“Compassion is our Call”
September 27, 2009
Compassion is the godly response to the needs of the oppressed.
I. Hearing the voice of the needy (Nehemiah 5:1-5)
II. Confronting my responsibility to the needy (Nehemiah 5:6-13)
III. Continuing compassion to the needy (Nehemiah 5:14-19)
We live in a fallen world, confronted by huge needs, often caused by the ugliness of human sin. Take domestic violence, the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of sexual partners and children. It’s rampant. Statistics are uncertain, but about one of three women in intimate relationships are abused. It’s nearly the same for children, leading to misery and often to death.
Okay, now think about orphans. A recent report estimated that there are between 143 million and 210 million orphans worldwide. Since this message started three more children have become AIDS orphans in Africa. Only about 250,000 children are adopted annually, but each year 14 million orphans age out of the system. Studies show that a huge majority become addicts, prostitutes, hardened criminals, suicides. Very few make it in society.
Finally, think of poverty itself, worldwide. Here’s an interesting chart showing financial poverty as a function of dollars per day. The next to the last bar shows that almost half the world’s population lives on $2.50 a day. By comparison, if you make $50,000 a year that’s $137 a day, before taxes. But poverty is more than just dollars. It’s hunger; it’s little or no access to health care; it’s the absence of hope and opportunity; it’s drug and alcohol abuse.
None of this is new. In Nehemiah 5 the focus turns from building a wall to meeting needs of people faced with famine and economic disaster. Nehemiah models a godly response. We can’t meet the needs of the world, but we can hear the cries, we can challenge ourselves, we can show compassion. Nehemiah shows that compassion is the godly response to the needs of the oppressed.
I. Hearing the voice of the needy (Nehemiah 5:1-5)
Let’s begin with Nehemiah 5:1-5. We need to hear the voice of the needy: Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers. 2Some were saying, "We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain." 3Others were saying, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine."
4Still others were saying, "We have had to borrow money to pay the king's tax on our fields and vineyards. 5Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons 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."
Building the wall seems to have brought to a head several long term situations. Remember the first return from exile was 75 years before Nehemiah’s time, so problems had had a long time to develop, mostly incubated in poverty. Many of the people were living near economic disaster, and the concentrated voluntary effort to build the wall was bringing that moment closer for many.
We’ve already seen that, in order to build the wall, builders and laborers had been recruited from a wide area. Many of Judah’s towns supplied men and women for the arduous task of rebuilding. They had left their normal trades, professions, towns and farms, and this sacrifice was beginning to be deeply felt. So some of the men and their wives - who may have seen this more clearly because they were at home trying to manage - cried out to Nehemiah. Imagine Nehemiah walking along the walls and encountering several family groups who petitioned him for help and told him their practical needs.
Nehemiah records complaints of three kinds, first was from people who did not own land. They were dependant on day wages: in that economy they would mostly be farm workers, hired wherever a crop was due. But now they were working on the wall, and there is no evidence they were being paid. So their wives and numerous children were on the verge of starvation.
The second group is verse 3: "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine." This is the only mention of a famine in the text, but we know droughts and crop failures were common. God had even used a famine to motivate the workers to re-build the temple. Here, as in all famines, the price of food will have gone up. Many were compelled to mortgage their properties to get money to feed their hungry families. Once mortgaged it was hard to regain ownership. In the Law God had made provision for returning the land after 50 years, but it wasn’t done.
The third group isn’t suffering directly from famine or wall building, but from high taxes. Verse 4: "We have had to borrow money to pay the king's tax on our fields and vineyards.” One of the demoralizing aspects of Persian rule was the draining of local resources from the provinces to finance the imperial court, the building of magnificent palaces and constant military campaigns.
So taxes were high, and they led to extreme measures. Verse 5: “Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons 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."
Selling family members as slaves to pay a debt was common in the ancient near-east but again, the law provided for the complete restoration of every slave’s freedom in the seventh year, but this was also apparently being ignored. The text even implies some of these daughters were being sold into slavery of some sexual sort, as is still common in the world today.
These first five verses don’t mention interest rates on the loans, but Nehemiah’s response implies that some at least were charging interest to their fellow Israelites, their brothers in trouble. It was forbidden under Mosaic law to charge any interest to fellow Jews, let alone excessive interest, let alone in time of hardship, but the practice was probably widespread.
