Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin. For there were those who said, “With our sons and our daughters, we are many; we must get grain, so that we may eat and stay alive.” There were also those who said, “We are having to pledge our fields, our vineyards, and our houses in order to get grain during the famine.” And there were those who said, “We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax. Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.”
I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints. After thinking it over, I brought charges against the nobles and the officials; I said to them, “You are all taking interest from your own people.” And I called a great assembly to deal with them, and said to them, “As far as we were able, we have bought back our Jewish kindred who had been sold to other nations; but now you are selling your own kin, who must then be bought back by us!” They were silent, and could not find a word to say. So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God, to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us stop this taking of interest. Restore to them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” Then they said, “We will restore everything and demand nothing more from them. We will do as you say.” And I called the priests, and made them take an oath to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out everyone from house and from property who does not perform this promise. Thus may they be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said, “Amen,” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised. Nehemiah 5:1-13
“The complaint an indictment eventuate in a powerful imperative: “Restore to them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them” (v. 11). The required action is in this verb, “restore.” There is no elaboration or direct appeal to tradition. But the economic recompense proposed is not unlike the Jubilee year that constitutes a return of unalienable property, or like the Year of Release from debts (Deuteronomy 15:1-15; Leviticus 25). The scope of the restoration is expansive and focuses on the three great money crops: grain, wine, and oil. The restoration, forever, is to be immediate, “this very day.”
It is remarkable that the moneyed people whom Nehemiah addresses promptly agree to his urging: “We will restore everything and demand nothing more from them. We will do as you say” (v. 12). It is as though Nehemiah’s summons and his characterization of what has become routine economic exploitation was a huge wake-up call to his contemporaries. It is as though they had been lulled into conventional practices of extraction by participation in the dominant economy that led in turn to amnesia about the distinctive Jewish provisions for an economy among neighbors. Nehemiah’s summons was to remind them that they are not free, as Jews, to practice conventional extraction: they have a different identity and therefore a different mandate.
The dramatic exchange between Nehemiah and his Jewish cohorts is an affirmation that neighborly relationship (“flesh of flesh”) override the pressure of an acquisitive predatory economy. The recognition of those in debt and the acknowledgement of the mandate of God converge to produce concrete alternative economic action. The drama culminates in an oath to adhere to an alternative economic practice that acknowledges others in the economy as legitimate neighbors and not simply as targets of exploitation. The narrative ends with the assent of the assembly and praise to YHWH, the God of “no interest” (vs. 13). Such a doxological conclusion to an economic transaction is not normal. Perhaps the doxology is because, like the alienated son in the parable who had lost his way in an economy of self-indulgence (Luke 15:17), these economic players “came to themselves,” affirmed their true identity as Jews, acknowledged the neighborly demands of the Torah, and ended in glad praise.”
Walter Brueggemann in Money and Possessions (Interpretation; Louisville: WJKP, 2016) 94-95.
Today’s my mom’s birthday. When I think of “alternative economic action” I think of the example of my mom, Patsy Hoag. Rather than follow selfish worldly patterns, she always thinks about encouraging and blessing others to show Christ’s love. Happy Birthday mom. Thanks for modeling the message of today’s post for me.
Now to interact with today’s meditation. Three expressions from Brueggemann stick in my mind as I think about Jubilee and the alternative economic actions that God desires for His people to exhibit.
Firstly, Brueggemann notes that God’s people had been “lulled into conventional practices of extraction by participation in the dominant economy.” Forgetting their identity as people of God, they conformed to the patterns of this world. As the same thing happens today, like Nehemiah, pastors and ministry administrators must call God’s people to live differently! How do your financial practices differ from the world around you?
Secondly, in calling God’s people to “restore” what they had extracted “this very day,” Nehemiah reminds them (as Brueggemann put it) that God’s people “have a different identity and therefore a different mandate,” that is, to care for each other. We see this theme of neighborly love prevail in the New Testament too. Do your financial dealings reflect selfish accumulation or love of God and care for neighbor?
Thirdly, as Brueggemann concludes, “the recognition of those in debt and the acknowledgement of the mandate of God converge to produce concrete alternative economic action.” This convergence should cause Christians everywhere to handle money differently “this very day!” Is your financial house in order? Is it time to make concrete changes? Are you ready to give an accounting to God?
I used Brueggemann’s expression “alternative economic action” as the title for today’s post because that sums up the path I believe Christians need to take to demonstrate authentic Christianity to the world. Each of us is formed by the world’s financial ways that lead to death. Only in allowing God’s Word to transform us do we learn to change directions and take hold of life. That’s my prayer for everyone reading this.
Undoubtedly, it’s also my mom’s prayer from over in Florida. I love you mom! Keep praying with me for a revival of alternative economic action among Christians everywhere.