an interesting and unexpected detail: Naaman gets a refusal from Elisha, and that refusal still makes him ask for something else (earth: the adamah). Here a gift without reciprocity produces another gift from those who were already "creditors". And not just for reasons of worship (to build an altar). These strange things are common in the social dynamics of giving, where the "debt" created by a gift is not returned with a counter-gift but with a new gift from those who had already given. If this were not the case, life would be too much like a market, and we would miss some of the most beautiful moral accomplishments of men and women. This logic behind the concept of gifts completely escapes Gehazi, Elisha's servant, who ends up pursuing Naaman in order to, through deceit, obtain part of the gifts that were refused by Elisha (2 Kings 5,20-27). Before taking leave of Elisha, Naaman tells him something that opens up a new horizon for us: «When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also» (2 Kings 5,18). Naaman was a senior official in Syria and in order to carry out his work he had to accompany the king to the temple of the god Rimmon. Now that he has converted, can he carry on with this duty? How can he reconcile his new faith with his old craft? Naaman feels he is trapped in a game of double loyalty: on the one hand that of his work, his ordinary life and his homeland, and loyalty to his new faith on the other. Now that he knows that Rimmon is not the true God, he wants to honour only YHWH and YHWH alone; but his life continues to unfold in the same social context as before.

Through history there have been several different solutions to this conflict. Some feel that the second new loyalty is not compatible with the first. They leave jobs, countries, families, and completely change their religious and civil life. The two different loyalties are reduced into a single one. Here Elisha instead give a surprising answer: «Shalom, go in peace,” Elisha said» (2 Kings 5,19). What? Is the prophet, the champion of extreme coherence at all cost, really telling this new convert not to worry about his double loyalty? The more a person is consistent with his or her values ​​and principles, the more tolerant he is to the choices of others. Their own coherence does not become a yoke to put onto others. Instead, it is often the self-appointed "experts of the law" and "scribes" who impose burdens onto others that they would never carry themselves. True prophets are masters of mercy, of humanity, of compassion, and gladly carry the heavy load so as not to have it brought onto others. They drag the cross themselves, while expressing words of love to other crucifixes and crucified.

Prophets do not give in an inch to compromises in their own lives, but they also know that the men and women who work because they have to send their children to school, must live among many double loyalties in their lives. They have to work in banks, in offices and in companies that are not always as their God would like them to be, and sometimes they have to bow down to false gods along with their bosses and leaders. While wondering every day: how to live as a faithful in a "foreign land"? Men and women who know that what they do is not the life they want and should lead, maybe they are looking for new jobs, which almost never arrive; and as long as they have to work in those banks and in those companies they can only try to work well, as best as they can, while meekly offering their "masters" their arm. Yet, they carry on every day in the name of that spiritual loyalty which is the same loyalty they harbour for that family that they must take care of with their wages. To all these people who do not have the possibility to choose the banks and companies they work for, to all these faithful in exile, Elisha and the Bible repeat again and again: "Shalom, go in peace", inhabit this double loyalty. Finally, it is particularly beautiful and moving that our commentary on the Book of Kings led us to encounter the blessing of a Syrian today, to read that God «granted salvation to the Syrians». May this phrase become a prayer.

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