Greed and Grace
Nehemiah 5:1-13: "Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. 2 For there were those who said, 'With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.' 3 There were also those who said, 'We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.' 4 And there were those who said, 'We have borrowed money for the king's tax on our fields and our vineyards. 5 Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, 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.' 6 I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. 7 I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, 'You are exacting interest, each from his brother.' And I held a great assembly against them 8 and said to them, 'We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!' They were silent and could not find a word to say. 9 So I said, 'The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? 10 Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. 11 Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.' 12 Then they said, 'We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.' And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. 13 I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, 'So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.' And all the assembly said 'Amen' and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised."
What a strange turn of events from chapter four. God's people came together and withstood the mocking and taunts of those who opposed this great project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem for His glory. God frustrated the plans of their enemies and Nehemiah assured them that God would fight for them.
At this point in the story it seems pretty clear that the surrounding rulers and their people are the bad guys and God's people are the good guys. It's almost tempting for us to cry out, "Wipe out your enemies, God!" isn't it? When we read a great action-adventure it's pretty easy to determine who the villain is. Moreover, we can't wait until justice comes and the enemy is put down. We root for it. We expect it, and if it doesn't happen we're pretty disappointed.
I remember watching Gladiator for the first time in the theater and literally saying "yeah!" when Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix's character) was killed by Maximus (Russell Crowe's character). I couldn't stand Commodus. Not because his character was poorly acted, but because it was so realistic he made my stomach turn. I loath that character. Truth be told, when I watch that film I see myself more as Russell Crowe's character than I do Joaquin's. His courage, his character, his love for his wife and child, his desire to see evil vanquished and his willingness to live for that single purpose is how I would be if I were him. I identify with the hero of the story far too often.
God has graciously preserved chapter five so that 2,500 years after this event we would gather together and read this very story. He's kind to record this chapter as a way of tempering our shouts for justice to be meted out against the bad guys. It's easy to grow arrogant in victory, isn't it? When you know you're right, or your cause is just, it feels good to gloat a little when the bad guy gets it.
I also think that God is showing us that the enemy isn't simply "out there." God gives success in chapter four to failures in chapter five. God is more than willing to draw straight lines with crooked sticks, isn't He? And God is going after the biggest problem His people will ever face, themselves.
This chapter is a bucket of cold water.
Verses 1-5: "Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. 2 For there were those who said, 'With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.' 3 There were also those who said, 'We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.' 4 And there were those who said, 'We have borrowed money for the king's tax on our fields and our vineyards. 5 Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, 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.'"
Let me share with you what's happening in this passage...
God's people had grown accustomed to the brokenness of their city and their lives. So much so, that the walls and gates lied in ruins for 141 years and no one had been able to lead them in repairing and restoring this great city. That is until God broke Nehemiah's heart for this city and called Him to lead His people in rising up and strengthening their hands for this good work (2:18).
They begin to work feverishly together to build this wall in the face of tremendous opposition. They made incredible sacrifices and spent themselves clearing rubble, cleaning and reshaping huge stones, and placing them along the 42 different sections of the wall. They rebuilt the gates that had been broken and burned to the ground. They gave up their comfort, security, pleasure, and their normal livelihood and stepped in great faith. This cost them dearly. They began this task at the worst possible time. A famine had broken out and if that weren't bad enough, income and property taxes were raised to fund the Persian king's imperial courts and wars.
The weight of this economic condition was so heavy that large families were hit hardest as they scraped whatever they could together to "eat and keep alive" (v. 2). Others had to mortgage their houses, property, and business just to get grain to eat (v. 3). Some had mortgaged their fields and vineyards and weren't able to pay back the debt and lost their only income. Yet the most costly and tragic of all were the families that were so poor and destitute that they had to sell their sons and daughters and force them to become slaves. And, they had no means to buy back their children because their only equity was taken away.
I can't imagine having to tell Madison that during a time when she needs mommy and daddy most, she is going to be taken away from us and sold to someone else. Someone that isn't going to love her like I love her. Someone that will make her work her fingers to the bone. I can't imagine letting her out of my arms as she's crying and screaming for me to get her and all the while realizing I won't be able to get her back again. Can you imagine? How gut-wrenching is this?
Do you know what makes this story even worse? The people who should have been the most generous, the most compassionate, the most helpful and the most committed to keeping these families together were the very ones taking their children. It wasn't an enemy of the Jews that took their property and children; it was their own brothers and sisters in faith. Their own people! Not only this, the reason so many had to mortgage their fields and lose their homes and property was because they were taking advantage of the famine and instead of lowering prices, they raised them!
Verse five says they had no power to help. They couldn't do anything. Not only were they poor, they were in great debt. They were starving and losing their homes and children; they were utterly powerless. They had no one to step in for them, no one to rescue them. Have you ever been in a situation where you had zero power to do anything to get out of something so heart-breaking? The feeling of helplessness is crushing. It takes your breath away.
The practice of exacting interest and taking slaves to absolve debt was common in the Middle-East. But God had clearly instructed the Israelites to be different because they were His people.
