Two old stories about gods and justice

Matthew Bartlett

Texts: Nehemiah 5:1–18, Nehemiah 10:31–39 & Mark 5:24b-34

Athens vs Melos

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The year is 416BCE.

For a decade and a half a great war — the Peloponnesian War as we know it — has been raging between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies.

The nearby island of Melos is neutral in this conflict, but Athens demands that Melos join their side. Melos doesn’t want to get involved in what it sees as an unwinnable campaign, and asks for a private conference between the leaders of the two cities.

The Athenian historian Thucydides reports their conversation like this: First the Athenians speak:

“For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences … since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

The leaders of Melos replied that they hoped the gods would help them resist the Athenian’s overwhelming military advantage. The Athenians responded:

Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can.”

Melos won’t submit, so Athens besieges them, and then captures the city. They execute all the men, sell the women and children into slavery, and repopulate the island with their own colonists. Weak Melos was destroyed by strong Athens because they could, because this was the natural order of things.

Nehemiah vs the rich

I’ll come back to Athens and Melos, but for now let’s wind back in history about 30 years, and look at the situation Nehemiah faces in today’s readings.

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Nehemiah is governor of Judah, which at the time comprises Jerusalem and its surrounding area. He is ruling it on behalf of the Persian empire. And as we’ve heard in previous weeks, Nehemiah’s great project is rebuilding the walls and gates of Jerusalem, where Jews have returned from their Babylonian exile.

(Given that great project I’m surprised I haven’t heard more cracks over the past four Sundays about the current president of the U.S.A. and his enthusiasm for building great big walls. Missed opportunity — sad!)

Anyway, according to the text, the wall is part-way done. But many Jews come to Nehemiah in an uproar.

Though they are back in their ancestral homeland, they remain under the thumb of the Persian empire. Empires live by taxing their subject peoples. Many of the returned exiles are are having to sell their children into debt slavery, or sell their fields and vineyards in order to pay the tax. Perhaps Nehemiah’s own wall-building project is adding to the strain on the lower classes. And the upper class — the nobles and officials — are cheerfully taking advantage of this situation; they’re only too happy to swap silver for debt-slaves and productive farmlands.

When he realises what’s going on, Nehemiah is furious. He thinks hard about what to do, and then calls a big public meeting. He accuses the nobles and officials in front of the assembled crowd and tells them to follow his own example: to freely lend food and money where it’s needed, but not to charge interest; and to give back all the interest they have charged, as well as their fields, vineyards, olive groves, etc.

The upper classes promise to give it all back; but Nehemiah is not yet satisfied. He summons the priests to join the meeting, and makes the nobles and officials take a solemn oath to do what they’ve promised, and warning them with a curse if they don’t. The assembled crowd is pleased, and the nobles do what they said they’d do.

What social justice looks like in the Old Testament

One interesting little thing to notice is that there’s no report of Nehemiah talking to the people who’ve gotten into this crippling debt themselves. You might imagine a contemporary Nehemiah saying, “Well, if you budgeted more carefully; if you’d worked a bit harder and bought fewer lattés…” Instead, in his role as the highest local official, he simply makes the people benefiting from the indebtedness of their compatriots give it all back.

How does Nehemiah decide what to do in this situation? He’s acting on the basis of the Torah, the Law of God given to Moses, and the vision of a “people of God” it contains.

We get his interpretation of the Law of Moses in the second Nehemiah reading — from chapter 10. As I read that list of commands, it strikes me that it’s all about creating a distinct identity for this people group to be what you might call a worshipping community of justice.

They’re living in a really complex geopolitical reality. They’re a small people group in a hostile environment. They’re somewhat economically integrated with the people groups around them, and as I said, living in an overarching oppressive imperial context. The temptations to assimilate to the majority culture are strong. So they’re forbidden from letting their children intermarry with foreigners. They’re forbidden from trading on the holy days.

One of the ways some of them are tempted to assimilate is in imitating the economic oppression of the empire. In fact the prophet Ezekiel, in chapter 22 of his book, says that the oppression of the poor by the strong in Israel is one reason God sent them into exile in the first place.

But the Law of Moses demanded a different way of life. And the way that this community handled debt was crucial in the law, and in the recommitment to it in Nehemiah. One of the first injunctions in Nehemiah chapter 10 is: “Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts.” There was not to be a permanent indebted underclass in this community.

