Sunday, February 12, 2017


Our church has been working through the book of Nehemiah.

It's an odd choice for the season of Epiphany, a historic narrative from Jewish history full of difficult names and odd little details about the building of the wall around Jerusalem.

On Sunday the text was from Nehemiah 5: 
Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. 2 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.”
When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 
Our minister, Richard Morgan, has been using Nehemiah to illuminate our life together as a congregation but also to shine a light on the larger Christian church within the context of American politics. Without naming names or stirring partisan passions, he's invited us to consider our witness and calling.

On Sunday, he described the outcry of the people without economic opportunity, calling out for justice. The Hebrew word for justice, "mishpat," 
goes beyond what I must do to avoid doing something wrong and goes to God's concern for all people. It's not that the rules are all being kept but that the people in the land are living in a way that is just according to God's standards that all may eat and all may work and none may be enslaved and all may have opportunity.
Richard referenced Tim Keller's focus on mishpat in his book "Generous Justice":
Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.
This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor—those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”
In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there was any famine, invasion or even minor social unrest. Today, this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless and many single parents and elderly people.
The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.”  
Scripture is full of reference to mishpat, repeatedly linking justice to treatment of the vulnerable: 
This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’  (Zechariah 7-9)
 The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. (Proverbs 29:7)
Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17) 
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:8-9)  
According to scripture, the correct response to injustice is anger and intervention.  When Nehemiah heard the outcry of his people, the text says he "was very angry."

 Not angry at those crying out. Not angry that they dared to complain or dared to disrupt the smooth flow of commerce. 
Nehemiah was angry, very angry, at the injustice of those whose selfishness and greed had pushed others to the brink of slavery and starvation.
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. 
The exploitation of Nehemiah's day seems mild compared to the inequities of our own.

Our Congress just approved the richest cabinet ever, including a billionaire who has used her wealth to buy influence and shape public policy in a way that has worsened segregation and undermined education for the poorest and most needy.

Our president has defrauded thousands of workers and has cheated thousands of students of both tuition and time. 

Here's what Nehemiah said to the wealthy nobles of his day:
“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? 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.”
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!” 
That image of shaking out God's robe is a strong one, but scripture is full of even sharper warnings to wealthy leaders who ignore the cries of the vulnerable. As Nehemiah promised God would shake out those taking interest from the poor, so God promised, again and again, to punish the powerful who mistreated the weak. 
Woe to those who enact evil statutes and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of my people of their rights, so that widows may be their spoil and that they may plunder the orphans. Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the devastation which will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help? And where will you leave your wealth? (Isaiah 10:1-3)
Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. All the people shall say, “Amen!” (Deuteronomy 27:19)
We are surrounded by the vulnerable crying out. 

Refugees turned back at our borders.

Families struggling to survive on minimum wage jobs.

Communities harmed by toxic industries.

Parents worried as for-profit charter schools syphon public money from under-resourced systems. 

Where do God's people stand: with those crying out or with those who would silence them?

From Psalm 82, a cry for justice:
God says, “How long will you defend evil people?
    How long will you show greater kindness to the wicked?
Defend the weak and the orphans;
    defend the rights of the poor and suffering.
Save the weak and helpless;
    free them from the power of the wicked.
You know nothing. You don’t understand.
You walk in the dark, while the world is falling apart.