Sharing in the Believing Community
The Scripture Reading today is Nehemiah 5:1-13.
It has been a few weeks since we left Nehemiah with a half-built wall about the beloved city of Jerusalem. His opposition, the neighboring city “kings,” had subsided from their threat of armed conflict, and the people had returned to the project of rebuilding the wall.
However, it was taking longer than they had originally thought. They were, after all, volunteers. It was a sacrifice on their part to dedicate their time and effort, and at the same time have time and energy to do their own farming, providing both food for the family and funds to pay taxes, which the Persian Empire was well known for collecting.
Some of the builders were more well off than others. They had servants to work the fields and olive crop, Judah’s primary export. Therefore, they could afford to do their part to build the wall. Many others were not as well off. God commanded in the Law to care for the poor. See Deut. 15:7-11 for example. This is not a lazy person, but a farmer, merchant, or laborer, who “falls into poorness” (Hebrew translation). The family and community are to help out. There are several references throughout the Law, explaining how this welfare system worked, which is beyond what we can cover this morning.
The big idea is that many of those working on the wall had fallen on bad times both from the work on the wall and a famine mentioned in 5:3. The situation meant that the Jews had to barrow money from their fellow Jews to get food for the family (5:3-4) or to pay taxes (5:4). It was illegal, according to the Law of Moses to charge interest on loans to the “Brethren” within the commonwealth of Israel (Deut. 23:19-20). Even though the interest was one percent (5:11) it was not in compliance with Moses’ commandment.
The results of delinquency of debt payments in the Ancient World was either slavery for the debt holder or for their wife or children to work off the debt and/or be sold into slavery to satisfy the debt.
When Nehemiah heard of this offense, he was angry. Jews taking advantage of their fellow Jews. As a Christian application, Christians are called on to be generous to others, especially those in the “household of Faith” (Gal 6:10). But like in the Old Testament, the New Testament tells us to discern those who are truly in need from those who would live off others instead of their own work (1 Tim 5:18).
After thinking the issues over (5:6), Nehemiah called a meeting of the nobles and the congregation of Judah. At that meeting he recalled that Jews of Judah had actively paid to ransom, to buy Jew out of slavery throughout the Empire, and bring them to Judah (5:8). This is still practiced today by the modern state of Israel. Modern Israel use this passage as their precedent for this practice.
Nehemiah pointed out the inconsistency of redeeming slaves and then selling those slaves back to the Gentiles for back-owed debts. He also reminds them that this is not consistent with God’s Law. When the leaders heard Nehemiah, they all vowed to stop the collections of both debts and interest, and to restore the interest to those who had paid it. All the people agreed and said “Amen!” (5:13).
As believers, we believe all we have comes from God. He gave it to us, not to devour it on our own wants, but to use it to be a blessing to others. This is counter intuitive to our world today. The old logos, “I owe, I own, so off to work I go,” and “He who dies with the most stuff wins” are both of the world, and not from God.
God calls up to be generous with all we have, and in so doing He will be generous to us (Deut 15:4, context of giving to the poor; and 1 Tim 6:17-19). May we practice this in our lives.
God Bless you,
CH Jim Odell