How should the church respond to the issues of poverty in our society if at all? Does God’s word still apply to the way we respond and if so, in what ways?
In what context if any should we discuss terms like social justice, systematic racism, and oppression?
My prayer is this text and those like it will give us some biblical insight into these questions and issues.
The message has two main points
The cry of the oppressed. Vss. 1-5
God’s comfort for the oppressed. Vss. 6-13.
The Cry of the Oppressed. Vss. 1-5.
Having led most of the people to begin rebuilding the wall and effectively met opposition, Nehemiah is confronted with a totally new challenge recorded in ch.5.
As you might expect this was an agrarian society in which almost everyone’s livelihood was tied to their family farm.
Abad year or two could put your entire livelihood and family in danger of falling into poverty. A situation arose in which three distinct though related groups were literally struggling to keep out of poverty.
From the text, it seemed to be a combination of famine, taxes, and just life happening. Consequently, those who lived on the margins looked to the kindness of their own kinsmen for loans to sustain them until they could get back on their feet.
However, instead of following God’s law and character, their own countrymen took advantage of the situation to build their own wealth while locking them into systematic and cyclical poverty. They did so even though it directly violated God’s law.
"If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a money lender; charge him no interest. Exod. 22:25 NIV.
They charged around 12% yearly interest making it impossible to repay the loan and get their fields back. Basically, they were caught in a kind of payday loan dilemma.
Their desperate situation led to this outcry. The term translated outcry is an interesting word that accurately captures the objective sin against the poor and how they felt about it. This root means to call out for help under great distress.
And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. Exod. 3:9 NIV.
The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. Isa. 5:7 NIV.
The word also resembles the basic Hebrew term for righteousness. Thus when the poor and vulnerable raised an outcry against their injustice it was a way of saying THIS ISN’T RIGHT!
Think of a time one of our children mistreated the other and we heard the cry Mommy!
It seems that despite the importance of the work on the walls and the mocking threats of their enemies, Nehemiah stopped the work to hear their cry.
God’s comfort for the oppressed. Vss.6-13.
Nehemiah’s responded to their cries in ways that followed God’s word and character concerning the godly and proper view and treatment of the poor and vulnerable.
First, Nehemiah heard and listened to their plea. He didn’t dismiss it or minimize them by saying God wasn’t really interested in their issues.
The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land.
You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more. Psalm 10:16-18.
Second, like the Lord God, he became angry at their oppression and injustice.
"Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless. Exod. 22:22-24.
The living God never expressed anger at the poor and vulnerable who cried out against their oppression. Rather, He was angry with those who locked them into systematic oppression.
Third, he thought through the charges and made a decision based on biblical precedent.
Investigating the issues of the oppressed isn’t a matter of being liberal or conservative. Rather, it’s an appeal to seek God’s wisdom to apply His word and follow His character.
Lastly, he called them to walk in the fear of the Lord meaning to live according to God’s expressed word and character. Among other things that meant treating the poor with dignity and respect while refusing to oppress them.
“When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into his house to get what he is offering as a pledge. Stay outside and let the man to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. If the man is poor, do not go to sleep with his pledge in your possession. Return his cloak to him by sunset so that he may sleep in it. Then he will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God.” Deut. 24:10-13 NIV
God spoke clearly and often about His love, care, and concern for the poor and vulnerable. Consequently, the pursuit of biblical social justice isn’t apart is an issue, it’s a biblical one. When God declared His care for the vulnerable, it’s clearly implied that His people are those He uses to care about and for them.
“He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” Deut. 10:18-19.
Nehemiah’s ministry to the poor and vulnerable helps to connect Christ’s ministry to us in the following ways.
God hears our cries of distress. Even if our distress isn’t related to financial stress.
Our ministry to the poor and vulnerable can become one of the main aspects of our witness of Christ’s full redemption.
Notice Nehemiah didn’t payoff their debts. He just lent them what was needed without interest.
Christ however gives His full salvation free by paying out debt completely.