Anyone who has observed or taken part in the host of good causes that compete for our attention will recognise something of Mrs Jellaby. Under her influence (and to the neglect of my community) I have sought to sell as instant coffee the burnt dust scraped from the boots of Sandinista soldiers. It is easy for us to take up these 'good causes', to wear the badge while it is in fashion, and embrace 'justice and peace'. We now have a designer ethic to match our jeans. Like Mrs Jellaby we shall be kept busy; and these causes justify our existence to a guilty, troubled conscience. Charities replace confession with subscriptions, and fasting with rice dinners and Third World recipes. The conference hall replaces the cathedral and for many years South Africa or Nicaragua was the Holy Land to which every would-be pilgrim turned. Telescopic philanthropy is the new religion of a pharisaical sect in the middle classes. It offers them ritual purity, through the observance of an unwritten code of taboos and vegetarian food-laws within the bounds of consumerist capitalism. Woe to you who eat in McDonalds.
But who are we to mock? Christians are to fulfil the law of Christ and give to the poor. Jesus told the parable of Dives and Lazarus. He condemned the rich man for neglecting the beggar at his gate. But that gives Christians no simple blueprint: our world has changed. Lazarus lay at Dives' gate. He was there to see - and to be stepped round. In such a world it is easier to know one's duties. You cannot care for all, nor even for most (by some fantastic calculation of utilitarian benefits), yet neither can we limit charity to those we love now or choose to love. Like the Good Samaritan in another parable from St Luke's Gospel we are to exercise charity, to love those whom providence has placed in our path. Yet now so many compete for our alms our gate is a post-bag stuffed with brown envelopes.
At the same time we have lost a more immediate contact with the poor. We construct societies in which poverty is exported or occluded, kept at a distance. Lazarus and Dives were neighbours, but we select desirable neighbourhoods, then banish problem families to estates and ghettoes at the city's fringe. Dives works in the city planning department that built high-rise flats with no shops on an estate where the buses do not run at night and the lifts are vandalised. Lazarus is housebound on the seventh floor. His tax is in arrears; his phone has been disconnected. It is two days before his body is discovered.
Telescopic philanthropy is our response to these changes, but it is far from perfect. However much we do, we cannot give to every cause and before long moral exhaustion sets in. One more personalised letter from a famous actress, one more telephone appeal, and pity is replaced by anger. Brown envelopes go into the bin. The donor is now demoralised and no nearer to an answer about how much she ought to give. Mrs Jellaby despairs.
Yet there is more to the parable of Dives than first appears and the early Fathers of the Church saw its depths. St Gregory commented on Dives' fine clothes of purple, his lavish dinner parties. He saw the indifference of Dives towards Lazarus as the fruit of other vices to be tackled - of gluttony and vanity. 'No one desires expensive clothes,' he wrote, 'unless for vain glory, to appear more important in other people's eyes.' Gregory sees beneath lack of generosity to an underlying self-regard.
The virtue of such preaching is that it shifts the attack from our apathy to what lies behind that apathy - vices which deflect us from a more charitable response rather than find (by an as yet undiscovered, chimerical calculus) how much we should give. Gregory would have us change our behaviour and so the heart which is now freed to take pity. The saint's aim is to purify, redirect, and sharpen our desires.
The Church Fathers also saw that in hell Dives must look up, raise his eyes to Lazarus, on whom in life he had looked down. Lying by the gate, Lazarus was the object of his scorn. In that reversal of roles the parable traces indifference back to pride and pride is found empty. Dives has no name - the word just means 'rich man'. Lazarus has a name. Pride comes to nothing and the rich man is lost in oblivion. Lazarus in paradise will never be forgotten, The rich are shaken from complacency.
Telescopic philanthropy will not disappear, but the parable of Dives and Lazarus still has much to say. As read by the Fathers it offers us an escape from the fruitless calculation of how much to give, to the harder, more realistic challenge of refashioning the heart.
This change of heart involves a change in how the poor are seen. Dives cannot change: even in hell he sees Lazarus as a lackey whom Abraham can send on errands, bringing him water on his finger or warning his brothers of the torments that await them in their turn. He talks to Abraham about Lazarus, but he does not talk to Lazarus himself. The parable is a warning about the failure of the rich to enter into conversation with the poor. In the aftermath of the Rio earth summit, when to a large extent the rich industrialised North talked at, but not with, the debt-ridden South, this warning is still timely. We are slow to listen.
A warning of what not to do can here be turned round into a positive precept. The dialogue of rich and poor is an urgent priority. It must be conducted with what Pope John Paul II, in his much-neglected encyclicals on social justice, has named the new virtue of solidarity. Here the aid agencies and charities lead the way. Giving is now set within the context of new ties, visits and exchanges. Mrs Jellaby may yet be our salvation.
This article is a version of a talk first given to the nuns at the Quiddenham Carmel in Norfolk.Reuse content