So these are the issues: poverty, famine, and what today we’d call institutional or possibly official oppression. And it was the Jewish nobles and officials who were taking advantage of others under these stressed conditions, using economic troubles to reap personal gain in properties and even in slaves.
We’ve already said that in our world poverty and famine are widespread, often amplified by political corruption, ethnic hatred and civil war. What can we personally do about genocide in Darfur or famine when an oppressive regime destroys the food starving people need? We can pray, and not give up on poverty or ignore hunger. We need to look to Jesus for our attitude: When he saw a hungry crowd he said “"I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.”
When he described how God would judge, he said: “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. . . . I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Jesus wants us to see need and respond with compassion.
We can do that in practical, personal ways; whether contributing to an organization meeting the world-wide need, or personal giving to a family that’s out of work, or volunteering. For over a year I’ve been on the mailing list for Christian Helping Hands, a food bank in Pearland. They were wiped out by the hurricane, but have come back to continue provide food, clothing and counsel to those in need. I haven’t volunteered yet, but I’d like to.
But that gets ahead of our text. The point of this first section is that we need to hear the voices of need, not just globally but all around us. We need to see the needs around us. We need to feel with the needs around us.
II. Confronting my responsibility to the needy (Nehemiah 5:6-13)
And then, like Nehemiah, we need to confront our responsibility for those needs. Verses 6 to 13: When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, "You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!"
So I called a large meeting to deal with them 8and said: "As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!" They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say. 9So 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? 10I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop! 11Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them--the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil." 12"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. 13I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, "In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man 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 admits these charges made him very angry. Wisely, he didn’t respond immediately but rather took time to consider, ponder, probably to pray about the situation. Verse 7: “I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, "You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!" The word usury there is rather hard to translate. It’s not the same word as the interest or excessive interest condemned in Leviticus 25 and elsewhere. It’s a related root that has to do with biting: ‘You are biting your own countrymen.’ I think Nehemiah is talking about any financial behavior that does harm to these brothers.
That’s confirmed by his emphasis: “So I called together a large meeting to deal with them 8and said: "As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!" This isn’t exacting interest: it’s worse. The Jewish community has tried to redeem their brothers from slavery. They honor the Old Testament teaching and strive to care for one another. But these nobles and officials were working against that humanitarian response, taking Jewish slaves with this hand and selling them back with the other.
This charge evidently hits home: “They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say. 9So 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?” This is Nehemiah’s heart: if this is not right, it ought not to be. And his prescription is equally simple: walk in the fear of God. This is the path of godly wisdom.
Scripture teaches consistently that we are to fear God and show reverence to him in all our ways. And as we look at all these ‘fear of the Lord’ references, we find that fear of the Lord means true fear; it means awe or reverence, a standing amazed that leads to worship. And fear of the Lord means, over and over, obedience to God. This is Nehemiah’s burden: let your understanding of who God is be big enough that when he says to do something, you do it.
Nehemiah himself resolved to obey. Verse 10: “I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop!” The NIV implies a contrast between the lending Nehemiah is doing and the usury the others are doing. But both terms use the same rare Hebrew word. I think Nehemiah is saying “Yea, I’ve been lending too, but I realize I should have been giving, and I’m going to be the first to stop.”
He takes personal responsibility. Then he challenges them to reverse what they’ve been doing. “Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them--the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil." One percent interest, even per month, is not really usury. But any interest at all, in these circumstances, is just wrong. Nehemiah asks them to forgive the debt and return the interest.
Remarkably, by God’s grace, the nobles and officials agree. Nehemiah binds them to the agreement by an oath. And he confirms the oath with what amounts to a prophetic sign: “I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, "In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied!"
Notice: Nehemiah isn’t just binding the creditors to their promise of forgiveness for these debts: he is also reassuring those who have been wronged that the situation is being set right: “At this the whole assembly said, "Amen," and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.”
What are we seeing in this section? Once we’ve heard the voice of need, the next step is to examine ourselves, to confront ourselves with our responsibility, either for the situation as it exists, or for making it right. We’ve talked about poverty as the voice of need. We’re not directly responsible for the existence of poverty, but we need to be challenged to meet needs in this arena.
