Dives & Lazarus
When I left university, just turned 22, I got a teaching job in Italy. It was poorly paid – I earned the equivalent of £53 a month, and of that £21 went in rent. That left me a little less than £8 a week to live on. And I was running a car. You will see that I had something to learn about prudent financial planning.
One upshot of this was that quite regularly the money ran out before the end of the month. There is a limit to the number of times I could go to the boss and ask for a sub (if you don’t know what that is, it’s an advance payment of part of the next month’s wages). I would find myself for the last few days of the month with nothing to eat. Boiled pasta, or even just bread with a little olive oil was sometimes the best I could muster. In the evenings I could see people going into restaurants – something Italians do all the time – and I would say to myself, “if only they knew how lucky they are” – and perhaps also “if only they could share a little bit of it”. All of this, of course, was completely my fault. I had an easy way out, which would be to go home to Britain and get a proper job. But there was even a problem about that – how could I get back to Britain? Could I sell the car? No Italian in their right mind would want to buy a battered, stuttering Wolseley 1500 made in 1957.
Fortunately, at the end of the 1st year my wages were raised, but I have never forgotten that experience and the demoralising effect it can have. If we think of people who are really poor, and not just starry-eyed incompetent students, then one thing we have to try and get a feel for is this: how do people who squander money and food look to poor? The sense of injustice and inhumanity must be huge. The poor in most societies tend to be edited out, or kept out of sight and consciousness, like Lazarus beyond the gate of Dives’ house.
The parable of Dives and Lazarus provokes us with a whole range of messages, and one of them is this: look after one another. We need to use our imagination. We need to imagine ourselves into other people’s situation. It might be people I live with, who I find difficult. Or it might be a young family in a leaky boat in the English Channel with no money, no food, nowhere to live, no one to belong with.
Look after one another. St Benedict describes the monastery as a school in the Lord’s service. But in fact every parish and every Christian community is called to be a school in the Lord’s service, not least in becoming people who look after one another, and in such a way that it spills out into the world around us. The gospel tells us we are never to judge our brothers and sisters. Oh dear – will I ever stop judging by brother and sister? In another passage St Benedict uses the phrase ne quis contristetur; it’s also there in our own community’s old Rule. It means that we should never behave in any way that will cause our brother or sister to be saddened, or cast down. St Benedict says that we always have to meet others as they are and accept them as they are and put ourselves in their shoes. What he says for the monastery is true for the whole church: and it is a school not just in looking after itself, but in loving all God’s children of whatever faith or none, insiders and outsiders.
This is an impossible message to proclaim because none of us keep it. It’s a bit of a cheek on my part to proclaim it when I don’t live up to it. But there it is, at the heart of the Christian message. Christ’s words “love one another” are worked out by St Paul: in a rich variety of ways he says that loving one another will mean among other things looking after one another. It can start as a policy, the decision to behave in a certain way, but if we stick to it, it will gradually become a frame of mind, a pair of glasses through which we see everything and everyone. We grow up into the mind of Christ. Love one another. Look after one another.