In fact, in Leviticus 25:39-43 it says:
"If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. 42 For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. 43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God."
And, in verses 36-37 it says:
"Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. 37 You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit."
He is a gracious God and wants His people to be different by the way they treat each other. The way they treat each other demonstrates what they believe about Him.
The Cost of Mission
The cost of this mission was so great that, by God's grace, it brought light to the dark greed and injustice that was hidden perhaps for years. This injustice had been going on for years and it was God's call upon them to restore and be restored that surfaced their greed and selfishness.
Verse 6: "I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words."
Righteous anger is good. There was a death of outrage.
When I read the first five verses and unpacked what was happening, I was pretty ticked off. I sat there at my desk thinking, "What in the world!? Why would fellow Israelites treat each other as bad as their enemies?" Then I look in the mirror and have my answer.
Verses 7-8: "I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, 'You are exacting interest, each from his brother.' And I held a great assembly against them 8 and said to them, 'We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!' They were silent and could not find a word to say."
Verse 9: "So I said, 'The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies?'"
But why are the Jews taking advantage of one another? Why is there such injustice against their own people? We have to ask this in order to understand the real problem.
Greed is Idolatry
But why would fellow Jews take advantage of one another and victimize their own people? The problem is greed. All injustice is caused by someone considering themselves more than another.
We become what we worship, for ruin or restoration.
The answer Scripture gives us is idolatry.
Psalms 115:2-8: "Why should the nations say, 'Where is their God?' 3 Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. 4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. 5 They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. 6 They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. 7 They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. 8 Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them."
They are being taunted by the nations and mocked as they say to Israel, "Where is their God?"
The Psalmist's answer is "Our God is in the heavens; He does all that he pleases."
Ezekiel explains even further what Israel has done when it strays from the Lord:
Ezekiel 14:3: "Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them?"
Then he says:
Ezekiel 14:6: "Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations."
Idols are not merely physical objects to be handled. The object is created from what our hearts' desires. The real idolatry is in our hearts. And what God shows us in Psalm 115 is that we become what we worship. We begin to look like what we treasure the most. For ruin or restoration, we become conformed to its image.
God is a God in community and He is the true missionary. His primary missionary method is His covenant people. We were made in His image. The purpose of an image is to faithfully represent something, and we were made to represent God on earth. He made us into a people to show off His glory, even though we fall far short of his glory. It is still His desire. His Gospel is what shapes and changes us by His Spirit into a Christ-treasuring people because we are His "treasured possession" (Exodus 19:4-6).
God's formed community is to be a light to the world. He's so committed to it that he tells His people, "I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6b).
God's law is given after they are made His people. God wants them to become like Him. This is what He intended when He made us and it is what was broken when our first parents sinned. Instead of looking like sons and daughters of this great Father, we became orphans and strangers-strangers to Him and to one another.
Leviticus 25 is given to God's people so that they will know what He is like and so they can live together and become more and more like Him. We become what we worship.
Mission demonstrates what we worship. Mission is demonstrating our love and worship for God in the way we love one another for the sake of a watching world. It's keeping the Gospel of God's grace at the center, and this Gospel is a Gospel of the glory of the Savior, Jesus the promised Messiah. It's about Him and what He's done. He is the Lord our God who brought us out of slavery (Lev. 25:38, 42).
By worshipping Him together, we become like Him.
One of the blessings of mission is that it uncovers how deeply we've come to believe the Gospel and treasure the One the Gospel is all about. People are often excited about being part of a missional community until it draws out our selfishness or self-centeredness. For all of our "amens" to this truth, we still expect to live our lives for ourselves. We've unfortunately been taught, and believe, that we're the masters of our own lives. "It's my job, my schedule, my money, my future and my life."
Yet God desires His people to make decisions in their life with regards to how it's going to affect the community He's formed to worship Him. This is why Jesus asks us to let our light so "shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). He wants our life to be so transformed by grace that we can live it "before men" in such a way that brings praise to Him. (This is why all the people said "amen" and praised Him in v. 13. They were beginning to see what it means to live this kind of life).
The great tragedy is that Israel, again and again, was drawn to the ways of the nations. In doing so, they drew the taunts of the nations who saw their hypocrisy more clearly than they could.
To "walk in the fear of our God" was to walk humbly before Him. It is the opposite posture of pride.
Verses 10-11: "Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. 11 Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them."
Nehemiah sets the example by leading first with generosity. He realizes that he is part of this system, even if he isn't exacting interest the way they are. He identifies with them and then calls for a tremendous sacrifice. He is calling them to move out of their homes, give back their livelihood, their property, farms, food and money they have been taking. This is going to cost the victimizers. It isn't just a bad feeling Nehemiah is after; he wants restitution.
What are some ways we exact interest from one another? We may not lend money with interest or make a profit during times of famine, and more than likely we're not taking someone's home, food and job.
However, I do think we can exact heavy interest on one another by failing to forgive.
