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Like the Lamps of Waiting (We are the Vineyard)

Listening to Life/4 - Idols need fenced and closed spaces, God does not

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 17/07/2016

Spighe di grano rid

If Moses or Jeremiah or Jesus had thought that their message could be understood like an uplifting speech to be done in a sacred place, or meditated in a sacred time, or in an interior space isolated from the rest of life, they would have been amazed and disdained. Neither Moses and the prophets, nor Jesus intended their words for a religious side of life, because this side did not exist."

Paolo De Benedetti, La morte di Mosè e altri esempi (The Death of Moses and other examples)

Let me sing for my beloved / my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard / on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, / and planted it with choice vines; / he built a watchtower in the midst of it, / and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, / but it yielded wild grapes.>. (Isaiah 5,1-2). This vineyard run wild is us, it is our humanity that does not generate the benefits that it could and should produce. It's been more than two millennia and a half since these words were written, but the spectacle of the rebellious, spoiled and bad vineyard continues to fill the horizon under the sun. We would have all the conditions to generate good grapes, and instead we continue to produce wild ones. The same bad grapes of Cain, Lamech and Jezebel. In Sodom, in Dhaka, in Nice and in Istanbul.

A farmer had planted a good vineyard, in the best soil, and cultivated it with all his care. He had loved it, cared for it, he had placed a sentry at the center to protect it from thieves and selected the best grapes of the area. He could not do more for his vineyard. He just wanted it to grow up in all its glory and abundance. But the vineyard did not obey, it brought forth evil fruit, it denied and spoiled the job of the winemaker. The farmer can do his part in order for his field to bring good fruits, but the "vineyard" has a mysterious freedom. It may rebel and not follow the law of life. Only those who have tended and owned a vineyard can intuit something of the power of this song of Isaiah. Perhaps no plant like the vine needs a symbiotic relationship with the winemaker. Without the farmer's hands, fatigue and continuous attention, the vines do not produce good wine. And few fruits like grapes give great joy to its grower. My grandfather, as he reached the threshold of the nineties, was no longer able to go into his fields, he wanted only to plant a few rows of vines, but right in front of the entry door of his house. The vineyard is one of the most recurring and revelational images of the Bible, a symbol for the woman and the bride. The whole Bible is to climb on the altar along with the wine.

The bad and damaged grapes were a frequent phenomenon in antiquity. Parasites, bacteria and molds often hit the vines and the grapes, and it was not uncommon to lose your entire vintage. Even today, the farmer is the man of waiting: he depends on the free obedience of the earth, the plants and the insects. Although he tries to control the freedom of nature through technology and his intelligence, if he is not a mercenary he knows that the fruit of the earth is above all a gift, and therefore free and uncertain as all gifts. Reciprocity is the first law of the farmer. The allegory Isaiah uses here, however, is even stronger: the vines have grown wild, the vine degenerated and returned to the wild state it had been in before man domesticated it and made good wine out of it. Transforming the vine from wild plant into a vineyard capable of producing wine was a long process, a great technical and cultural achievement. A vineyard in ancient times was a spectacle of human excellence, the frontier of the technology and economy of time. Those who listened to Isaiah in the temple or in the streets, did not need mediations, because vineyards were part of everyone's life. And so everyone could and should understand the prophecy when the big twist came in the song of the vineyard: "For the vineyard ... / is the house of Israel" (5.7). Here Isaiah leaves the allegory behind and comes to politics, economy and the lives of people.

When prophets leave allegories and metaphors behind they do not move on to religion. We do not understand the strength and nature of the words of the prophets if we think they are a religious thing. They speak of life, of all life and only of life. Faiths begin to die and to degenerate when we create a religious space to imprison them in. No faith liberates us without the open air of the cities. The idols are the ones that need the sacred space, well fenced and protected from several feet; not the faith of the prophets, which allowed that the people of Israel, despite their rebellions, have celebrated their God in an empty temple. Great was, in fact, the surprise of Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) when after breaking down the Jews, he entered the temple of Jerusalem: "There was no image of deity, the place was empty and the sanctuary that was so secret concealed nothing" (Tacitus, Histories, V, 9). The good temples that are friendly to man are those that tell us that God does not live in them, because his home is the world, and it is only there that he may be sought and loved. Our tabernacles are lanterns awaiting the one who has not yet returned.

