Our last step of God

The sign and the flesh/8 - He can forgive, but healing a sick relationship requires reciprocity.

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 23/01/22

The Eternal ordered Hosea to marry a woman of past misunderstandings. Suddenly God asked him: «Why don't you follow the example of your teacher Moses, who as soon as he assumed his prophetic vocation denied himself the joys of family life?» «I cannot dismiss my wife, » Hosea replied. «If you then, » continued the Lord, «do not want to part with your unfaithful wife, how could I part with the Israelites who are my children?»

Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, VI

Hosea offers us a revelation of the grammar of reciprocity, necessary both for the biblical Lord as well as for us, while also helping us to see some essential aspects of our own relationships and giving the words for loaf and bread back to us.

Biblical prophets are greater than their time. Obedience to the voice frees some of their words from the iron cast law of aging and death. However, it is not easy to identify where these young and different words can be found in their texts. We look for them among the pages of light, of consolation, of hope, in the songs of love, because we are convinced that the goodness and love of God can only be expressed in the luminous part of the world, with words and forms that must coincide with those that we have decided to assign to God and to true religion. And so, we almost always end up discarding the cursed part, the harsh words, the cries of God, because we believe these to be words that have aged, imprisoned within their historical time, therefore unable to speak more words of life to us. But we are wrong, we are almost always wrong, because the greatness, even literary, of the biblical prophets also lies in giving us words of life and a non-vain hope in speeches and songs that seem to speak only of death and despair. Too much of the wealth contained in the Bible remains inaccessible to us because it is covered with words that we are not able to decipher with our moral and theological codes, veiled by our idea of ​​how a God-for-good should speak and what he should say.

«Whenever I would heal Israel, the sins of Ephraim are exposed and the crimes of Samaria revealed. They practice deceit, thieves break into houses, bandits rob in the streets; but they do not realize that I remember all their evil deeds. Their sins engulf them; they are always before me» (Hosea 7,1-2). Chapter 7 in the Book of Hosea is a long and continuous review of accusations for the sins that the people have committed and continue to commit. The incipit is its key to reading, which the translators render with different expressions («whenever I would my heal Israel», «while I was healing Israel», «if I healed Israel» ...), which tells us something important in understanding the modus operandi of the God of Hosea. YHWH continues to want to heal his people; he has not stopped loving them and therefore wanting their conversion and return to the Covenant. This wish for reconciliation on the part of God is not effective, however; indeed, it does nothing but make the sins and infidelities of the people even more evident. Like a doctor trying to cure a sore who then, when cutting into the flesh, realizes just how deep and widespread the evil is. However, unlike the diseases of the body, here the sick people have no intention of healing, instead they insist and persist in their sins and in their perverse conduct: «They delight the king with their wickedness, the princes with their lies. They are all adulterers» (Hosea 7,3-4).

We find ourselves inside one of the great mysteries of biblical religion, perhaps one of the greatest. Faith is a rope (fides), it is fidelity, it is a bond, a relationship, a pact and an alliance, and it is therefore a relationship of reciprocity. Even if God should want to continue to love, and He does, in order for the relationship to be restored, because in the words of Hosea the people can indeed heal, there is an essential need for Israel to do its part, to sincerely want to convert, to change its conduct and to really do it and then stick to its good intentions over time. There is an important distinction here between forgiveness and healing: God can forgive, but to heal the sick relationship there is a need for reciprocity, for mutuality. In the abstract, God could intervene in history for primary causes without asking anyone's permission: but not the biblical God, being a God-in-relationship, in order to take care of the relationship with the people he needs his part, he needs a "yes" which allows him to become what he already is in himself in history.

God does not need our reciprocity in order to forgive us, but he cannot help us to heal unless we sincerely decide to be treated. Hence, the God of the Bible has such respect for human freedom that he even renounces this expression of his omnipotence, and thus he will not save us unless we ask him to. He loves us to the point of leaving us in hell, if we do not shout at him to take us to heaven. Herein lies the weak omnipotence of the God of the prophets, who orders the orbit of the stars and the eclipses of the moon, but cannot heal a people that does not first ask to be healed, and remains powerless in the face of our stubborn infidelity. He forgives us, seventy times seven, forgiving us creates that empty space where the desire to return home could be generated; but the decisive step - «I will get up and go to my father» - can only be taken by us. God can take nine hundred ninety-nine steps on the journey home in our place, but at least one has to be taken by us, by me. He is not fond of symmetries, he does not want a fifty-fifty deal, but at least one step taken by us is necessary. He prefers free non-fidelity to non-free fidelity, because, non-free allegiances are simply not worthy of children but merely of slaves - and YHWH hates all slavery, because he is a liberator.

