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Us, with borrowed eyes

Prophecy is history / 26 - To be able to 'see the heart' beyond merits or faults. Just like He does

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 01/12/2019

"Abraham found his counterpart in a late, isolated, steep figure of the Bible: Job. If Abraham was grace not founded on merit, Job was misfortune not founded on guilt"

Roberto Calasso, The book of all books

The decadence that is part of the end of even the noblest of stories, is the language with which the Bible tells us that everything is grace, that the choice is not tied to our merits.

The brightest days of our life, which always seem too few and far between, are those in which we felt understood and valued not because of our merits or demerits but because someone - a wife, a brother, a mother, a friend - loved us with all our imperfections, with our limitations, with our ambivalences and ambiguities; because, on a different day, that person saw our heart and its sincerity. Because he or she does not esteem and love us despite those limitations and imperfections, but thanks to them. Those few different relationships that accompany us throughout our lives are meetings between two sincere hearts that at least once have seen each other like this, pacts born out of the alchemy between souls who met in their nakedness beyond and before any merits or demerits. Then, even in these different relationships, we rejoice in our and others' merits, we suffer and we get angry over the flaws; but we know that these things are unimportant, that heart that we have seen, understood and above all loved at least once on a special day, is of a much greater importance. Even if we are not aware of it, this is the gaze, which we seek from the very first moment we come to this world, and pursue with tenacity until the very end. Without this different gaze, without at least one person who has seen us and sees us like this (these gazes last forever), existing becomes too difficult, perhaps even impossible. And if there is something in life that continues to fascinate me and seduce me every morning, it is not the search for some form of moral perfection, but the enthusiasm of continuing to walk in search of surprises, in the company of the vices and virtues of others and my own. A life where the wounds that we inevitably cause in the body and soul of others and that we in turn receive from them in body-to-body combat, are also a window through which to peak at a small piece of heaven.

One of the most beautiful messages in the Bible, perhaps its greatest love letter to us, is telling us that if we have not yet found among other human beings that special someone who can see and our most intimate sincerity, there is still that one gaze of last resort, the one that belongs to Him who "sees the heart" beyond any merits or faults. A message said and repeated many times and in many ways, a rope of many threads that unites its first pages with the last ones. And when we fail to see the sincerity of the hearts of others and ours, we can borrow those of the Bible, to one day realize that those eyes have also become ours. Perhaps the most amazing miracle of the Bible is to find oneself in time transformed into its beloved characters of which we have read and reread so many times: walking down the streets with the same feeling in the pit of our stomach as the Samaritan, returning undeserving from a pigsty and feeling the merciful embrace, interrupting the cursing from our piles of manure and beginning to only call God. In fact, although there is a clear line of archaic meritocracy running through it, in part inherited from the culture of the people with which it came into contact throughout its history, in its deepest soul the Bible does not associate choice (of the people or individuals) with merits or virtues, and it does not discard anyone solely or primarily for their sins. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, are presented to us as people who are no longer worthy of other people. And many of the best characters in the biblical books commit rather grave sins (David) and sometimes end their lives in moral decadence (Solomon). To remind us that choice is only about grace, that everything is gratuitousness. When the Bible defines someone as a "just" person, it does not do it to justify his choice but to indicate an act of salvation (Noah) or to refute the thesis of misfortune linked to guilt (Job). When speaking of the prophets, furthermore, the Bible does not speak to us of their merits or flaws, because in this context they are in fact absolutely secondary, since the prophets only have to spread someone else’s word not their own, which is much more powerful and effective than any of their vices or virtues. And if the word of God is even more powerful than our sins, then a word can always reach us in our most desperate abysses to save us. Biblical hope is always the hope of the word.

After destroying the idols, and among them also the bronze serpent of Moses, Hezekiah believed only in YHWH and obtained, together with the prophet Isaiah, the great miracle of the nexpected victory over the Assyrian superpower: «Therefore this is what the Lord says concerning the king of Assyria: “‘He will not enter this city or shoot an arrow here. He will not come before it with shield or build a siege ramp against it. By the way that he came he will return; he will not enter this city, declares the Lord. I will defend this city and save it, for my sake and for the sake of David my servant.’” That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there» (2 Kings 19,32-36). Hezekiah also received a second "miracle", the healing by the prophet Isaiah from a deadly disease, another fifteen years of life given to him by God who listened to his sincere prayer and thus rectified the word of Isaiah with which he had announced his imminent death (2 Kings 20,1-11) .But after these great deeds the Book of Kings shows us a Hezekiah who, as he gets older, loses something of the beauty and justice of the first part of his reign. At a certain point in his historical arc, Babylon appears: «At that time Marduk-Baladan son of Baladan king of Babylon sent Hezekiah letters and a gift» (2 Kings 20,12). Hezekiah received the Babylonian ambassadors and showed them all the gold and riches of the palace and of Jerusalem. At this point, we are more than a century before Nebuchadnezzar, but Isaiah glimpses and prophesies the great disaster of deportation: «Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord: The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord.  And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon"» (2 Kings 20,16-18).

