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Let’s Save Every Suspended Son

Greater than Guilt/26 - The Bible is a moral exercise to become more human

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 15/07/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 26 rid“Plato would be the one to abolish the cries of famous people and to make them the subject of common men and women, so that those whom we say we train for the defence of the country may disdain behaving in a manner similar to them".

Matteo Nucci, Le lacrime degli eroi (Heroes’ Tears)

We, men and women, love many things, but above all we love our children. That is why true reconciliation between a parent and a child is among the most sublime joys on earth, perhaps the greatest. The parable of the "prodigal son" is among the most beautiful and well-known parables of the Gospels, also because it speaks of a son returning home and of reconciliation. But when we step out of Luke's parable and write the flesh-and-blood parables of our lives, we realize that the children who have returned almost always leave again. They return to the pig sheds, they squander their share of inheritance again, and sometimes they return to take even the rest that is not their "due” part. The joy of families and communities often has to be found and enjoyed in the period of time that passes between a return and a re-departure, in the space that lies between the "kiss of the father" and the "kiss of Judas".

Absalom has returned to Jerusalem, but David, his father, does not want to meet him: “Let him dwell apart in his own house; he is not to come into my presence” (2 Samuel 14:24). After two years, with Joab’s mediation, he manages to meet his father: “Then...the king...summoned Absalom. (...) and the king kissed Absalom” (14:33). A kiss, that is, complete rehabilitation. But as soon as he was rehabilitated, Absalom began to prepare his plan to supplant his father (15:1). Absalom had been presented to us with the typical appearance of the warrior hero: “Now in all Israel there was no one so much to be praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. (...) And when he cut the hair of his head (for at the end of every year he used to cut it; when it was heavy on him, he cut it), he weighed the hair of his head, two hundred shekels” (14:25-26). He was also the grandson of a king (3:3). A portrait that closely resembles Saul, a real shadow that continues to follow and haunt the unfolding of David's life. With the excuse of wanting to dissolve a vow he had made to YHWH at the time of his exile - it is an ancient vice to wrap political and conspiracy motivations in a religious wrapper - Absalom obtains permission from his father to go to Hebron, where, however, he proclaims himself king. A popular consensus begins to grow around the pretender to the throne. The conspiracy becomes "strong" (15:12), until one day a messenger announces to David, “The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom” (15:13). Then David said to all his men: “Arise, and let us flee, or else there will be no escape for us from Absalom” (15:14).

While David prepares to flee, there is a very beautiful dialogue between him and a Gittite, Ittai, a stranger, head of a defeated people, who came with six hundred men to stand by the king's side. David loyally invites him to remain in the city with Absalom (15:19). Ittai does not accept and he remains beside the king, and says words that recall, almost literally, the dialogue between Ruth and his mother-in-law Naomi. They belong among the most beautiful of the entire Bible: “As the Lord lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king shall be, whether for death or for life, there also will your servant be” (15:21). Here David offered no words of thanks to Ittai; but later, when the war began, he appointed him captain of a third of his army (18:2). In the decisive reciprocities of life, words that are already great become too small and remain choked in the throat. In these beautiful and tremendous meetings, one speaks without speaking.

David leaves the city with his people and his family: “And all the land wept aloud as all the people passed by, and the king crossed the brook Kidron, and all the people passed on toward the wilderness” (15:23). All the land wept. An exodus in the opposite direction, a new river to wade for a new fight, another cup to drink that you wouldn't want to drink. Another cry for Jerusalem and her children: “But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered” (15:30). David lives that escape as the pilgrimage of a penitent, as mourning, as atonement of his committed sins, which YHWH and he know well. And he cries. The king cries, too, and the Bible is not afraid to tell us about it.

Along the way, a friend named Hushai joins him. David invites him to stay in the city and win Absalom’s trust as his military advisor - Hushai will succeed in his risky and difficult task of secret agent in the enemy camp (17:14), because Absalom will prefer Hushai's council to that of the more authoritative Ahithophel, Bathsheba's grandfather, who after the rejection of his plan will hang himself (17:23).

