About this time some of the men and their wives raised a cry of protest against their fellow Jews. They were saying, “We have such large families. We need more food to survive.” Others said, “We have mortgaged our fields, vineyards, and homes to get food during the famine.” And others said, “We have had to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay our taxes. We belong to the same family as those who are wealthy, and our children are just like theirs. Yet we must sell our children into slavery just to get enough money to live. We have already sold some of our daughters, and we are helpless to do anything about it, for our fields and vineyards are already mortgaged to others.” When I heard their complaints, I was very angry. After thinking it over, I spoke out against these nobles and officials. I told them, “You are hurting your own relatives by charging interest when they borrow money!” Then I called a public meeting to deal with the problem. At the meeting I said to them, “We are doing all we can to redeem our Jewish relatives who have had to sell themselves to pagan foreigners, but you are selling them back into slavery again. How often must we redeem them?” And they had nothing to say in their defense. Then I pressed further, “What you are doing is not right! Should you not walk in the fear of our God in order to avoid being mocked by enemy nations? I myself, as well as my brothers and my workers, have been lending the people money and grain, but now let us stop this business of charging interest. Nehemiah 5:1-10 (NLT)
The first time I ever heard this expressed, it was Dr. John Sullivan, Executive Director-Treasurer for the Florida Baptist Convention who said it,
There’s never a right time to do wrong, and
there’s never a wrong time to do right.
As we continue with the Nehemiah journal, we find this kingdom builder dealt with external pressures (chapters 4 & 6); He also had to face internal strife which we see in Chapter 5 this morning.
One writer described the problem this way:
“The object of hostility was the rich people who had not acted like brothers to the poor, but had instead seen them as a means to get rich. They had lent the money at exorbitant rates; they had confiscated the lands; they had cheerfully accepted girls from poor families as slaves and were now ready to take the boys as well. The root cause of this problem was selfishness; of course, the root cause of internal conflict and discord is always selfishness! We can disagree; in fact, if there are two people who always see eye-to-eye on everything, one of those people is useless! At a time when the people should have been rallying as teammates, they were acting as enemies. Nehemiah faced a crisis, once he became aware of the problem.”
Perhaps as a leader Nehemiah was a little too focused on the walls to see the people, but it is like that when you’ve got a major responsibility.
Most pastors I know attempt to do some visiting at least a couple of times a week. It helps to know what’s going on in the lives of folks. However, when a problem arises, it is a good thing for the sheep to let the shepherd know.
In our text the people finally let Nehemiah know of their problems. Here’s what he did:
At this point in the story it is harvest time. Nehemiah had encouraged the people to work hard on the wall. Many of the poor needed to work in the harvest for their living. They had given their working time to the Lord’s work, borrowing on their lands just to provide food and pay their taxes. But, now rich Jew was charging poor Jew, even taking young children as debt-slaves, selling them to slave traders from other lands.
Nehemiah got very angry over his richer brothers taking advantage of the poor. This was very serious; the evils of slavery, debtor prison, as well as the very stability of their society were at stake. It was forbidden in Deuteronomy to treat your brothers like this.
Yes, Nehemiah was angry. And there is an appropriate time to get angry.
· It is time to get angry when children are abused, and families are forced to live on the street while we do nothing.
· It is time to get angry when those who have much oppress those who have little or nothing.
Nehemiah got angry because there was good cause – something over which he should be angry.
What did he do next?
Nehemiah read his rich brothers the riot act in plain language. He called a public meeting; no sweeping it under the carpet! Wrongdoing that affects many people ought to be brought into the open. In our day we are seeing the CEO’s and Financial Officers of major corporations in the headlines for insider trading that has robbed the pensions and jobs of many working people. In many cases this is the life savings for a near-retiring couple.
I read about one Chief Financial Officer who had sold his stock only a few weeks before the company went bankrupt. He offered to give a million dollars to the several thousand employees to help ease their pain. One of the employees was quoted as saying, “Yeah, he sold his stock for $170 million and now he wants to give one million back. That’s like having someone pick your pocket and then offer you back the lint.”
Our charge conference information includes a copy of our church’s financial statement. One of the things we ought to do in all churches is make certain there is full disclosure of financial information. Selfishness has no place in a Christian’s life. But when we discover selfishness-driven practices they must be stopped. That’s what Nehemiah was after.
What else did Nehemiah do?
When you have widespread or deeply ingrained problems they sometimes must be dealt with decisively and definitively. Strong measures are required for severe problems.
Tollefson’s work on this text gives the model for resolving the kinds of conflict that can arise, and how Nehemiah applied them. It is good for us as the family of God to keep these things in mind:
1) Separate the people from the problem.