From the book of the prophet Jeremiah we know that the memory of the miracle of Hezekiah-Isaiah regarding the Assyrians did not help the people during the siege of Nebuchadnezzar. That victory obtained in a similar context later on created an illusion in the people of Jerusalem, and offered very effective material enabling false prophets to cultivate the illusions of the people that a new miracle would come. In fact, in the name of the great miracle obtained against the Assyrians, the people then did not believe another great prophet, Jeremiah, who indicated the only good way: surrender to Nebuchadnezzar's troops. It is not rare that the memory of a similar episode of yesterday leads us on the wrong path today. The exercise of memory is among the most difficult in spiritual and charismatic stories such as these, because a choice (for example, Hezekiah’s resistance to the end) proved to be right and blessed in a given context, can be wrong and toxic in another. We are faced with a case, among the most important ones found in the entire Bible, of wrongful use of the past: the people of Israel did not make good use of the memory of the miracle with the Assyrians, and when they found themselves in a great crisis similar to that of Hezekiah, Jeremiah had to fight against the dullness of the present strengthened by the memory of the past, and was defeated. Recalling the miracle with the Assyrians at the time of Isaiah was a disgrace at the time of Jeremiah, because the people did not surrender to the Babylonians and were destroyed and deported. Two great prophets can say opposite things in similar circumstances, and using the words of a past prophet for concrete discernment can lead to making the wrong choice. The wisdom of a community that finds itself experiencing a crisis similar to one experienced in the past does not lie in remembering the concrete and empirical choices made, not even in re-reading the words that were spoken by a great prophet in that context; the only wisdom in the face of today's crisis is listening to the words that a true prophet tells us today, and following him accordingly.

Hezekiah’s reply to Isaiah's prophecy is important within his personal history: «Hezekiah said to Isaiah: “The word of the Lord you have spoken is good” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?”» (2 Kings 20,19). A rather bizarre answer, which betrays a certain cynicism and above all a lack of interest in the fate of the children and "for the days" of future generations, a decisive moral dimension in biblical humanism. The Book of Chronicles – we are told these facts regarding Hezekiah in three biblical books: the Book of Kings, the Book of Chronicles and the Book of Isaiah - expresses a more definite judgment on the conclusion of Hezekiah's life: «But Hezekiah’s heart was proud and he did not respond to the kindness shown him» (2 Chronicles 32,25). History tells us that in long lasting reigns (Hezekiah reigned during 29 years, 2 Kings 18,2) even the best kings end up becoming corrupted, and even the most righteous tend to turn into tyrants.

The story of Hezekiah also knows the decline of the end. It is never easy to preserve the beauty of youth as adults, and even the most noble and just people are exposed to the very real risk of moral decline in the later stages of their arc of life. A fate that unites people and institutions, because even businesses, organizations and communities generally fail to keep the promises of dawn in their afternoon. Hezekiah was a just king, despite the end. It is the law of life, where in every childhood more seeds are sown than those that will succeed in flowering in youth and many more than those that will bear fruit in maturity. And even when the adult fruits are many and tasty, they can never equal the auroral purity and innocence of the seed before it decays and dies in the land of history. This is why a very common temptation in the adult phase of stories born from rare and pure seeds is the nostalgia of the first seed, of its beautiful wholeness, of the one before it is dispersed and contaminated in the multitude, because we forget that under the sun fruits can only be born from the death of one. And that the surplus of the first sowing was necessary for the goodness of the few good fruits, even if it was only one. Efficiency is not a category of the spirit. Many decadences of adult life are already registered in childhood. Many, not all, because there are failures that we could have avoided, which were not necessary. But unfortunately we realize it only at the end, when the only possible wisdom will be to, meekly, utter our last 'amen'. And, in that last gaze, nothing will be amiss.

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