We must also keep in mind that Hosea's his personal history (chapter 1) is always in the background of his prophecy, his paradoxical marriage with his wife Gomer, unfaithful and adulterous, who continued to prostitute herself despite Hosea’s stubborn fidelity. The prophet - like so many men and women - continued to love her and perhaps forgive her every time after the betrayals, but she did not recover from her illness. This is why Hosea’s verses also open a crack in the intimacy of our primary relationships. Reciprocity is associated with the brightest pages of our life along with the darkest ones. The first ones are held together by the second ones, the bright ones are able to shine thanks to the dark room created, in the back, by the painful ones. Because no one would rejoice in non-free and obligatory reciprocity, it is in this necessary freedom where the, always real, possibility of the non-response of the other person can be found, another person who is always in excess and freer than our need and desire for reciprocity. And if this excess between my freedom and your need for reciprocity should be missing, my every answer would be insufficient to satisfy your need for communion, which is always a need, at the same time, for reciprocity and freedom.

Hence, we can keep pushing Hosea's words until we arrive at a statement that might surprise us but which, if we read it properly, is inscribed in the book of Hosea and in the prophets, as well as in biblical Theo-anthropology: God rejoices and suffers for our reciprocity. He is God, and he resembles us. He resembles us in everything, in our pains and our joys. The image of God imprinted in man, the founding truth of biblical revelation, among his most beautiful and daring messages, is also another place of God's fragility: if the metaphor of the image is necessarily reciprocal –we resemble God and God resembles us - we cannot keep God out of our pains and shadows. We have no reason to exclude God from the less luminous aspects of the image, if we want to avoid making God coincide with the moral idea we have made of Him (as all idolatries and theological ideologies do), and make him become a nice god, a "cheap" god (D. Bonhoeffer). Thus, the Bible tells us that YHWH rejoices in our faithfulness, rejoices in our returns, and therefore suffers when we are not faithful, when we do not return and instead turn to the wrong gods: «I long to redeem them but they speak about me falsely. They do not cry out to me from their hearts» (Hosea 7,13-14).

They do not cry out to me: as the Psalms, Job and the beginning of the book of Exodus have taught us, God needs our cry to heal us-free us. Sometimes shouting is not enough, we cry and yet we are not saved, but in order to hope to be saved, one must learn to cry out. The cry is the first step of liberation, it is the awareness of being sick and therefore of wishing to heal. In the Bible (and in life) whoever does not cry is not saved. Whoever does not cry does not return, even when he deludes himself (perhaps in good faith, Hosea 6,1) that he is returning to God and in reality returns to nothingness, to the non-God (non Elyon), to Baal: «They slash themselves, appealing to their gods for grain and new wine, but they turn away from me.. They do not turn to the Most High» (Hosea 7,14-16). And when you return to a foreign house thinking that it is your home, you never leave, you never come back.

Embedded in the heart of this chapter we find a beautiful metaphor, that of the oven and the bread, which not only enables us to feel first hand the scent of bread that is baking, a loaf of bread baked in a fiery oven, but also enables us to feel the scent of Hosea the man who, like the other great prophets, is capable of speaking about God to his people with the words of home, the words of bread, of the vineyard, of a child, of a pitcher. The prophets have the stupendous ability to speak these very lofty words of God to us through the very average words of our daily life. This is why they are able to penetrate it, entering our homes, making the words of the home the word of God as well: «Their hearts are like an oven; they approach him with intrigue. Their passion smolders all night; in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire…  Ephraim is a flat loaf not turned over» (Hosea 7,6-8).

In Hosea’s day and age, everyone understood these metaphors of fire and bread; everyone knew that a loaf that has not been turned would spoil everything: the part that rests on the red-hot stone will burn and the upper part will remain uncooked. The God of the prophets can only speak in this way, he cannot say abstract words, he does not know the dogmas of theologians, and he does not like philosophical theorems. He loves the words of bread and loafs because he loves people, so he speaks like them, he does not want to speak any differently, and he loves to be understood because he is close, not to admire because he is so far away, up high. False prophets instead, back in the day as well as today, love complicated, abstruse and therefore incomprehensible speeches. They speak of heaven because they do not know how to speak of earth, they fill their mouths with God because they have forgotten men and women and their pain. When will we go back to talking about faith with the words of loaf and bread?



Language: ENGLISH

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