Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wood for the Pyre

“Brother David, Saila’s mother has died and he has a problem he wants to discuss with you.” Dilip, David’s young Hindu landlord had come up the outside stairs to David’s flat with Saila, one of their neighbours. Saila was clearly upset. His face was drawn and downcast. He spoke quietly, hardly raising his gaze to meet David’s eyes, while Dilip stood by quietly. Saila’s elderly mother had died just an hour or two earlier. Her body was in the flat next door and needed to be taken as soon as possible to the burning ghat by the river for cremation. According to Hindu custom cremation should be carried out as quickly as possible after death; certainly within 24 hours. In a hot country like India it is a physical necessity. As with many customs, though, this is also explained in religious terms: in this case, a speedy cremation is seen as important for the good of the departed soul.

Saila came to his problem. His family was poor. David knew that. (He also knew that one of the reasons for that was that Saila drank heavily; he could sometimes hear him beating his wife at night.) He could not afford the wood that they needed to cremate his mother’s body at the burning ghat. “How much do you need?” David asked. “5000 rupees,” Saila mumbled under his breath. David didn’t quite catch that and looked up at Dilip for clarification. “Are you able to lend Saila 5000 rupees?” Dilip asked. That was a lot of money for anyone. David did a quick calculation in his head. Saila, a day labourer, would probably have to work two months to earn that. Even if he didn’t drink so heavily that would be a lot of money for a simple labourer to have stashed away in his flat.

Clearly here was a legitimate need. Moreover, Dilip, David’s landlord had brought Saila to him for help. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew he was a follower of Jesus. “Aren’t believers in Jesus supposed to be generous and kind, to help those in need?” thought David. There was so much poverty in India. It seemed to David that it stared him in the face day after day. Beggars held out their hands as he walked along the street. Hardly anyone gave to them. Most passers-by seemed not to even look at such people. On the other hand, wandering holy men stopped by the compound most mornings begging for a handful of rice, and the landlord’s wife always gave to them. 

David and Sue had been living in India for a year now and had enjoyed building relationships with their Hindu neighbours, particularly with their landlord and his wider family. They had had several opportunities to tell them about Jesus and Dilip had appeared to have some interest. As David thought about the issue in front of him, it seemed like a test. If he didn’t lend money to Saila Jesus himself may not be held in honour because David was his only representative in this neighbourhood.

On the other hand, thought David, wouldn’t lending to Saila affirm his lifestyle choices? Shouldn’t he rather make a stand at this point? Also, if he did lend to Saila, might he not have a string of others turning up at his door for handouts? David had heard that most Indians did not have a habit of saving for life’s calamities; whenever she had an illness in the family their house helper, Parvati, would always let Sue know the price of the medicine, in the hope, Sue reckoned, that she would help out with the cost. They usually did. After all, the local people were for the most part very poor and it was hardly surprising that they were not prepared to face a crisis. But didn’t this encourage dependency? How would people like Parvati and Saila learn to save and be self-reliant if David and Sue always helped out when there was a need? But here was a particularly acute need, and David’s landlord had brought Saila to him. The witness of David and Sue was at stake. David said they would discuss it and get back to them. Dilip left with Saila to go and wait in the courtyard.

David and Sue sat down to talk it over. “He isn’t asking us to give him the money,” David said. “True, but what is the chance that he will be able to pay us back?” Sue replied. “I know. It seems unlikely doesn’t it?” “Perhaps that is why Dilip doesn’t want to help him out,” said Sue. “But surely he could help. He has a decent business. And he has a steady income in rent from us.” David was reminded that, in fact, Saila was the one their landlord called to do the ritual sacrifice of the goat in the annual Dasara festival. Saila always received a portion of the meat for that doing that. Occasionally he could be seen doing odd jobs around the compound as well. So why did Dilip bring Saila to them? Why doesn’t he sort out the problem? “What about Dilip’s three brothers who all have good jobs?” added Sue. Each one, in fact, lived with his family in his own house in the compound and collected rent on their upstairs flat. “You know how it is,” David replied. “They have financial pressures of their own with their children in fee-paying schools. Besides they would be unlikely to have 5000 rupees in cash in the house.”

The more David and Sue discussed it, the more they felt they were being used. But they felt that they must give to be a good witness in a society that seemed to treat the poor with such callous disregard. Jesus’ injunction, “Give to everyone who asks you” (Luke 6:30) kept coming back to their minds. And it was not as if they were struggling financially. In fact David had just gone to the bank that morning so they had the cash on hand. But would their supporters approve of this use of their money? Some of their supporters worked very hard to enable David and Sue to live and minister there. And wasn’t the money the Lord’s, in the end? Would he approve of this? Would he not hold them accountable for their use of this cash? Would he not want them to help Saila out? Surely, thought David, if the cattle on a thousand hills belong to him, 5000 rupees was peanuts.

Saila and Dilip were waiting in the courtyard. They couldn’t make them go on waiting. The wood needed to be purchased right away. David and Sue committed the problem to the Lord in prayer, and then went down to give their answer to Saila.

If you were David or Sue, what would you do?