Nehemiah 5: The Servant Leader’s Compassion

What makes you angry? I mean really angry? For me it has to child abuse, closely followed by domestic abuse. Apparently, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will experience abuse in their lifetime. If that’s you and you’ve never talked about it, lets do so. But for me the third form of abuse, I utterly detest, alongside drug dealers, is that perpetrated by “pay-day lenders”. I mean the ones that sponsor football teams. The ones that make flashy TV adverts promising quick, easy, short term loans, but charge interest rates of 5,853% APR. One firm’s conduct, and you know who I mean, prompted the government watchdog to clamp down on payday lending practices. It capped the amount of interest firms can charge to only, 1,500% APR, as if that were somehow acceptable.

In something of an understatement, the Archbishop of Canterbury described their practices as “morally wrong”. A day later it was admitted the Church of England had pension funds invested in the company.[1] I think I prefer the description used by Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, who described it as “vulture capitalism”.[2] No wonder they want to change their name.

Payday lenders only thrive because High Street banks rightly won’t lend to people who lack the means to repay a loan. Except, that is unless your surname happens to be “Greece”. I still don’t understand how the European Central Bank, European governments as well as the IMF could lend 240 billion Euros and then discover they are unable to repay it. Where does the responsibility lie? With the one asking for a loan or the one giving it?

Imagine going to your bank and asking for a second loan because you couldn’t pay the interest on the first loan? If they were stupid enough to say “yes”? What would you do? You would go back for more, wouldn’t you?

George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian newspaper, said, “Greece may be financially bankrupt, but the troika is politically bankrupt. Those who persecute this nation wield illegitimate, undemocratic powers, powers of the kind now afflicting us all…The IMF is controlled by the rich, and governs the poor on their behalf. It’s now doing to Greece what it has done to one poor nation after another, from Argentina to Zambia. Its structural adjustment programmes have forced scores of elected governments to dismantle public spending, destroying health, education and all the means by which the wretched of the earth might improve their lives.”

He concluded with these stark warnings: “The crushing of political choice is not a side-effect of this utopian belief system but a necessary component. Neoliberalism is inherently incompatible with democracy, as people will always rebel against the austerity and fiscal tyranny it prescribes. Something has to give, and it must be the people. This is the true road to serfdom: disinventing democracy on behalf of the elite.”[3]

What does God think about all this? Does he care? Yes, he does. Most emphatically. Has he expressed his will on the matter? Yes he has. Unequivocally. Please turn with me to Nehemiah 5. In chapter 4 we discovered how Nehemiah inspired the people to have a mind to work, a heart to pray and an eye to watch.

Today in chapter 5 their enemies recede from view, to reveal a more subtle and more fundamental threat to God’s people. The threat is greed and exploitation, and the structure at risk is not the walls but the very soul of God’s people itself. Notice first, how,

  1. Nehemiah Led Through Controversy“Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. 2 Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”3 Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.” 4 Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. 5
    Although we are of the same flesh and blood as the rest of our people and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.” (Nehemiah 5:1-5)

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Food supplies were low. Demand was increasing. Poverty levels were rising. There were at least three unavoidable reasons.

  1. They were cut off from supplies by hostile neighbours.
  2. Their fiscal budget was dominated by defence spending. The rebuilding the wall was sapping the economy.
  3. Immigration and a growing birth rate were placing an increasing burden on the seasonally erratic food supplies. But this was not the ultimate cause of the unrest, nor the focus of their complaint. A minority were doing very well out of the crisis.

There are parallels with the Irish potato famine between 1845 and 1849, which claimed a million and a half lives. The plight of the poor was exacerbated because during the famine, the t may have claimed a million and a half lives, ah and the rebuilding of God’ld Bank they cannot get debt relief. To make mattEnglish landowners would not give up their profits from exporting food from Ireland. In Nehemiah’s day loan sharks were making a killing, forcing the people into debt, taking out loans, mortgaging their homes, selling their land and even their children in order to buy food and pay their taxes. Increasing numbers were becoming destitute while the few were doing very well out of the crisis.

What did Nehemiah do? It would have been easy to exploit his position, accept the back handers and profit from the foreclosures. He could have taken early retirement or gone back to Susa and his position as cup bearer to the king. He could have stayed out of politics and ignored the endemic corruption and civil unrest. Instead Nehemiah acted.
He led through controversy.

  1. Nehemiah Led by Conviction

First of all notice…

2.1 Nehemiah agonised over the matter personally

“When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind.” (Nehemiah 5:6-7)

2.2 Nehemiah approached the officials privately

“I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” (Nehemiah 5:7).

He gave them the chance to repent. When that didn’t work,

2.3 Nehemiah accused the leaders publicly

“So I called together a large meeting to deal with them.” (Nehemiah 5:7). What does Nehemiah do?

