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Beggars of faith and credit

The exile and the promise/ 13 - When we find ourselves mute, we are left only with the most extreme of words: our flesh

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 03/02/2019

«I find myself standing,
I don’t know if for centuries or for a mere moment,
in a void where everything is silent,
I can no longer say since when I feel anguish or peace
»

Francesco Guccini Shomèr ma Mi-llailah

In every authentic dialogue, the words of those who speak to us are able to be born if they find trust in us, trust in those words and therefore above all in the person who is saying them. Nobody is able to speak in a dialogue without someone else welcoming him, therefore, in its original dimension trust is essentially a matter of gift. God also needed the trust of the prophets to be able to speak to us - who knows how many authentic prophetic words have been lost and are lost because those who listened did not trust in them, or believed or understood them for what they were. The prophets, however, while they had trust in YHWH and their trust enabled Him to speak to the world, also need our trust so that their transmitted words do not end up evaporating into thin air. Every true word is dialogue, it is an encounter of words both offered and received. The prophet is a sentinel, and if no one picks up his warning launched from the city walls, that cry is extinguished becoming a mere gust of wind. Hence, the "empirical" proof of the truth in their words is not found in heaven or on earth, but in the fragile power of trust, fides, in faith. Ezekiel can continue to talk to us as long as we continue to give him credit, to believe in him.

«The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face toward the south; preach against the south and prophesy against the forest of the southland. Say to the southern forest: ‘Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it. Everyone will see that I the Lord have kindled it; it will not be quenched’”» (Ezekiel 20,45-48). "The word of the Lord came to me". Even if we have gone through some twenty chapters all marked and sculpted by this phrase, to the point of representing a real dominant theme (because it speaks the essence of prophetism), every time we encounter it again, the amazement and emotion returns when reading words whispered by God in the ear of other men like us; words that became facts, like those that happen to us in every day of the world.

Of course, we men and women of the third millennium can dampen the strength of that auditory experience, we can read it with all the technical and historical tools at our disposal and thus perhaps even deny it, equate prophetism to the great ancient myths by releasing them from the different voice that it inspired and nourished them, or to argue that even the books of the prophets were written subsequently by religious reformers who wanted to impart a stronger sacred chrism to their reforms than that of their politics. We can do this and many do; but in this way the Bible loses its spiritual and anthropological interest, loses its charm and, soon, itself. Ezekiel speaks to us and changes us if we still see him as he speaks in the voice that spoke to him, in a dialogue that never stopped thanks to the readers who believed in him, who gave him credit and thus allowed him to continue speaking. We do not know the contents or the details of those auditory experiences or of the theophanic events that he has described to us, but in order to remain connected to his words and not interrupt their spiritual flow, we must believe him, instead of thinking that he is deluding himself, and therefore take him seriously. Biblical faith is about so many things put together, but it is also and perhaps above all about having faith and trust in a word.

The first who did to not take Ezekiel seriously enough were his own compatriots, exiled like him to Babylon, they did not enter into an authentic dialogue with him. The elders among the people asked him questions and interrogated him (for their own interests), but they did not trust him, because, as in every case when we really trust someone, they would have needed to enter that dialogue with a willingness to become something different from what they were before starting it. Every genuine dialogue is a nocturnal river ford, where Jacob enters and Israel leaves (Genesis 32) - the great myth of fighting in the Jabbok river is in fact also a perfect image of what a dialogue really is: it begins with a name and ends with a new name, and in the end you end up wounded and blessed in a dance of reciprocity.

