Summary: Here we find a whole series of problems of economic injustice that are brought to Nehemiah. Nehemiah's solution is to call them back to the original God had given Israel and to recommit himself and his leadership team to following these laws themselves.
Sermon by Rev John Altmann
If the world were a village… [youtube video]
In the OT God has given us an object lesson. He teaches by example rather than purely by words. He has gone to great trouble to set up a demonstration of his values in the life of one nation, Israel, that he created out of nothing. He made a people for himself and he shaped and moulded their life together by giving them a set of laws to obey. And those laws create an example of his intentions for the whole of humankind in all times and places. So what we have to do as we read the OT is look at the concrete example of Israel to understand God's intentions and then reapply those intentions to our time and place.
I think the reason God has done it like this is that he knows that we learn best from a real life example. Think about your children: do they learn best to do as you say or to do what you actually do? We learn to imitate what we see in other people, don't we?
This is also the reason why when God wanted to sum up his intentions he came and lived amongst us in history in the person of his Son. He didn't write a book first. No, first he lived out his intentions and this was so impressive that his followers wrote down all they could remember about him, so that we could see his example clearly as well.
But back to the concrete example of Israel and God's people in the time of Nehemiah for us to learn from.
This morning we are looking at Nehemiah 5 and a whole series of problems of economic injustice that are brought to Nehemiah. Nehemiah demonstrated really effective leadership getting the people of Jerusalem to work together to rebuild the walls of the city and so to rebuild the security of the community. He brings all the different people who remain in Jerusalem together and unites them in this great joint work for the common good, both priests and nobles and rich and poor alike, all work together. Different families and clans all contribute and rebuild sections of the wall in cooperation with one another. But now that he has reunited the community so effectively there is someone to whom they can bring their grievances to, and maybe the things that pull them apart can be addressed by Nehemiah? So the people come to him in chapter 5 with their grievances.
And the grievances that emerge now are all about economic injustice and how the people relate to one another when times are tough and food is scarce. The people come to Nehemiah with passionate complaints. And the complaints seem to revolve around three things that have happened in order of severity.
1. The first group says: [read out verse 2] Food has been hard to grow for the community that returned to Jerusalem. There hasn't been enough and some families have far more dependents than others, so they've been going hungry while others presumably have enough but don't care.
2. The second group says: [read out verse3] the food shortage has been so severe that others have been forced into mortgaging their land to the wealthy in return for borrowing money to buy food for their families. And if times remain tough they face the prospect of not being able to repay these loans and of losing their land or homes forever.
3. The third group says: [verses 4-5] They have not only mortgaged their land and lost it for not being able to repay but they have also had to borrow again to pay taxes and this time their children have been forced into slavery with the wealthy to guarantee the debt. And they feel that without land to make a living from, they have little chance of ever paying back these debts and freeing their own children!
Now the key to understanding why this is so wrong is to read God's original laws for Israel concerning how they were to relate to each other and how they were to deal with the land he gave each family and how they were to regulate borrowing.
In Deuteronomy 15 God sets out some of his regulation of Israel: Read out verses 1-7
So debts could only last for 7 years and then had to be forgiven, with the aim that there would not be entrenched poverty in the community. Likewise land that was originally given to clans and families by God could not be sold forever. Every 50th year it had to be returned to its original family ownership. You could sell land but basically the price had to be determined by how many crops there were left to be produced from it until the year of Jubilee, when it went back to its original ownership. So you couldn't amass land in Israel in a way that took away forever the independence of families to make a living for themselves. This was because the land belonged to God and he wanted to create a certain type of model of his concern that everyone have the opportunity to provide for their own dependents and not lose that opportunity forever.