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Beyond the Shortage of Promises

Listening to Life/8 - Never get bogged down in a great but unfinished beginning

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 14/08/2016

Virgulto roccia rid"This is the language of the prophets, for whom the future is not somewhere, but something still in the making. It makes us experience history as something we were also part of. This already and this still, this no more, this not yet: these are the great rockers in the clock of world history "

Franz Rosenzweig, The Hebrew Bible

The truth of prophecy is not measured on the basis of the proximity of the prophet's words to the future events, but, paradoxically, on that of the distance. The false prophecies are the ones that try to predict things, and so they continuously update their words to coincide with the facts.

It's an ancient craft that soothsayers, diviners and scriptwriters continue to do very well. False prophecy generates false hopes, words that soothe people by promising them a tarot like future. That's all false prophets can do, and the true prophets know this very well, because no one knows or recognizes them better. Prophecy, especially that of hope, uttered during the times of misfortune is more of a challenge instead, a provocation to contemporary history so that it should become what it is not yet. It is a struggle with reality, an action, an ordeal; it is the beating the farmer gives to the barren tree with a stick so that it starts bearing fruit again. It is a prayer, a psalm, it is a scream. In the Bible there are not only prayers that men and women address to God: there is also a strong, steady and persistent prayer that God addresses to us. God is the first one to pray in the Bible, who, with the voice of the prophets, implores us to return home, begs us to become what we could be but we aren't.

At the centre of Chapter 10 we find a great theme of Isaiah: the return and the salvation of a remnant. 'A remnant shall return' is the name that was given to one of his sons, and is also the heart of his vision of salvation: "A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return" (Isaiah 10:21-22). These words were written, rewritten and amended in the darkest periods between the painful and complex history of the people of Israel: wars, exiles, the separation and dispersal of most of the tribes of the sons of Jacob-Israel that never returned home after the exile. It is a prophecy that speaks of return and salvation in the time of no return, and therefore the non-fulfilment of the promise made to the fathers. After Mount Moriah, YHWH said to Abraham: "I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore" (Genesis 22:17). And he will repeat this many other times to his children. Isaiah knows this great promise, which is the foundation of his faith and his people. He believes and has confidence in that original word. But the facts tell the opposite: the people is scattered and lost. This is the first, infinite moral effort of the prophet: announcing a word while living in a historical present that denies it. His task is to remain in this vital tension, trying to save the word from the contrary force of historical evidence.

The theology of the remnant is a key element of Isaiah's 'strategy' to save the promise and history. He does not deny the present with all its evidence against the word, but the faith of the beginning is saved starting from the end. The children of Jacob-Israel did not become as numerous as the sand. The promise of the beginning is not coming through like the patriarchs had imagined, narrated and cherished it. This fact should be our point of departure, but we should not stay at it, getting bogged down in it.

The largest and most difficult crisis of people and communities who believed in a word and a promise are those generated by the events of today that belie the promise of yesterday. The children decrease in number, the fruits that were supposed to do not arrive, the actualization of the ideal gets further and further away. The loss of faith (in the ideal, in the voice that uttered it, in ourselves that have heard it, in the others that have explained it in the early days) is the simplest solution in these great crises of life. The prophets - when there are any, when we listen to them and when we do not listen to the false prophets - keep the faith of yesterday alive in the trial of today giving us a different history for tomorrow. We cannot find our way out of the crisis by simply rearranging the past and reinterpreting the ancient promise, but by starting to tell a different story of the future, a possible and convincing one. No new reading of the beginning is enough to go forward unless we have a beautiful story of the end.

Isaiah gives us a narration method of the end when he tells us, repeating to us here and now: 'only a remnant shall return'. The first promise is fulfilled only in part ('only a remnant'), but it really is. It was not a deception or illusion, it was only in excess. The first promise was too great to come true, but if it had been less great, Abraham would not have set out on a journey, we would not have uttered any 'forever'-s (our severe shortage of 'forever' is also a result of an even more severe shortage of great promises). Only the promise of infinity and the impossible makes the experience of the finite possible today. In every vocation, in every great hope of our youth. Only a remnant will be saved, but it will really be saved, the promise was not in vain.

When life runs like a vocational journey, as a sequel to a first promise-voice, at some point we have to understand - and if we don't, the journey is blocked - that 'only a remnant will be saved'. We have to understand that all the sand of the entire sea that was promised to us on the day of the great encounter is only the sand of the beach in front of our house, or perhaps only what's under the umbrella, or only what we can grab and enclose in our fist. We started looking for heaven, we thought we had found paradise on earth and that we know God and have become his friends. Years pass, and we find ourselves surrounded by thick clouds, not having found heaven on earth, the life that we thought to live we could not because it turned out to be too different from what we had imagined, and we know less and less who God really is. We can get out of these authentic spiritual depressions if one day we realize that it is a remnant that will be saved: that salvation is really that small only thing that survived of the first promise. It is that person that we have saved from the trap where they had fallen, that work we have done well for forty years although it was not our vocation, that prayer we went on to recite in the years of the desert not understanding the words we pronounced. Most of our life has not become what we wanted it to be, almost all the first words of the first encounter stopped speaking to us, one by one. But one word, only one, has remained alive and it grew; one task, just one, that we have performed well and we continue to do it right and nicely. And so one day we feel clearly that in that humble 'handful of sand' there is all of the ancient promise; that it has been saved, it saved us, and it saved the whole world. Even the grains of sand held in one hand are countless, we cannot count them. We wanted a great and mighty salvation, and we have not found it. Until we find out that it was small and fragile, just like a child, and that's why we had not recognized it.

But if a small remnant of the first promise is still alive and true, then you can throw a new shoot - this is the miracle of the plants, to return to flourish if only a small remnant of the body is still alive: "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, / and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit." (11:1). The shoot is the flowering of the remnant; it is the possibility, the hope that the tree we have not seen, or has been cut off, can still exist, albeit different from the one of the dream, but no less real, perhaps even more beautiful. The felling of the tree was not the failure of the promise, but only the end of what we imagined about the promise. But these things, that is, the difference between the tree of the dream and the tree of the promise, can only be revealed to us by the prophets, struggling against the false prophets who want to convince us that there is only one tree, or that its fall was only a hallucination. There's nothing more painful for a prophet than continuing to proclaim the tree that is not there yet when some see a cut trunk, others, under a spell, continue to see invisible trees, and no one can see the shoot. The power, the truth and effectiveness of prophecy - of the one who one day proclaimed it, and the one who today lives it again and repeats it - are in the cry of its birth.

To feel the strength and the love-pain of these prophecies of Isaiah in the flesh, we should say them while positioning ourselves, at least in soul, in a city of Southern Sudan, Libya, or in Aleppo of the Syria that so present in his book. And from there we should try to sing the great song of the prophet again, pray with his different words, ask history to change. Beg mercy for Cain, the serpent, the bears and the wolves who are tearing each other and devouring children. Shake our barren trees. Because in order to start to believe in a non-vain hope again in the time of the cut-down tree, a greater end-promise is needed than that of the beginning: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, / and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, / and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; / and a little child shall lead them. / The cow and the bear shall graze; / their young shall lie down together; / and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. / The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, / and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. / They shall not hurt or destroy / in all my holy mountain" (11:6-9).

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