Since the beginning of his preaching, Ezekiel had been trying to get a main message out to his people in exile. What was about to happen in Jerusalem, that is, its destruction and then the deportation of all the people of Judah to Babylon, was inevitable, because it was the logical consequence of leading a religiously and morally corrupt life. The end of the holy city was now upon them and certain; those who already found themselves in exile, instead of deluding themselves believing in the actions of false prophets regarding an imminent return to their homeland - the false prophet Ananias, as Jeremiah tells us (chapter 28), had prophesied that the exiles would return in Jerusalem very soon - only needed to understand that they would soon be joined by the rest of the people in Babylon. The exiles only needed to learn from what was about to happen in Jerusalem that the only good and right way was immediate conversion, the abandonment of all idols and iniquities, and returning to the Covenant and the Law. On the eve of the deportation to Babylon and then during the exile, the false prophets grew in number among the people of Israel, and the fight against them was especially hard and tough waged by Ezekiel and Jeremiah. And so, partly also because of these constant and insistent acts from the false prophets, in bad and in good faith, the exiled Jews continued to deceive themselves, seduced by Babylonian cults, and perhaps wishing to build a temple in order to repeat the same idolatrous and syncretistic practices of the people who were still in Jerusalem, in Babylon (chapter 20).

The deported community continues to not understand Ezekiel's words or gestures, which are instead ridiculed and mocked. Now they accuse him of being a kind of storyteller or street actor: «Then I said, “Sovereign Lord, they are saying of me, ‘Isn’t he just telling parables?’”» (Ezekiel 20,49). A storyteller of parables: Ezekiel must announce a dramatic message to his people, the most dramatic message since the time of Moses, a decisive event in the history of salvation, and the people to whom he is sent mistake him for some kind of circus acrobat, a strange man who tells and mimes signs and gestures, who formulates extravagant puzzles, even stranger than his words. A magician, a sophist, a technician of the word that he uses to confuse his interlocutors or to amaze them with aesthetic phenomena. Exactly the opposite of what Ezekiel really does and wishes to do. A few years after his prophetic calling, Ezekiel thus finds himself with a message and a mission completely misrepresented by his community. Thus, it cannot be excluded, that someone could have thought that the fires that broke out in the forests of the neighbouring regions had been started by Ezekiel himself, in a moment of ecstatic exaltation or thanks to magical powers that allowed him to act at a distance («This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry» Ezekiel 20,47).

Ezekiel actor, circus acrobat, magician, arsonist. Strange fate that of true prophets, a mirror image of that of false prophets. The latter, by virtue of a divine calling which they have not received, obtain success and general consent; the former, by virtue of a calling that they did receive, instead systematically find themselves in the midst of blame and sarcasm, with no way out, and almost always end their lives in marginalization and persecution. This is why, paradoxically (a paradox that is such only for those unfamiliar with the Bible, and with life), failure is the first indicator of true prophecy - it is not the only indicator (not all defeated women and men are prophets and prophetesses, although many are honest and true people), but it is a great indicator. If, however, someone should wish to easily find false prophets, in the past as well as today, he would only need to look for them in places often frequented by winners.

Finally, another pillar of Ezekiel's prophecy makes a reappearance in this chapter as well: his body becoming both symbol, sacrament and message: «Therefore groan, son of man! Groan before them with broken heart and bitter grief. And when they ask you, “Why are you groaning?” you shall say, “Because of the news that is coming. Every heart will melt with fear and every hand go limp; every spirit will become faint and every leg will be wet with urine.’ It is coming! It will surely take place”» (Ezekiel 21,6-7). Once again Ezekiel speaks in the silent language of his marked body - and will do so again. Once his oral and verbal resources have been exhausted, he draws on that one extreme word which is our own flesh, the wounded kidneys. Here he raises a real funeral sort of lament: he cries, suffers and moans for the city that will be destroyed, and he does so before it is truly destroyed. The prophets are the first ones to suffer from catastrophes and tragedies, and then, just as we do and right next to us, they continue to suffer both during and after. When the prophets have exhausted all their ordinary and extraordinary resources, what remains is the opportunity to cry, to cry out in mourning. Yesterday and always. Not even they, usually, have the ability to convert the people they are supposed to convert. They want it, they wish for it, they suffer it in their bodies, but they, like us, also need trust and faith. And this is a message brimming with hope when you think about it.

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