Or consider this issue of family violence; it’s a horrifying global problem, but one that calls us to examine ourselves individually. Do I have a level of anger that can lead to violence against those I’m supposed to love? Physical violence? Verbal violence? Intentional neglect? If so, that needs to be confessed, repented, and I need accountability, like Nehemiah imposed on these sinful exploiters. And it’s not just men who need to ask these questions: wives and even children can fall into these same traps. We need to confront our responsibility for the anger, stress and abuse in our families.
III. Continuing compassion to the needy (Nehemiah 5:14-19)
Finally, we need to continue in compassion to the needy. Verses 14-19: Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year--twelve years--neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. 15But 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. 16Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land.
17Furthermore, 150 Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. 18Each 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. 19Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people.
Nehemiah looks back over the longer term. After the wall was built he was made governor of Judah and served for twelve years. And he now describes the habits of compassion he practiced that whole time. The governors before him had placed a heavy burden on the people. History can’t tell us if he’s talking about previous governors of Judah, or governors of Samaria with jurisdiction over Judah. Whoever it was burdened the people not only by collecting food and wine for the governor’s table, but also a governor’s tax, 40 silver shekels, or roughly a pound of silver per person.
So these previous governors and their assistants ‘lorded it over the people.’ ‘But,’ Nehemiah says ‘out of reverence for God I did not act like that.’ In his thinking the fear of the Lord had practical consequences in daily life. It meant honoring God’s name, obeying God’s word, loving God’s people. It was because he feared God that he did not take their food, grasp their money, drink their wine or abuse their subservience. The fear of God increased his respect for people made in the image of God.
Nehemiah reminds us we can only show compassion out of a relationship with God, reliance on God, reverence for God. And we have every reason for this reverence: God has not only rescued us as a people and dealt with us as a nation, but through Jesus’ sacrifice he’s forgiven our sins, our debts to him.
We’re all like these people in Nehemiah’s day, overwhelmed with debt because of our sins and on the verge of death. But just as Nehemiah saw that mercy was needed more than strict business practices, so God shows mercy when we deserve his justice, his judgment. God paid the price of our sins through Jesus on the cross, so we could receive the same kind of free pardon and debt forgiveness Nehemiah offered the people in their financial debt.
And Nehemiah continues in this compassion. He says, verse 16, ‘first I worked on the wall: I was pre-occupied with doing what God had commanded; I didn’t take the time to acquire or look out for my own needs.’ Furthermore, as governor he had both official and charitable guests daily; he had to provide all kinds of food and drink. But he says “I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were already heavy on these people.”
As cupbearer to the king, and probably part of a leading family of Jerusalem, Nehemiah had resources. And he didn’t hoard them. He paid for the governors table out of his own pocket, out of compassion. Compassion says ‘I don’t demand my personal share, because I’m sensitive to your needs. I’m moved by those needs. I make it personal: it touches me in the wallet.’
Nehemiah closes with a prayer, probably included when he wrote up this memoir: “Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people.” In a similar prayer in chapter 13 Nehemiah adds “and show mercy to me according to your great love.” I don’t believe Nehemiah is toting up his record in order to earn God’s favor, because he knows that rescue and even eternal life are gifts of God’s mercy and loving kindness.
We’ve talked about our world’s abundance of poverty, and how we can begin to hear the voice of that need even on a local level. We’ve talked about the prevalence of family violence, and how we must examine ourselves for our responsibility in this arena. I want to close by addressing the third global need we identified – the global epidemic of orphaned children. I believe that just as Nehemiah modeled God’s redemption in the forgiveness of people’s debts, so we can model God’s heart of rescue in our care for orphans.
This is a need close to God’s heart. Moses writes: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.” At the other end of the Bible James writes “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
This is also a need close to Jesus’ heart. He says “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” “If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward." And in warning: “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.”
Adoption and care for orphans is ongoing compassion. When you adopt, and a child moves into your home, you make a life commitment to caring. But even if the little children remain, say, at the Morrow’s place in Zambia, or one of the many other godly care facilities around the world, the need for continuing compassion and support remains clear. So whether you adopt, which I recommend, or just support, it’s ongoing compassion.
And of course, such applications could be multiplied in so many directions. I trust the Holy Spirit can springboard your thinking from poverty and family violence and orphans to some other arena where he wants compassion to be your godly response to the needs others. As those compassionately rescued by a Savior who cares about these things, compassion is our call.