Ezra & Nehemiahby Robert M. Solomon
One of the managers in a Dilbert comic strip asks: ″Who's up for some leadership?″ He then continues, ″Watch me define behaviour, align your goals with company objectives, prioritize respect, deal directly with conflict, maintain a positive attitude, and pretend to care.″
Whatever leadership involves, godly leaders always should care genuinely. Nehemiah is such a leader. When he hears about how the poor are suffering, he is ″very angry″ (Nehemiah 5:6). He does not react defensively, giving excuses that it is inevitable that such a massive project would produce hardship. Instead, he ″took counsel with myself″ (Nehemiah 5:7 ESV), pondering prayerfully on what he hears. He then turns his anger into constructive action and begins to take steps to set things right. Here is passion and wisdom working hand in hand. Accusing the nobles and officials of breaking the law by charging interest for loans to their own people (v. 7), he calls for a town meeting.
At the gathering, Nehemiah accuses the wealthier Jews of making slaves of their poorer neighbours and robbing them of their dignity and freedom (v. 8). Jew is not to enslave Jew, yet this shameful thing is happening. Nehemiah demands that they stop charging interest if they fear God (v. 9), while also admitting that he, too, is lending the poor money and food (v. 10). The charging of interest is prohibited as God forbids profiteering (Leviticus 25:35-37). (Note that the biblical prohibition is directed at those seeking to make money from the poor, not necessarily at those doing business deals with others with means.)
Calling for true compassion and generosity, Nehemiah goes beyond what is legally required. He tells the leaders to return to the poor the interest they have charged and the properties that have been mortgaged, so that the poor would have a chance to recover from their dire circumstances (Nehemiah 5:11). These principles of the Jubilee are enshrined in the Law (Leviticus 25:8-55), and have to be followed if the people are to function as a God-fearing, just, and compassionate community.
Righteousness has to do with right relationships (with God and others). It is possible that we may think we are right with God-not realising that we are not because we are not treating others rightly. ″Anyone who does not do what is right is not God's child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister″ (1 John 3:10). James, too, speaks against favouritism and discrimination against the poor, which makes the church hypocritical and affects its relationship with God. As individual Christians and churches, we must ensure that our righteousness is directed not only to God but also to others around us.
Bible scholar Alec Motyer said that hypocritical Christians are ″praying on their knees on Sunday and preying on their neighbours on Monday.″19 How true is this, and how can we live out our faith daily and practically?
How would you explain the biblical teaching on charging interest and the implications for Christians today? How can we avoid exploiting the poor directly and indirectly?