Nehemiah didn’t treat it as a “class” (i.e. rich or poor) problem. He treated it as a “we” problem for the whole community. Around here, if one of us is cut, all of us should bleed! That’s a “we” kind of church.
2) Focus on interests, not positions.
Nehemiah demonstrated how the actions of one group (rich) were hurting the whole community. All were needed to build the wall. The poor were fading – the rich were going to have trouble continuing doing double duty.
Around most churches it is difficult to decide on what color the carpet ought to be – if we Christians will learn to cooperate, the Kingdom of God could go a lot further!
3) Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do.
Nehemiah’s solution benefited the entire community. We call it a win-win solution these days. Wise leaders don’t act like Lone Ranger gunslingers. I’m not the best, smartest or best looking pastor around, but I know enough to count on our Lay Leader and other church leaders as a source of wise counsel. They make me a stronger leader than I can be by myself!
4) Insist that the results be based on some objective standard, tradition or authority.
Nehemiah based his solution on biblical principles. Our “objective” Methodist standard is what has been called Wesley’s quadrilateral; Scripture is primary, and helped by our traditions, reason, and experience; if there is a problem, an issue that threatens to divide, the Bible is our source of deciding how to proceed and how to act towards one another.
In the final analysis, something may come out differently than we hope for, or someone may get angry, but we are bound together by Christ, not by our personal agenda, likes and dislikes.
Nehemiah built in some accountability for his solution. He had the priests take an oath from those who said they would do right by the poor. Shaking out the robe (v.13) is the ancient way of telling the flock, You break your promise and you will be emptied out by God!
(There is something about signing on the dotted line in front of the preacher, eh?)
One other noteworthy thing about this passage:
Leadership requires high standards
The highest motive for doing right is because it is right, and pleasing to God, the eternal Judge….Nehemiah applied the same standard to himself. This is an important point:
Nehemiah refused to preach without practicing!
Practice what you preach in your
heart and in public.
Remains of the Day is a movie that explores the repressed love between the devoted English butler, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), and the head housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), in 1930s England. The master of the house, Lord Darlington, is being influenced by the Nazis to establish rapport between themselves and the British government. Nazi representatives are periodic guests in his house.
Lord Darlington addresses Mr. Stevens, "Stevens, we have some refugee girls on staff at the moment, I believe."
"We do, my Lord. Two housemaids. Elsa and Emma."
"You'll have to let them go, I'm afraid." "Let them go, my Lord?"
"It's regrettable; Stevens, but we have no choice. You've got to see the whole thing in context. I have the well-being of my guests to consider."
"My Lord, may I say, they work extremely well. They're intelligent, polite, and very clean."
"I'm sorry, Stevens, but I've looked into the matter very carefully. There are larger issues at stake. I'm sorry, but there it is. They're Jews."
In the next scene, Stevens and Miss Kenton are having tea together in one of the servants' quarters.
Miss Kenton is flustered and upset. "You're saying that Elsa and Emma are to be dismissed because they're Jewish?"
Stevens answers firmly and calmly, "His Lordship has made his decision. There is nothing for you and I to discuss."
Miss Kenton says, "You realize if these girls have no work they could be sent back to Germany!" "It is out of our hands."
"I'm telling you, Mr. Stevens, if you dismiss these girls it will be wrong. A sin. As any sin if ever was one."
"Miss Kenton, there are many things you and I don't understand in the world of today. Whereas his Lordship understands fully and has studied the larger issues at stake concerning, say, the nature of Jewry."
"Mr. Stevens, I warn you. If these girls go, I shall leave this home."
In the third scene, Stevens and Miss Kenton have just finished an interview of a candidate for one of the now vacant positions.
Stevens says, "Didn't you say you were leaving because of the German girls?"
Miss Kenton appears remorseful. "I'm not leaving. I've nowhere to go. I have no family. I'm a coward. I'm frightened of leaving and that's the truth. All I see in the world is limits, and it frightens me. That's all my high principles are worth, Mr. Stevens. I'm ashamed of myself."
Every one of us has had, or will have opportunities that frighten us. Nehemiah, I’m certain, did not relish what he had to do. Those rich folks were his neighbors – they were his friends. (Nehemiah himself was among the richest, considering he didn’t even draw a salary).
To hit his closest friends and co-workers in the pocketbook meant he would be pretty much alone at the top. But, he did what was right, when it was right, and in the right way.
I heard golfing legend Greg Norman in an interview say that he has always tried to follow the advice of his father who told him to always do his best to give truthful answers. He said, That has always been best, because at the end of the day you’re clean.
It works that way with doing right…
¶ Standing up for what’s right
¶ Helping those less fortunate
¶ Being kind
¶ Being generous
¶ Being unselfish and truthful
That about sums up what Nehemiah was all about.
And it isn’t a bad epitaph for your tombstone either!