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You might be saying “It’s been really good to be looking at the practices of the people of God and what they mean for the church. The foundational importance for the community of faith to worship together, to engage in the word of God together, to pray, to confess – great! But what about social justice?” God has moved in the hearts of God’s people here at Blythwood for many many years now to care for and come alongside the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. This is where we are today in our story from Nehemiah 5.
The walls of Jerusalem are being built. There has been much external opposition. You can read about it in chapter 4, which contains that famous verse “So we prayed and set a guard.” The workers have been doing double shifts – working in the day and guarding at night. They stayed in Jerusalem the whole time, not even going home until the work was complete. This has caused a problem. There’s been a famine – whether it’s from weather or farmers working on the wall and not the farm or a combination of the two. Dwindling supply of food would have meant inflation and scarcity. It’s a time of economic hardship.
The people are divided. Sometimes in the middle of a lot of activity, these things don’t come to light. It’s easy to get so lost in activity and protecting ourselves from outside danger that we don’t realize the danger that is going on within. The people have become divided into two groups. The oppressors and the oppressed. “Now there was a great outcry of the people and their wives…” Men and women are crying out together. They’re working together and both women and men have a voice in this situation and they cry out. Injustice is going on and they cry out.
The thing about God is, God hears cries of injustice. Remember when the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. What happened? “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me,” God tells Moses (Ex 3:7). “I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharoah to bring my people, the Israelites out of Egypt.” The call of Moses. God heard. God remembered. God took notice. Our God is a God of justice.
The problem now is, the cry for justice is going up because of how people in the community are treating one another. This community is divided between the oppressed and the oppressors. The really egregious thing here is that the oppressor are fellow Israelites. Here’s a quote which summarizes the situation:
Some of the returned exiles are wealthy. Others, however, have been compelled by the famine to borrow money at interest, and they have mortgaged and lost their lands. They even have begun to sell their children into slavery. For there were those who said, “ With our sons and our daughters, we are many; let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.” There were also those who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.” And there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax upon our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children are as their children; yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved; but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.” Worst of all, it is the wealthy among their fellow Jews who are taking their money and their lands and enslaving them.
Nehemiah comes out with a cry of his own. “The thing that you are doing is not good.” Note the principle that the Bible is laying down here. “Our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children.” Someone has said that the Bible spoke out about inequality long before the International Declaration on Human Rights. Are we who follow Christ not brothers and sisters in the family of God? Are not all made in the image of God? Did Jesus not say “I came among you as one who serves?” The problem here is that people are looking at an economic situation and their number one concern isn’t their kindred; other people, other people’s children. Their number one concern is themselves and their own profit and their own comfort and their own ease. The thing that you are doing is not good. How do those words strike us today? Are we who follow Christ not brothers and sisters in the family of God? Is not every person we come across made in the image of God and loved by God? Not to mention those we may never come across. Those who are economically and socially exploited so that we can buy more things more cheaply. Those who are economically and socially exploited so we can keep up with the latest tech. There’s a band I really like called The Shins. One of their songs is called “No Way Down.” Here’s how verse 2 and part of the chorus go:
Out beyond the western squalls In an Indian land, They work for nothing at all They don't know the mall or the layaway plan
Dig yourself a beautiful grave Everything you could want Maybe those invisible slaves Are too far away for a ghost to haunt
What have we done? How'd we get so far from the sun? Lost, lost in an oscillating phase Where a tiny few catch all of the rays
What have we done? The thing that you are doing is not good. It’s not right. How could we ever hold onto the view or act on the view that asks “What’s in this for me?”
I suppose at least partly because this view is so pervasive, and I suppose it’s always been pervasive. What’s in it for me? The rich moneylenders here were being shrewd business people – taking advantage of the situation. Business is business after all. Make as much as you can. Get everything out of them that you can. Look on people primarily as customers or marks or wonder how they can help you get ahead. Employees are “resources”, though we soften this somewhat by prefacing “resources” with “human”.
