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The civilisation of the bread given as gift

Naked Questions/15 - Living and giving with gratuitousness and gratitude Nothing is wasted this way

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 14/02/2016

Logo Qohelet rid mod"Valencia. At the shore of the pond an elderly man was walking with a dog that was perhaps even older than him. I saw him approach the edge of the water and pull out old loaves of bread from a bag. Piece by piece he threw them to the fish. I stood looking at him, fascinated by the monotony of his gestures. It lasted quite long. It was only when his provisions were finished that I realised I was looking at a verse of Chapter 11 of the Book of Ecclesiastes. »Cast your bread upon the waters.« An elderly man in the autumn of '93 in a Spanish town performed that invitation literally, giving this verse its only, unique sense."

Erri de Luca, Racconto su un verso di Kohèlet  (A story about a verse by Qoheleth)

Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.” (Ecclesiastes 11,1) We are looking at one of the most beautiful and evocative verses of the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Its meaning is not simple, but its ambivalence - might also be hiding the traces of an ancient proverb about the benefits and risks of seaborne trade - should not prevent us from taking its first meaning and immediate seriously (an old and wise rule is to prefer the simplest one of the many possible interpretations of a complex text). Its meaning, in fact, opens up to us when we read the first verse together with the ones that follow: “He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. (...) In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” (11,4; 6) The law of fruitful life is excess, magnanimity, generosity. Wheat grows and feeds us if we sow more than we should, if we go beyond the efficiency calculation, if we throw more seeds in the ground than necessary. The seed we sow should not be launched only in good soil. Stones and thorns should also receive their portion, because if I sow only within the narrow confines of my good field the sprouting grains will not be enough even for myself. 'Hundredfold' fertility requires the generosity of the sower who has to be able to waste a good part of the seed, to sublimate and transcend himself.

When Qoheleth wrote or dictated these words, bread was the essential type of food that was very difficult to get for nearly all of the population. Bread was the means for people to live and keep their children alive; without bread they suffered and died. Throwing it into the water, therefore, was a subversive, imprudent, strange and bad gesture for the observers. But Qoheleth likes paradoxes, as we all know by now, especially those that can help us expose all forms of vanity and the easy - because self-deceiving - certainties. This time, too, the best exegete of a beautiful and mysterious verse turns out to be the author himself, and if we make him 'talk' with all the words of his book, this time he tells us that the first and immediate reading of that text can be just the right one. And so, looking at the wide angle of the entire book, we discover that the key to the incipit of this penultimate chapter is still Qoheleth's argument against economic-retributive religion. Nothing is more subversive for the economic logic than bread thrown into the water.

In his society, far more than in ours, bread was a special type of good, much more than just merchandise. Very rarely was it bought or sold. It was produced in community, shared during meals, and above all, it was donated. A loaf of bread is something not to be denied to anyone, either yesterday or today, and when we do so we deny our dignity. Furthermore, it was used because it was a precious good, being a sacred offering for the sacrifices (Genesis 14,18). Outside of one's own consumption and cultic duties and those dictated by solidarity, bread could not and should not be wasted. When I was a child, if a piece of bread fell on the ground and was wasted, before giving it to the animals my mother made me kiss it. Every piece of bread regarded as a gift received becomes the bread of the Eucharist: it is good gratuitousness (eu charis), it is gratitude. It is the manna, the bread of life. We could rewrite the Bible as the history of bread, as its presence is so powerful and vital.

Certainly Qoheleth here does not want to invite us to use bread for making propitiatory sacrifices to the sea or to the waters - he was very hard on the sacrifices to Elohim in the temple of Jerusalem, too: 4,17. Neither is the bread thrown into the water is the same as the one for the poor or the temple. His is rather a challenge to the kind of theology that justified every human act on the basis of its results. It is a challenge to those who gave bread in order to be righteous, and so gain the blessing of God: “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor” (Proverbs 22,9). But Ecclesiastes tells us to throw the bread onto the water's surface, if we want to see it back in many ways, many times, on many days. His is a wisdom of the surplus, going beyond the reasonable boundaries and convenience, both social and religious.