The wonderfully unique beauty of the prophets is therefore in repeating to us with all the strength and in all possible ways: the vineyard is our world; the field is the world (Mt 13,38). The human being is greater than its religious dimension, and the Church can be a good place to live and grow if it takes the infinite dimensions of the Kingdom. There is too much prophecy today that does not reach those who should hear it because those who exercise this function by vocation cannot get out from the religious context, will not or cannot find entirely human words to reinterpret the words of Isaiah today. Because today's prophets forget that the place where the prophet speaks is the square, the factory and the parliament. It is only there they can speak. All other temples are too small and low. The prophet is a "friend" of God (5,1). And therefore he is a friend of man, too. He is also a friend of the farmer who works and hopes in the reciprocity of the vineyard. These timeless songs cannot be written without loving the protagonists of their stories: the allegories that abuse and exploit their protagonists do not have the strength to convert anyone.

Therefore, I would like to think that if Isaiah spoke today he would only use everyone's language and words, he would not want to know more. A woman had worked hard all her life, and with many sacrifices she had put aside some savings. She had entrusted them to the bank of her town. She had trusted the person who had advised her how to invest them, because she knew him. But one day she discovered that those savings had gone, they had gone bad: the bankers instead of safekeeping them had used them to speculate, and its managers had used them to increase their bonuses. A man had a workshop for handicrafts, he had inherited it from his father and cared for it. One day a government official asked him a bribe if he wanted to continue working. That man knew only how to make chairs and furniture with honest work, and could not give in to blackmail. So one morning, his laboratory was gone, it had been burned down.

Maybe Isaiah would tell stories similar to these, but with an entirely different strength and beauty. He would reach his listeners in their daily lives, in their passions and outrage. And he would perhaps also say: "That bank is our capitalism that is corrupting our political system, this is the world we have built betraying the promises and the covenants of our fathers". The power of prophecy is knowing how to move from the vineyard to Israel, from the bank to capitalism, from the sorrupt person to the illness of the system.

And then he would probably repeat the same woes, without changing a comma in them: "Woe to those who join house to house, / who add field to field, / until there is no more room, / and you are made to dwell alone / in the midst of the land. Woe to those who call evil good / and good evil ... who acquit the guilty for a bribe, / and deprive the innocent of his right!" (5, 8; 20; 23).

The song of Isaiah does not tell us how evil creeps into that well-tended vineyard, it does not speak of the "techniques" of betrayal. It only tells us that evil comes against the will of the farmer. The fate of the vineyard is registered in his story: And now I will tell you / what I will do to my vineyard. / I will remove its hedge, / and it shall be devoured; / I will break down its wall, / and it shall be trampled down..." (5,5). Any good farmer would do the same. The vineyard had already turned wild, it had already lost the fruit of the winemaker's work of domestication. What sense would it have to keep a wine press though there was nothing to harvest, or hire a guard, build a fence, dig the soil, prune and water the wild grapes? There is no punishment, nor any revenge. God can only suffer while attending the pain caused by our wrong actions. His first mercy is crying with us, for us. The end of our stories is in their beginning: the vineyard turns into pasture again, ruthless finance fails, the best entrepreneurs close or run away and the country sinks into its own corruption. The prophets see tomorrow because they know how to read the past and the present in depth, and they can glimpse the seeds in there that are about to mature.

The first winemaker we find in the Bible is Noah, who after having done his job and saved the living from the great flood planted a vineyard and made wine (Genesis 9,20). In a land ruined like that vineyard, it was simply the presence of a single righteous man, one who answered a call and built an ark of salvation. A single healthy vine, perhaps only one bunch or even a single good grape can save a vineyard gone wild. Our vineyard can also still hope: 'Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; / have regard for this vine" (Psalm 80).

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