When there is a loss, either the person who is responsible pays, or the person who forgives pays. When someone wrongs you, there is a loss of joy, a hurt, a debt that is accrued. We feel like they owe us. So we gossip or slander and make them pay. We speak to them with disrespect or we ignore them. Or we hope they fail. Our hearts are working to make them pay off that debt.
Verse 12-13: "Then they said, 'We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.' And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. 13 I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, 'So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.' And all the assembly said 'Amen' and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised."
Their response was repentance. That is the only appropriate response when we're rebuked for our sin. We get so hung up on who is pointing out our sin and how they did it that we lose site of the stunning truth that we have sinned against a holy and perfect God.
Their desire to make restitution and restore was part of their repentance. To repent is more than feeling bad. It is to turn away from our idol, our sin. It is to see that the sin is so grievous that we turn our face from it and turn towards our God in faith.
Who are you in this story?
This story has a victim (the poor) and victimizers (the nobles and officials). It's neat and tidy, clean and obvious. But our situation isn't that simple is it? Some of you have come this morning and you've been sinned against and hurt. You feel like your life is being taken away by the burden of some pain that feels like it is exacting interest on you. Others have come this morning and you're aware of your sin and selfishness towards someone else. You might feel like you've victimized someone and taken advantage of them when you needed to be an agent of grace.
But if we're thoughtful and honest, we'll have to admit that we're a mix of both. We are both victims of sin and we victimize others. We have been hurt and we've hurt others.
This means you and I have a great problem. The problem is not unlike the victims in the first five verses in that we are poor and powerless, without resources and unable to help ourselves. We have nothing that can pay off a debt we owe. We've been greedy, proud, selfish, and have enslaved others with our lack of forgiveness.
But we're also like the nobles and officials in verse 8 who failed to do justice and love kindness. We've failed to be generous, gracious, merciful, and compassionate, and we failed walk humbly before our God.
It isn't only that we've done things we shouldn't have; it's that we've failed to be like Him. We've failed to live up. We've fallen short of His glory.
So much time is spent discussing our guilt for doing the things we knew we weren't supposed to do. But little time is spent with our hearts broken over what He's called us to do and be for Him. We've failed to do what God does and love what God loves. This has caused a great debt that has to be satisfied. If God owns everything, then you're indebted to Him and Him alone.
How do we deal with our failure? How do we deal with the injustice in our own hearts?
1) We need someone who is rich enough to pay off our debt.
2) We need someone powerful enough to defeat our enemies.
3) We need someone beautiful enough to capture our hearts.
These three come together in a better Nehemiah.
Jesus, the better Nehemiah, the truly just One, came to us in our brokenness. He left all his riches to come to us. He didn't need material wealth to pay our debt, the debt was more costly. This was an infinite debt against an infinite God and the only way to pay it off was by a payment of infinite value.
He came and took the ugliness of our heart and life. He came and was subjected to injustice as they dragged him through a false trial in the cover of night. He experienced the merciless and unkind who victimized Him by beating Him and taunting Him.
He humbled Himself before the pride of mankind. And more shocking than anything, He sold His Son to the nations for 30 pieces of silver. His own friend and fellow Jew turned His face from Him and profited from Him.
Worse yet, the Father turned His face from His beautiful boy and experienced the gut-wrenching loss of a parent who gives away His child and has to endure as they beat Him, blow after blow, whip after whip, stripe after stripe, and not only pierce His Son's flesh, but the Father's own heart.
And on the cross arose a greater cry than the wives in verse 1. On the cross rose a great outcry. With outstretched arms He cried out with a loud voice, "My God, My God, why...? Why? Why have you forsaken your own Son?" And as He bowed His head and gave up His spirit, the Just One accomplished for us what we had no power to accomplish.
He came to do far more than just cry out against injustice like Nehemiah. Jesus came to bear it! The just for the unjust. The truly kind one for the unkind. The rich for the poor. The satisfied One became famished. The only good one to ever walk this soil perfectly came to be treated like the scum of the earth.
Why? Why? Why would He do this? For you, for us, for me! So that in Him we would be redeemed. Freed of our great debt. Forgiven, loved, accepted and restored. Free from our guilt and shame. Free from our slavery. Free.
Why did they kill Him?
But why did the religious kill Jesus? He showed them how unloving and unjust they truly were and their opinion of themselves was so great that to be confronted with true love and justice was too much to bear. They had to kill him to drown out their conscience.
The religious will always reject grace and are unable to cry out "amen."
Nehemiah is about more than a restored wall, it's about God's mission, and His mission is restored people. This story of displaced and fallen stones being cleaned and placed back to their designed place is the story of our own lives. God is still building Jerusalem because He's still building His church. He's still taking old stones and reshaping them by His gracious hands so that we might be fit together with His Son (1 Peter 2). God wants a restored city in Jerusalem so that His restored people will dwell in it. The city means nothing if the people it is built for aren't restored. This is why God had its walls and gates destroyed in the first place!
In v. 13 this story ends with restoration and redemption. The people cry out "amen" and they worship and obey with joy. That is our thank you for the sacrifice made by the Father, who freed us.
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