Starvation, Compensation, and Gaza: A Lesson from Luke 16

Lazarus at the Gate, from a  15th-century historical compilation (Morgan Library m 158 fol. 53v)

Yesterday, I was rereading the parable from Luke 16, of the Rich Man and Lazarus, perhaps more commonly known as Dives and Pauper. A rich man (=Dives, two syllables) lives in delight, while a poor man, Lazarus, lies at his gate in misery, wishing for nothing but crumbs from the rich man’s feasts, while dogs lick his wounds. Lazarus dies, and is carried aloft into the “bosom of Abraham,” and then the Rich Man dies, and is “buried in Hell,” from where he begs Abraham for the merest touch of water. No chance, says Abraham, you already had yours, and anyway, there’s “chaos” between this place and yours, so there’s no point in asking anyway.

Lazarus has not been rewarded: that’s what I noticed yesterday, for the first time. He has only been compensated. What good has he done in his life? What good was he capable of? He has no political power, no power at all, all he could do is wait, and hope, and die. What do we know of his mental attitude? Nothing, except his desperation. He might be a Job, afflicted but unwilling to curse God and die (Job 2:9), rewarded eventually for the persistence of his uncomprehending piety. He might be, but for all we know, he thinks of nothing but the food that never comes to him. Is Lazarus a righteous man? He is a suffering man, a man starving at the doorstep of someone who could help him, but doesn’t. That alone is enough to transport him to what one must assume is eternal felicity, into the lap of Abraham, the very paragon of righteousness.

Demanding that the suffering be good to be relieved of their pain has only the excuse of justice. Justice is an excuse, a mercantile tallying, pretending to want to exchange good deeds for reward. But when the powers with food delight in their purple and fine linen and daily sumptuous feasts (Luke 16: 19), they feel themselves already rewarded, and they look, if they do at all, at the misery of the beggar at their doorstep as evidence enough that everyone is already getting what they deserve. Justice, so far as they’re concerned, is already being done.

What happens next you know from the story. Justice does get done, but only to the Rich Man. What the poor man gets instead is not a reward for his decency, but only comfort. This is not what he merits. All it is is what he should have had long before, enough food, simply for having been alive.

Just before I wrote this, I was reading Neve Gordon and Muna Haddad’s “The Road to Famine in Gaza,” from the New York Review of Books, published March 30, just a few days before an Israeli drone attacked a World Kitchen convoy (and here). You can put all this together just as well as I can.