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But God awaits us at the potter’s wheel

The Dawn of Midnight/12 - The lack of prudence and the theology of the hands

by Luigino Bruni

published in  Avvenire on 09/07/2017

Lavorazione ceramica 01 ridPhysical work is a specific contact with the beauty of the world, and can even be, in its best moments, a contact so full that no equivalent can be found elsewhere.

Simone Weil, Waiting on God (English translation by Emma Craufurd)

To understand prophecy and biblical prophets, we would need a kind of laity that we no longer have. In fact, nothing could be as lay as a prophet, because even when he speaks of God he talks only and always of life, history, tears, hopes, daily reality and work. Prophets talked about men and women, and all the listeners could and had to understand it even without being theologians. This is their secularity, should we want to use a term that would have been totally incomprehensible to them, because what we think is secular/lay was simply life, all of life for them. The first and often decisive difficulty in understanding the Bible and the prophets is in the very word: "God". When we see this word, we inevitably encounter a concept that has been covered by millennia of culture, Christianity, theology, philosophy, and then by modernity, its many forms of atheism, by science and psychoanalysis, and that’s how the God of the prophets and their word have become incomprehensible to those who would need the poverty of Sinai, the bricks of Egypt, the essential freedom of the tent of the wandering Aramean – that’s why the best listeners in the Bible have always been and still are the children: we need their freedom and poverty to enter this Kingdom.

“Behold, they say to me, / »Where is the word of the Lord? / Let it come!” / I have not run away from being your shepherd, / nor have I desired the day of sickness. / You know what came out of my lips; / it was before your face«” (Jeremiah 17:15-16).
Following Jeremiah in the development of his book and his vocation, here we are entering a new phase and another dimension of his immense prophecy. The enemies continue to challenge and insult him, and now begin to use the facts to deny the truth of his prophecy of misfortune. Time passes, and the destruction announced by Jeremiah does not start. History seems to justify the illusory ideologies of the false prophets selling consolations. In fact, they accuse him of being a producer of horrible scenarios, of being an enemy of the people, offering them curses he himself invented to confuse his people. It is a fate that Jeremiah shares with the many men and women who, being faithful to their conscience, announce the decline in the time of success, the sunset at midday. They are first accused of defamation and of being false prophets of misfortune. And then, when the fatal scenario actually occurs, they end up being accused of being the cause of the tragedy, and become the scapegoat of the evil they had only announced honestly. This is a foolish mechanism which is as common in communities infected by an ideology as it was in the Jerusalem at the time of Jeremiah. Ideology is infallible by nature, and the facts that go in the opposite direction comparing to that of the ideological faith are systematically reinterpreted and manipulated, never used for the self-subversion of certainties revealed as false.

Jeremiah knows he prophesied in truth, but this confession makes us glimpse some doubt, and a gash is also opened in his interiority. The prophet is not a man of certainty. Doubt is his daily bread. Absence of doubt is the first sign that reveals false prophecy.

In the following chapter, we find that the attack on Jeremiah takes on new forms: “Then they said, »Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah, for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us strike him with the tongue, and let us not pay attention to any of his words.«” (18:18) The priests, the wise men and the prophets are adopting a new strategy to defeat Jeremiah's action: they want to use the words of his own prophecy against him. The figure of Jeremiah was becoming more and more impressive in Jerusalem. Physical elimination - like the one attempted by his family years earlier in Anathoth - would now be imprudent and perhaps counter-productive. A more sophisticated action is needed, and so Jeremiah’s persecutors change their action plan. They begin to follow him and watch him with extreme care, to look for a contradiction, a vulnus, a mistake, a sentence against the temple, a criticism of the sacrifices required by Moses or a command of the Torah in his words, to use it later in a process against his person and his work. Jeremiah is conscious of being vulnerable on this front. The prophets are imprudent, they aren’t politically correct and they are not familiar with all the secrets and tricks of the Law. In the words of Jeremiah so far we have found words and attacks against the religion of the temple - if collected by a doctor of law and brought before a court, these would produce the same chapters of accusation that would lead to the accusation and condemnation of Jesus of Nazareth a few centuries later. Jeremiah begins to realise that among those who gather in the temple and in the squares to hear him there are some 'infiltrators' that follow him just to be able to pump him. Many people, at this point, begin to censor themselves, to remove all the dangerous references from their speeches, to eliminate those words that later can may condemn them. But Jeremiah did not do so; he continued his imprudent and free song, so that he could reach to us. If the virtue of prudence had prevailed, if he had wanted to save his life, we would have lost a wealth of words of immense value. Prudence is not always a virtue. For prophets it is never, because they put the imprudent freedom of the word before the prudence of their words. If they had a prudent conduct, many martyrs would not have been killed, many prophets would have avoided persecution and suffering, but their lives would be less true and our world would be worse. Biblical ethics is not the ethics of virtues.

But in these increasingly sophisticated persecutions we can see something else, too. First of all, Jeremiah tells us that his enemies are the priests, theologians and intellectuals, that is, the elites of the country. Jeremiah is not only attacked by his "fellow" prophets, but by the entire ruling class. This is a fact that reveals to us how great prophecy is in Israel. Only one prophet is capable of undermining the entire political and religious system. Only a people perhaps corrupted, but originally founded on the word, can take a prophet so seriously. Today many "brothers of Jeremiah" continue to prophesy in our empires, but nobody pays attention any more. The strength and seriousness of Jeremiah's persecution show, in a paradox way, the esteem that the people of Israel had for prophecy. A civilization that does not understand prophets does not persecute them because it simply ignores them. So the story of prophecy in Israel can tell us something important. As long as there is conflict between dominant elites and prophets, between institution and charismas, we are still in communities that are born and know how to recognize the prophets, and for this reason they can always be saved. The presence of Jeremiah and other prophets of the Babylonian exile was also the great sign that Israel had not been abandoned by YWHW: it is Jeremiah, fought and rejected by the people, the sacrament of the Alliance in time of corruption and apostasy. As long as there is a prophet speaking in a perverted community, there is still a chance for the future.

Finally, embedded in these two conspiracies, we find the beautiful scene of the potter: “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: »Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words.« So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do” (18:1-4).

God speaks to Jeremiah in a workshop of an artisan. Jeremiah proclaimed YHWH's word in the temple, he received the objections of his fellow citizens there, it is there that his doubts rose about the delay of those words coming true. But the light to melt those doubts came to him outside the temple as he passed in front of a humble and non-religious workshop. He is going through a delicate phase of his life, the harsh controversy of his opponents is putting the truth of his prophecy and vocation into crisis, and God speaks to him with the laborious and dirty hands of a craftsman. And that’s how the Bible gives us one of the most beautiful songs on human work and its theology of the hands. That craftsman lent his hands to God to let him speak. And there, in the midst of the dust and the noise of the potter’s wheel, Jeremiah understands the sense of the delay of the manifestation of his prophecy: “Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it” (18:5-7). The most important aspect of this episode is not the interpretation that Jeremiah gives to the potter's action, but the simple fact that God has spoken to him using the mute work of a craftsman.

In a time of crisis and transformation of work, today, we can but embrace this word of blessing on work coming from Jeremiah. Human labour is also a place for theophanies, for those who work and for those who watch others work. And as we continue to look for the answer to our doubts in the temple, or when we have stopped looking for them, God waits for us in the workshops, manoeuvring the potter’s wheel from his work bench.

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