2.3.1 He exposed their crime

“As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!” They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.” (Nehemiah 5:8)

Nehemiah brought it out into the open, and their smart deals began to look rather shabby. He exposed their crime.

2.3.2 He exhorted them to holiness

“So I continued, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?” (Nehemiah 5:9).

He appeals to higher motives. What God expects and what unbelievers would say. He exposed their crime and exhorted them to holiness.

2.3.3 He led by example

“I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest!” (Nehemiah 5:10)

Yes, he was lending too, but on very different terms. He exposed their crime, exhorted them to holiness and explained his own practice.

2.3.4 He expected full restitution

“Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one per cent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.” (Nehemiah 5:11)

Now please note, Nehemiah was not appealing to their altruism. He was not trying to soften their hearts with emotive language or persuasive rhetoric.

The fact is, the unscrupulous leaders were defying God. God had been quite explicit in the Mosaic Law about the terms on which money could be loaned. God’s blessing was contingent on their generosity. We would do well to reflect upon Deuteronomy 15.

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.”2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to another Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 3 You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt one of your people owes you. 4 However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, 5 if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. 6 For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you. 7 If anyone is poor among your people in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. 8 Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need…Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-10)

If God’s people had followed these commands there would have been no exploitation, no poverty, no destitution, no homelessness, no slavery and no condemnation, only abundant blessing. And we wonder why we still suffer from inequality today? Which faith group is most closely following these injunctions today? What was the response in Nehemiah’s day?

“We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.” Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised.” (Nehemiah 5:12)

Not satisfied with a mere show of good intent, Nehemiah pronounced a curse upon all who would renege. He makes sure that their promise became a binding oath.

“I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their houses and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!” At this the whole assembly said, “Amen,” and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.” (Nehemiah 5:13)

In those days people used the folds of their garments to hold personal belongings, their purse, hair comb, handkerchief, credit cards…. Nehemiah was in effect emptying his pockets as a sign of what God would do to anyone who failed to keep this promise. This is how Nehemiah led through controversy; he led by conviction.

  1. Nehemiah Led with Compassion

If you had been a member of the team of French treasury officials advising the Greek government, what would you have offered them as a fiscal model? Nehemiah would be a good place to start. Three words characterise his new appointment as Governor.
Words that have gone out of fashion today. Three home truths about leadership we should not be ashamed of at home, at work or in Church.

3.1 A Reverence for God

“But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that.” (Nehemiah 5:15)

Nehemiah demonstrated a reverence for God.

3.2 A Devotion to Work   

“Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land.” (Nehemiah 5:16)

Nehemiah identified with the workers. He didn’t spend his time accumulating land, employing his staff as bailiffs to collect on debts owed by the people. How did he lead? By serving. Reverence for God, devotion to work, and

3.3 A Generosity toward the Poor

“Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people.” (Nehemiah 5:17-18)

Nehemiah as the governor had the right to certain expenses. He could have insisted on an expense account, but he didn’t. Far from it. He used his promotion for their good, at his own expense. Feeding 150 guests, officials and dignitaries on a daily basis was no small order. What marked Nehemiah’s leadership? Three things: Reverence, devotion and generosity. Nehemiah ends his journal with a prayer,

“Remember me with favour, my God, for all I have done for these people.” (Nehemiah 5:19)

The fear of God will always keep us humble and generous. How we handle our finances is probably the single most significant indicator of our spiritual health and maturity. There is nothing inherently unspiritual about money.

Ian Coffey in his book “Pennies for Heaven” makes the perceptive observation that just as sex was the forbidden territory in the hushed confines of Victorian society, so today the church becomes defensive at the mention of money.

I don’t find it easy talking about money but apparently Jesus did. Nearly half of all his parables are concerned with handling money and possessions. In the Gospels, one in every ten verses deals directly with money. And whereas the Bible offers 500 verses on prayer and about the same number on faith, God provides more than 2,000 verses on how to use money and possessions. Why? Because when we allow God access to our bank accounts and savings, when we allow Him to have the last word in our financial decisions, then he can guide us in everything else. What do we learn from Nehemiah’s leadership? He led through controversy. He led by conviction. He led with compassion. How can we emulate Nehemiah? Three simple steps.

  1. Reverence God. Learn contentment. Put God first.
  2. Resist extravagance. Practice saying “I cannot afford it” Resolve to pay cash. Turn financial charges into savings.
  3. Resolve to be generous. Don’t exploit others, bless them. Reverence God. Resist extravagance. Resolve to be generous to those in need.

Lets pray.

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/10203492/Church-of-England-pension-fund-linked-to-Wonga.html

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/apr/21/wonga-weighs-up-a-name-change-as-it-slumps-into-the-red

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/07/greece-financial-elite-democracy-liassez-faire-neoliberalism

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