A few years ago, Matthew, a five-star businessman from these parts, went on holiday to the Far East. It was to turn out disastrously. At the airport he was arrested on suspicion of smuggling drugs planted on him by an apparently affable, chatty fellow passenger. The passage from five-star hotel to a filthy prison cell was abrupt and brutal. Worse, his companion was an old drug addict smelling of vomit and excrement, surly and menacingly silent. It transpired he was on cold turkey.
The warden advised Matt with a scornful sneer to get on with it. “That piece of vermin belongs with you for the next few weeks. Make do with it. You got what you deserved”.
At mealtimes his companion didn’t stir and left him to a plate of rice and some spicy indigestible vegetable matter. He ate what he could and then two mud-crusted, blood-stained hands scooped up the rest without a word or a glance. At night-time the heroin victim sank into a corner shaking and bleating, beating the walls. What was his future? Days of torture, lack of communication, nights of filth and ear-splitting noise! The officials were unsympathetic, ‘you’re in this together. Serves you right’. Could it get worse? Stench, scorn, simpering and shouting, darkness, eyes empty and staring. What to do?
Next morning a flash of sunlight penetrated the recesses of the cell lighting on the sad mess of humanity before him. He suddenly realised what he was being enlightened to do. He asked for a bucket of water and soap. They could hardly refuse. Beginning with his face and hands and feet he washed away the dirt. It took all day.
The clothes were stuck to the man’s skin. It was a pain to get them off and complete the clean-up. For someone used to daily showers and saunas it was a trial, a tribulation.
As he progressed the ‘why of it all’ came to him more clearly, especially when the prison barber came to cut the druggy’s hair and beard. As the hair fell away, he saw a black patch on his head, it was moving – it was an army of lice. He had only ever read about such affliction. But as the man’s countenance emerged, he saw he was only a teenager, emaciated, skin and bone, cuts and abrasions but a fellow human being even if he never spoke a word. Now he realised why he was cleansing the lost. It was the right thing to do. His mother had always prayed, “may we escape hardships and if not may we bear them courageously”. Even if the other prisoner never replied to his words of enquiry or encouragement, even if it did him no good, it was right to help. Your neighbour is made in the image and likeness of God and when you clear away the dirt and shame that truth appears more clearly before your eyes. He was using what talents he had.
News came after a fortnight’s incarceration that they were to be moved to be nearer to the place where the trial was to take place. There would be legal assistance but his own family had not been properly contacted and he was constantly reminded, ‘You had the heroin on you. You were caught. Your friends can’t help.’
The night before the transfer he couldn’t rest. He became delusional, crying out in his isolation. ‘Nobody to help. They don’t believe a word I say. I can’t take any more of this? ’ He wept uncontrollably.
Then, in his troubled half-sleep, Matthew became conscious of the two arms of his fellow prisoner around his shoulder and the cell mate spoke his first words! “You are my friend! Lazarus is my name. You are not alone.” He was strangely warmed
Saul, the jailer, watched them leave. He thought of the narrow horizons of the life he himself had led, without wealth, without excitement long past his days of youth. But he stood for equality, and equality meant they deserved to be brought low. He was entitled to feel superior and judgemental. What could he have done to help anyway? They were dealt good cards and missed their chance. His life would go on as usual. Does it matter whether you are hard on others or helpful? Whether you are compassionate or cynical? Life is mainly dull routine. He was right to get away with doing the minimum. People might label him a Pharisee but why put yourself out? Don’t get involved with those in trouble, it only drags you down..
Later that evening when Saul got home, he picked up a letter on the mat. His heart froze. It read, ‘Redundancy Notice.’ But his journey to salvation and new life was just about to begin.