During his flight to the Jordan, David has another significant encounter with a Benjaminite, a descendant of the house of Saul: Shimei. The man “came out...and as he came he cursed continually. (...) And Shimei said as he cursed [David], »Get out, get out, you man of blood, you worthless man! The Lord has avenged on you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned, and the Lord has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom. See, your evil is on you, for you are a man of blood«” (16:5-8). Saul’s ghost takes the floor and works, telling us that his party that was defeated during the first civil war won by David was still alive - it is not enough to eliminate enemies to erase all their words, it would be too easy and too unfair. Shimei reads Absalom’s rebellion with the register of retributive theology: David is suffering the same punishment at the hands of his son as he had inflicted on his "father” Saul. David, too, is absorbed in the same reading, and so he does not reject the curse. He lets Shimei throw his stones and words (that are harder than stones) at him, and lives this encounter as atonement and reparation - we do not understand capitalism if we forget this economic reading of faith that also crosses the Bible. David does not declare himself innocent (Shimei was not the only one who thought he was a usurper), and experiences that curse as a price to pay to hope for a new blessing: “Leave him alone, and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to” (16:11).

David’s meekness is beautiful and makes him docile, bending his head under Shimei's stones. He even attributes it to a possible "order by YHWH", and therefore he lets the Saulite touch and hurt him: “Shimei went along on the hillside opposite him and cursed as he went and threw stones at him and flung dust” (16:13).

Faced with the curses that we all encounter on our journey and in the deserts, we can try to reject them and eliminate them (as David’s soldiers wanted to; cf. 16:11), we can close our ears and hearts so that we do not hear them. Or we can accept them meekly, let our flesh be touched by them, let them teach us the craft of living, learning humility-humilitas from the humus being flung at us: “And the king, and all the people who were with him, arrived weary at the Jordan. And there he refreshed himself” (16:14).

Absalom prepares for war and follows the advice of the cunning Hushai, who sends messengers to David to inform him of the strategy that Absalom will follow, to be able to act accordingly (17:16). The battle took place in the forest of Ephraim, where Absalom’s army was defeated: “and the loss there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. (...) the forest devoured more people that day than the sword” (18:7-8). The forest devoured the son of the king, too: “Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak, and his head caught fast in the oak, and he was suspended between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on” (18:9).

Another son suspended between heaven and earth, betrayed by his wonderful hair, which had fascinated and seduced so many - it is not uncommon that it is precisely our talent to slow down our race in decisive battles. This image of Absalom hanging from the oak is very tragic, infinitely vulnerable, helpless and defeated. The biblical author tells us where he is in this battle. He is on David's side, because that is where he places YHWH’s heart. Absalom is a rebel who wanted to derail the history of salvation from its course. And so the narrator tells us ex-post, with insufficient pietas, the sad end of this hanging son: “Joab...took three javelins in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom while he was still alive in the oak” (18:14). Another son, lifted up from the ground, pierced through his side. David, however, had told Joab and his generals: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” (18:5). But Joab did not treat the young man "gently", and just like he had executed David's order to have Uriah the Hittite killed by the Ammonites (chapter 11), he now kills that son with his own hands - the craft of arms does not know "gentleness" for young people.

But we don't have to stay on the winner's field. We can, we must decide whether to continue reading the chapter "going beyond" and so leave the young man hanging from the oak, or search for the mule that "went on", take the wounded body of Absalom and accompany it to the first hostelry. When we encounter a crucified man, we cannot raise him up, but we can decide to remain under his cross.

After the Hanging onto Wood, we are no longer innocent if we "go on" having seen a son suspended between heaven and earth and pierced through the side, without wondering if he is guilty or innocent. The whole Bible is a parable, it is a moral exercise that is proposed to us in order to become more human. If now, while reading, we do not stop in front of this hanging son that his father had asked us in vain to treat gently, tomorrow we will not stop in front of the people suspended between heaven and earth that are populating our roads, our seas, our forests, and that the Father continues to ask us, in vain, to be gentle with. If we do not try to carry out this painful and difficult exercise, the Bible becomes a text for sacred worship only, and it withers. Instead, the exercise of reading teaches us to stop and take care of the victims we meet, so that we can hope not to transform into, a little at a time and without realizing it, another Joab who will find new good political reasons to pierce another suspended child with three spears.

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