It’s important to notice what exactly the wealthy nobles and officials had taken from their poorer compatriots in exchange for cash to pay the imperial tax: it was the farms, the vineyards, the olive groves; and the work of their children. In other words, they’d taken away these family’s means of production — their productive lands, and the labour needed to work the land. In restoring those, the families could support themselves again.

Built in to the Law was this 7-year (and a more thorough 50-year) rough reset, where people who’d had to sell themselves into slavery to pay their debts were set free; and where ancestral land that had been sold would be restored to its original family. You can read about it in more detail in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, if you’re interested.

Visions of God & power

For Nehemiah, reverence for God is the motivation for this justice — both in how he seeks to persuade the wealthy to restore the property of the poor: “Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God?”; and also in motivating his own refusal of privileges that were his right as a Persian governor:

“the earlier governors — those preceding me — placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver [a day] from them in addition to food and wine. … But out of reverence for God I did not act like that.”

Compare that understanding of God with Athens, that civilisation that is so much at the root of our own. Let’s go back again to that dialogue between Athens and Melos, occurring, remember at almost the same moment in history:

“Of the gods we believe and of men we know that, by a law of their nature, wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first to have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do. So much for the gods; we have told you why we expect to stand as high in their good opinion as you.”

The contrast with the God of Nehemiah, and of Moses, and of Jesus’ for that matter is so striking. This God who is present in the Old Testament was something startling and new.

This is a God who makes demands of us; who isn’t content to be slotted into the structures that happen to suit us, but who reorders out lives for the sake of real community flourishing. This God wants to see justice done.

(The Old Testament and its Law is by the way, one of our taonga, a treasure; despite being trivialised even by Christians sometimes, e.g. in debates about sexuality — “isn’t Leviticus all about not trimming your beard and avoiding black pudding?”)

How do we maintain that vision of God?

For Nehemiah, a big part of the way to keep alive that vision of God was to support the newly reconstructed temple. The people committed to bringing a tenth of their produce to maintain the priestly class, the sacrifices, the teaching of the law, etc. This must have been a really serious commitment on top of the onerous Persian taxes.

It wasn’t all hardship though — as Tim reminded me, back in Nehemiah chapter 8, when people heard the law they cried, because they were aware of how far they’d fallen short. But Nehemiah and co command the people to instead of crying, get on and have a feast instead, to drink good wine, eat excellent food, and share it with the people who didn’t have any. Because, Nehemiah says, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

We here now

We’re clearly in a vastly different context; not dependent on our own family plots to survive; nor straightforwardly under the thumb of an oppressive empire.

But maybe we can see some connections with our own situation — on the identity side: we are a shrinking subculture within New Zealand. The recently released Faith & Belief in New Zealand survey, funded by the Wilberforce Foundation reports that around one-sixth of New Zealand goes to church once a month or more these days. Will our children worship this God, or assimilate with the majority culture?

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On the justice side, it might prompt you to think about the ownership structure of our own society, where 10% of New Zealanders hold about 60% of the wealth, and 20% of New Zealand households have no wealth at all.

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It’s not for me to do a Nehemiah and tell you what you should do about it right now. I just want you to think about it; think about the principles implicit in this account of the restoration of ancient Judaism; think about your own areas of influence.

One last thing…

That final reading today, from Mark’s Gospel is a reminder that in this worshipping community of justice, the real heart of things isn’t the worship — our version of the temple services; and it’s not the community itself (communities easily go to seed); and it’s not the working for justice itself either (which can easily turn into self-righteousness). The real heart of things is the person of Jesus himself. Jesus who talked about himself as the real temple, the place where heaven and earth met. Jesus who that woman with the hemorrhage only needed to touch and she became whole. Jesus who in his own person is the source of restoration to flourishing; and who taught us to pray “forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors”.

We’ve been studying the book of Acts in our life group over the past year or two, and we recently looked at St Paul’s ‘road to Damascus’ experience. It really hit me — Paul really knew the Bible, including Nehemiah and his restoration; he was really really keen to maintain the identity of God’s people; but until Paul got to meet Jesus himself, it was all worthless — violence and oppression.

So what I’m saying is, with all that other good stuff, don’t forget the main thing: connecting with that Jesus.

“The joy of the Lord is our strength.”

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