In the middle of this, we have Nehemiah’s voice. Don’t forget humanity. Made in the image of God. Loved by God. The thing that you are doing is not good. It’s not that was against the Torah, necessarily to take things as pledges against loans. Collateral as we would say. There were limits though. Let’s consider some Deuteronomic law (and I mean really where else is this going to happen?). Deut 24:10-13. I heard Tom Long, who is an American preacher who literally wrote the book on preaching, talking about this at a seminar at Wycliffe College some years ago. Let me try and do justice to how he described a conversation between God and the lender in this case:
God: You have your neighbour’s cloak.
Lender: That’s right, he gave it to me as collateral for the loan.
God: He’s going to need it soon, night’s coming and he’ll need it to stay warm.
Lender: I know – that’s why it’s such good collateral!
God: He won’t be able to sleep.
Lender: That’s his problem.
God: No, that’s my problem.
Injustice is God’s problem and God will one day set all injustice right. The judgement of God can be a scary thing, and it’s funny how it’s scariest to us who tend to be in the ascendency; to us who are really more in the role of oppressor than oppressed in our world. Truths about God judging oppression may seem unseemly. “Surely God is not like that,” we say from our comfortable perches. We look at a verse like Is 11:4 – “but with righteousness, he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth/he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth/and with the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.” We may blanch at this or wonder what it means. At the same seminar with Tom Long, he said “What do you think verses like this mean to a Christian mother in the developing world who doesn’t have food on her table or who is menaced by local gangs or is at the mercy of global economic forces beyond her control?” Whose side we are on will go far in determining how much we look forward to God ultimately establishing justice.
In the meantime, we have the voices of the prophets. “Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We have the words of our Lord. “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.” May we be people who so hunger and so thirst.
We have the words and actions of Nehemiah. He gathers all the people together. Should you not walk in the fear of the Lord our God? Should we not? Nehemiah and his brothers and his servants have also been making loans and we can assume that they’ll turn them into gifts. Read 11-12. Nehemiah engages in some prophetic action, shaking out his robe (people would keep things in the folds of their robes like we would keep things in pockets) and saying “So may God shake out everyone from house and from property who does not perform this promise. Thus may they be shaken out and emptied.” We might say something like “May each of us be shaken up (we’ve talked about being stirred up, of having our hearts stirred) by this story and inspired by the Holy Spirit to commit and to act. To pledge and persevere.”
This Christ-following we’re doing is meant to look like something. It should affect everything we do, everything we say, everything we eat and drink, everything we buy. It’s an all-of-life thing if we take it seriously, and we want to take it seriously. Be like Nehemiah. Solicitous. Solicitous. Serious. We’re talking return/rebuild/renew these weeks. There’s little point to rebuilding anything without a renewed people of God to live in whatever it is that’s being built. What would a commitment to justice mean to us as individuals? What would it mean in terms of the food we buy. Would factory farming that turns animals into commodities (units of production) be something we would think flies in the face of God’s care for creation? What about the clothes we buy? We can often look to young people for leadership in matters of justice, and I’m heartened to know there’s a trend among young people to buy vintage; to reject fast fashion. This can only be a good thing. What might it mean for how we spend our time, where we volunteer, who we come alongside in our lives?
A few years ago WWJD bracelets were quite popular. I’m starting to wonder why WWND bracelets never caught on. At the end of the chapter, we have this glimpse into his life. We find out he governed for 12 years in Jerusalem. We find out that Nehemiah lived out that maxim “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” He never used his hospitality allowance because he didn’t want to put any undue pressure on the people in the middle of hardship. You know I’m not one for self-righteousness and will know I don’t say this to paint myself as a paragon of virtue by any means (though I do pray to God to make me a man of integrity) – I didn’t use my hospitality allowance to provide after-church sandwiches. It’s going to mean something different for all of us. What does it mean for you?
We see Nehemiah being devoted to God, and being devoted to people. “The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides 40 shekels of silver (governor’s daily allowance). Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God.” (15). Nehemiah was devoted to God and his question was never “What’s in it for me?” but rather “What’s in it for them and is it good?” May God put God’s own desire for justice and righteousness in all our hearts, and may we pray along with Nehemiah – “Teach us to do your good, and remember for our good, all that you call and enable us to do for our brothers and sisters in faith, for all those made in your image and loved by you, and for all your good creation.” May this prayer of all our hearts. Amen