Lazaro meets his next master in Maqueda, where he goes to the priest to ask for alms. The priest asks if Lazaro knows how to help with mass and Lazaro says that he does—a skill he learned from the blind man—and so the priest agrees to take Lazaro as his servant. Almost immediately Lazaro realizes that he will be even worse-off with the priest than he had been with the blind man, for the priest keeps Lazaro hungry constantly.
Although Lazaro describes the time spent he spent serving the blind man as miserable, he comes away with many skills and life lessons that continue to prove helpful to him throughout his story. In addition, while priests are supposed to be the moral backbone of the Church, the fact that this priest starves Lazaro makes a strong statement about religious hypocrisy that will be repeated throughout the text.
The priest has a habit of taking the holy bread from the church and locking it away in a chest for himself. While the priest feeds himself quite liberally, Lazaro is only permitted one old onion every four days and a little bit of bread with which to try to fill himself. Sometimes the priest throws Lazaro the bones from his plate. Lazaro looks for opportunities to steal blancas from the offering at church, but the priest is shrewd and sees everything, so Lazaro continues to go hungry, eventually becoming so malnourished that he doesn’t trust his legs enough to try to escape.
It is a particularly contemptible offense for the priest to feed himself with the holy bread—this bread is intended for use in the ritual of communion, in which the bread is eaten as a symbol for the body of Christ. As if the priest’s behavior was not hypocritical enough, this behavior is almost sacrilegious.
The only opportunities Lazaro has to feed himself adequately are at funerals, when he and the priest both stuff themselves on the funeral feast provided by the families of the deceased. Lazaro confesses that he would often become so hungry that he would pray for townspeople to die just so that he could feast on the food at their funerals. He becomes convinced that he, with God as his accomplice, is responsible for every death that occurs during the six months he spends with the priest.
Again, the priest abuses his position of power by taking advantage of the feasts at funerals—another of the book’s many examples of religious hypocrisy. Lazaro becomes complicit in the priest’s wrongdoing by praying for the death of townspeople, making his survival and his loss of innocence again two entangled processes.
One day a tinker comes to the door while the priest is away and Lazaro convinces the man to give him a key that will open the priest’s chest of bread. Lazaro eats an entire loaf of bread and locks the chest again, feeling pleased that he has found a way to survive. However, the priest suspects that a loaf has gone missing and he begins to keep count of how many are in the chest, which makes Lazaro distraught. The following day when the priest goes out, Lazaro opens the chest and nibbles small pieces of bread from a loaf that had already been partially eaten, and then puts it back, feeling that this is all he can get away with.
Here, again, Lazaro’s survival depends on a stroke of good luck and his own cleverness in finding ways to provide for himself. Here as elsewhere in the text, Lazaro’s good fortune depends on the kindness of strangers. The priest is portrayed as both a crueler and more shrewd master than the blind man, making Lazaro’s survival all the more difficult.
Then Lazaro gets the idea that, instead of stealing entire loaves, he can break off many little pieces from each of the loaves, and that way the priest will think that mice have gotten into the chest through one of its many holes. But no sooner has Lazaro done this than the priest discovers his bread half-eaten, assumes it was eaten by mice, and patches all the holes in the chest. Again, Lazaro is distraught, and spends the next days thinking of a way to feed himself. One night while the priest is snoring heavily Lazaro decides to carve holes in the weakest parts of the wooden chest to make it look as though mice are chewing their way in. Then he unlocks the chest and continues to eat. Each morning when the priest discovers missing bread and more holes in the chest, he fixes whatever damage Lazaro had done the previous night, becoming more and more enraged daily. Lazaro supposes that he and the priest are the source of the Christian proverb, “where one door closes another one opens.”
Lazaro’s reference to scripture in this passage is a misinterpretation of the original meaning of the biblical proverb, but it shows both Lazaro’s naivety and the author’s sense of satire. This passage captures the “tit for tat” nature of Lazaro’s struggle for survival, in which he must find a new way to deceive his master each day.
The priest begins to lay mouse traps inside the chest, baiting them with pieces of cheese, but Lazaro is able to take the cheese from the traps without setting them off. When the priest discovers the empty traps he is at the end of his wits. A neighbor suggests to the priest that perhaps a snake is responsible for eating the bread and cheese without setting off the traps, and from that point on the priest does not sleep soundly enough for Lazaro to be able to steal from the chest. The priest paces around at night, ransacking the house in search of the snake while Lazaro, starving, pretends to sleep. For fear of being searched and having his key to the chest discovered, Lazaro sleeps with the key in his mouth, as he learned to do with blancas when he was serving the blind man. One night, while Lazaro is asleep in his bed of straw, the key slips partway out of his mouth, and it begins to produce a loud whistling sound as he breathes. The priest hears it and, thinking it must be the snake, he clobbers Lazaro with a club in the darkness. When the priest gets a closer look, he sees the key sticking out of Lazaro’s mouth and he understands that he has been deceived.
In this passage, the dangerous game of deception that Lazaro is playing comes to its climax as the priest grows more and more obsessed with finding whatever is stealing bread from his chest. Although the priest mistakenly thinks he is striking the snake when he hits Lazaro, the mistake is a symbolic one, as snakes are often used as symbols of deception. It is also notable that Lazaro was beaten so badly by a priest, a figure of restraint and dignity.
Lazaro regains consciousness three days later, nursed back to health by a local healer and the neighbors. They begin to repeat the story the priest had told them, and, while they are filled with laughter, Lazaro begins to cry. He looks at himself, bandaged and bruised, and realizes how horribly he has been injured. The woman and neighbors give him something to eat and after fifteen days he is strong enough to stand. As soon as Lazaro is on his feet again, the priest takes him by the hand and leads him into the street, leaving him there and releasing him from his service.
Here, as throughout the rest of the book, female neighbors are figures of mercy and compassion who help Lazaro in times of need and embody the true spirit of Christianity more than any other character. The author seems to suggest that only those without power to abuse can embody the values and virtues espoused by Christians.