Lesson 6 – Unintended Boundaries
Nehemiah 5:9, 11-12 (CEV)
“What you have done is wrong!
. . . Now give back the fields, vineyards,
olive orchards, and houses
you have taken
and also the interest you have been paid.”
The leaders answered,
“We will do whatever you say
and return their property,
without asking to be repaid.”
So I made the leaders promise
in front of the priests
to give back the property.
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. What is that to you?
- Rich people are greedy
- Maybe they’re poor because they’re lazy
- I’m neither rich nor poor, so it isn’t my problem
Truth is somewhere in the middle. Some wealthy people are incredibly generous. Many people would be better-off if they made wiser choices. And most of us are somewhere in between. We are in the middle economically, we could be more generous, and we could make better financial decisions.
According to Nehemiah chapter 5, there were rich and poor amongst the returnees to Jerusalem. Alongside the new wall, resentment was building.
Nehemiah 5:1-5 (NIV)
Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”
Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”
Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews 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.”
Take careful note of their complaints: no money for food, no land on which to grow food, taxes that sucked up what little money they had. They weren’t whining that others possessed more than they did. They were selling their children to buy their survival.
The wall was being built around those who were starving and those who lived lavishly. How could they dwell together as God’s people?
When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” So I called together a large meeting to deal with them and said: “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.
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?”
Jews were buying fellow Jews out of captivity to return them to their homeland, where some of them were sold again so that their families could survive—a truly vicious circle that fed on human lives.
I’m sure Satan was delighted.
Nehemiah, however, was outraged. This was a situation where anger was not a sin. This wasn’t what God sent Nehemiah to protect. He boldly called out his compatriots on their sin: “Have you no fear of God?”
Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly how the situation came to be. How did the haves come to have so much and the have-nots come to have so little? When did it devolve into the sale of children?
It may well have started with acceptable income inequality. Some returned to Jerusalem with money honestly earned during their time in exile. Their initial investments may have improved the city’s overall economy. Those who had eked out a barren existence in the rubble may have rejoiced at the influx of fresh cash. Perhaps some of them moved from have-not to have.
As the economy improved, the taxes increased. Add in a famine, and suddenly finances spiraled. The rich saw opportunity. The poor had no hope. New, unintended boundaries divided them.
I say “unintended” because no one argued with Nehemiah’s assessment. No one defended their actions. Nehemiah even counted himself among the wrong-doers.
I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! 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.”
“We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.”
“We will give it back.” No argument, no wheeling and dealing. This doesn’t sound like people who have been deliberately building their wealth on others’ losses. It sounds like people stuck in a rut of financial logic, counting only their own gain.
Many years ago, we attended a special dinner at a large church. We gathered first in the sanctuary. The offering plate was passed, but not to collect money. Instead, each person selected a slip of paper from the plate. That paper was the dinner ticket.
When we moved to the dining room, we discovered that a few of us had tickets to a full-course Thanksgiving dinner, salad to dessert. Most people had tickets directing them to tables with rice and beans. A third group faced empty tables, with nothing to eat.
After a few moments of stunned silence, we all knew what had to be done. The tables were pushed together. The boundaries disappeared. Dishes were passed, and everyone got a bit of turkey and pumpkin pie, alongside sufficient rice and beans. No one went away hungry.
I picture Nehemiah in that dining hall, rearranging the tables and chairs, finding more plates. With him at the helm, no one could continue to live in abundance with a blind eye to the desperation in their midst.
Go out, therefore, and be a Nehemiah.
I don’t know any people selling their children to provide food to the rest of the family. But desperation can come dressed in more than hunger and slavery.
Undoubtedly, I know people who have sold their souls for worldly prestige.
Lord God, restore their souls as certainly as Nehemiah restored the wall.
I know women who opted for abortion because a child would disrupt their plans.
Restore to them the joy of the Lord and hope of salvation.
I know people who labor at jobs they abhor because of the lifestyle it buys.
Reset their boundaries, Lord. Restore them to righteousness.
I am, I fear, a lot like these wealthy leaders in Jerusalem. I have enough to be comfortable. What desperation do I fail to acknowledge because I am blinded by my own comfort? Where have I let the boundaries blur?
Open my eyes, Lord, let me see as you see.
The last section of chapter 5 lays out Nehemiah’s lifestyle choices—how he declined to impose the heavy taxes of earlier governors, how he fed hundreds at his own expense at his own table.
But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall.
Would that I could match Nehemiah’s extravagant generosity and his devotion to the Lord’s work.
So be it, Lord.
In 1891, Billy Sunday turned down a $3,500 professional baseball contract to work for the Chicago YMCA for less than $1000 a year. From that start in ministry, he became a well known evangelist. There is a bit of Nehemiah in Sunday’s wisdom:
“The fellow that has no money is poor.
The fellow that has nothing but money is poorer still.”
We all tend to fall back into old patterns of behavior. Good intentions melt away and old habits return. Boundaries are unmoved. Nehemiah was determined to make these changes of heart permanent.
Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house 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.
What would happen if God shook out your house and possessions? What hoarded riches and self-centered comforts would fall from your lifestyle? What unkept promises would lay broken at the Lord’s feet?
May it be said of us, “They did as they had promised.”