The Servant Leader (Nehemiah 5)

Have you ever wondered what leads most people into debt? It’s trying to catch up with people who are already there. It’s the same with nations. Do you remember the Jubilee 2000 Campaign? The international campaign to have the crippling debts of the poorest countries in the world cancelled. How are we doing? Hasn’t most of the debt been cancelled? The good news is that $100 billion of Third World debt has been written off. The bad news is that the total debt owed by the developing world is still $3.7 trillion. In order for the poorest countries of the world to meet their basic needs, a further $400 billion needs to be written off. That is unlikely. Unlikely because most debt relief is administered through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Both are controlled by wealthy creditor nations. We set the rules that allow poor countries to qualify for debt cancellation. If countries do not follow the demands of the IMF or World Bank they cannot get debt relief. To make matters worse, for every £1 developing countries receive from developed countries in aid, they return £5 in debt service repayments. Five times more money still flows out of the developing world than is given in aid and support. [See the Jubilee Debt Campaign]

What does God think about this? Does he care? Yes, he does, most emphatically. Today we come to chapter 5 in the story of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of God’s people as well as their walls. Last Sunday in chapter 4 we saw there were three different threats to God’s people. Their enemies used both verbal abuse and violent threats. They were provocative and powerful. But the biggest threat was internal. It came from vision fatigue. Their initial enthusiasm was waning. They had begun to focus on their problems and become demotivated. We saw how Nehemiah inspired them to have a mind to work, a heart to pray and an eye to watch. Today in chapter 5 the external enemies and the city walls recede from view, to reveal a more subtle and more fundamental problem. Here the menace is hunger and exploitation, and the structure at risk is not the walls but the community of God’s people itself.

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)

There was great and increasing poverty in Israel. Food shortages, and inflated prices were a daily trauma.

There were at least three unavoidable reasons. 1. They were cut off from supplies by hostile intransigent neighbours. 2. Their fiscal budget was dominated by defence spending. The necessity of rebuilding the wall was sapping even crippling the economy. 3. Immigration and the growing birth rate were placing an increasing burden on the seasonally erratic food supplies. But these were not the ultimate reasons for the unrest, nor the focus of their complaint. The hidden strains within the community, masked by the concerted defence effort, increasingly came to the surface as they saw a minority doing very well out of the economic crisis. What made them angry was the way some of their own people took advantage of the situation. During the potato famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1849, which claimed a million and a half lives, 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 land owners continued to export food from Ireland for material gain. In Nehemiah’s day loan sharks were making a killing, forcing the people to mortgage their homes, sell their land and even their children. Just to pay their taxes and buy enough grain to eat. And many were no destitute and in debt while others were profiting from loans and accumulating land and vineyards. As is so often the case, those who gave themselves to work on the walls were among those who could least afford to do so. What would Nehemiah do? Many a leader would exploit his position, accept the back handers and profit from the foreclosures and garage sales. Some would resign or bury their heads in the sand at such endemic corruption and strife. Nehemiah realised the gravity of the situation. Nehemiah led through controversy.

2. Nehemiah Led with 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) He thought before he acted.

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 come clean. 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). How does Nehemiah go about it?

– 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.

– 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 others say. He exposed their crime and exhorted them to holiness.

– He explained his own practice

“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.

– 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 percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.” (Nehemiah 5:11)

Now please note, Nehemiah is not appealing to their ultruism. He is not seeking to soften their hearts with emotive language or convincing rhetoric. The fact is, the people were defying God by their actions. God had been quite explicit in the Law about the terms on which money could be loaned and owned. His blessing was linked to their generosity. We would do well to reflect upon them. You may like to turn with me to Deuteronomy 15.

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2This 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 followed these commands and injunctions there may always be some who are relatively poor but there would be no abject poverty, no destitution, no homelessness, no slavery.

What was the response of the people?

“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 is upgraded to 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. We have considered how Nehemiah led through controversy; how he led by conviction.

3. Nehemiah Led with Compassion

If you had been a member of the team of British constitutional experts invited to advise the new government of Iraq, what would you have offered them as a 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 whether in our families, in our career, or 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 [a] 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)

His reverence for God, his respect for God affected all he did.

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 classed himself among the workers. He didn’t spend his time accumulating land, employing his staff as heavies to fleece the people. How did he lead? By serving. Reverence for God, devotion to work, and

3.3 A Generosity toward the Needy

“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 like any leader had the right to certain expenses. He could have insisted on a fat 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 was no small order. You try roasting one ox and six sheep and a few chickens in your kitchen…. What marked Nehemiah’s style of leadership? Reverence, work and generosity.

Nehemiah ends his journal entry, “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 condition. 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 surprisingly Jesus did. Nearly half of all his parables are concerned with handling money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing 1 in every 10 verses deals directly with money. And whereas the Bible offers 500 verses on prayer and about the same number on faith, we are given more than 2000 verses on how to use money and possessions. Why is that?

Because when we allow God access to our safety deposit boxes, our pension funds and Swiss bank accounts, when we allow Him to have the last word in our financial decisions, then he has control of everything else. I heard once of a very wealthy Christian who was giving his testimony.

He shared how he was once poor and had very little money. One day he decided to place his last pound in the collection. It was all he had. God so blessed his sacrificial giving that he was now a millionaire. He exhorted the congregation to do the same. As he sat down to a hushed awestruck silence, an old lady behind him leaned forward and said quietly, “do it again.”
How do we reverence God? Don’t play games with Him. Don’t ever imagine that what we possess is ours, otherwise it will possess us. We are stewards of His world not owners.

How can we emulate Nehemiah? Six simple steps to financial peace of mind.

1. Learn contentment by putting God first. Reverence Him.

2. Determine to fight extravagance.

3. Practice saying “I cannot afford it”

4. Resolve to pay cash.

5. Turn financial charges into savings.

6. Become a generous giver to God.

The late Bishop Edwin Hughes once delivered a rousing sermon on “God’s ownership”. But it put a certain parishioner’s nose out of joint. The man took the Bishop off for lunch, and then walked him through his elaborate gardens, woodlands and farm. “Now are you going to tell me”, he demanded, “that all this land does not belong to me?” Bishop Hughes smiled and replied, “Ask me that same question in a hundred years….” Lets pray.