Those who tried to live life up and down and really, forming a family, bringing children into the world, those who created a business or a community, or those who received it as a legacy and did not want to let them die, those who have honestly followed a vocation ... they know that the most beautiful things returned to them when they were able to go beyond the register of utilitarian calculus, when they abandoned the logic of cost-benefit and, inconveniently, did what they had to do on the basis of only prudence and common sense. We have sown in the wrong season, we started sailing without good wind. Yet, at times, the fruits arrived, the dead calm of the sea did not win. At least once. We are able to have a child born only by love and we know it can make us forget all our advantage. To set off on a journey believing in a promised land as we cross deserts, to start again in old age still believing in that land, even though we have gone through deserts, and only deserts, many, too many of them. And even though we know that what we had left was our last bread, we do not keep it inside the bag, we threw it to the water. We are able to wish that heaven should exist even though we are certain that it will not be for us.

In our lives there are many acts of gratuitousness, but they are almost always partial, and they only liberate us from some dimensions of retributive logic. We are too mixed up in reciprocity to succeed in abandoning the registry of exchange many times. Is absolute gratuitousness possible, is pure love possible?

The question of 'pure love' was confronted by a certain theology a few centuries ago, when, following the debates and reactions to the Protestant Reformation, the need was born to warn against the dangers arising from extending the ability to love by pure love to man, which must remain the sole prerogative of God. Pure love is dangerous, it is subversive. But if we look at the world closely, we realize that human beings, after all, are also capable of pure love. We almost never manage to realise it, but it's part of our repertoire. And if we do not have at least one experience of pure love given and received in life, humanization is not completed in full, it stops too early in our journey under the sun. A man without pure love is too little. Our likeness to Elohim must also extend to his love. At least once, maybe just one crucial time. Even if it is the last hour, when we can also donate the last bread that we will be asked of by choosing to become the Eucharist of the earth with our body.

The Bible - and therefore life - is full of surpluses that come only when we leave the commercial horizon behind freely or out of necessity. The son who returns home after having left it behind and having lost it, a child who is born from a shrivelled womb, the ram that appears after we had held it to the knife, the few loaves of bread that multiply after we had donated and lost them, a prophet who resurrected after he had been seen dying on the cross. No contract could bring the dead son back to life, let us generate when generativity was gone, resurrect someone who was crucified. No ram can be exchanged with a kid, there is no bag where five loaves can be transformed into a meal that feeds a crowd.

The real surprises of life are only those that bloom freely from excess, those that no one could predict or guess, those that save us because they are immensely bigger than us and our conveniences. If we had a guarantee or just hope that the bread donated will multiply to become hundredfold, that bread would no longer be the good gratuitousness that's able to multiply. It would be an investment, an insurance or a bet. To build the 'civilization of the hundredfold' here on earth, or at least some of it, we need to re-learn the logic of surplus and that of the bread donated to the waters.

There are many more loaves of bread that are lost in the waters of those who return carried by the current. The extraordinary nature of the bread multiplied by the waters is the certainty of having lost it forever in the moment that it was donated. The infinite - and therefore priceless - value of bread donated that is returned many times in many days also depends on a lot of bread that remains in the seabed and never comes back to feed us. Not all of the gift given returns to us; but what seems to be waste and pain can enter another, bigger economy, one that includes at least the sea and the fish in it. The earth also lives and feeds from our tears that become its bread (Psalm 42,4).

The bread made hundredfold is the last bread that remained for us. It is not the superfluous bread, nor the philanthropy of the rich. It is the crumbs of Lazarus that can return multiplied, not the leftovers of the rich man: “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn” (1Samuel, 2,5). Only the bread of the poor can be 'saved by the waters', and return one day to free them from their slavehood, beyond the sea.

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