An Enduring Legacy: “Handling Exploitation and Greed” – Nehemiah 5

target-2013Target is taking aim to fight back against those who have been hacking their credit card information, and trying to hold on to weather the storm of disgruntled shoppers. On the one hand, shoppers know that Target took security seriously, and it wasn’t some flagrant mishandling of information that caused the problem. On the other, people are hassled knowing the credit card information of upwards of seventy million people is now in the hands of people who will attempt theft in some way. Watch your cards. Watch for charges of between eight and nine dollars – small ones that will erode your pocket slowly and over a long period of time.

Have you ever gotten ripped off in a business deal? Have you ever come home with buyer’s remorse after you felt pressured into buying something you didn’t really need or really want? You may have felt “hustled” by someone in the marketplace….How about the other direction…Have you ever been in a situation where you felt your heart being tugged by the desire for something you didn’t really earn – but greed and temptation swelled within you?

I faced this many years ago, and I remember feeling the ugliness of it. I was guiding groups in a country where guides typically get a substantial portion of the amount of shopping their clients do, because the store pays a percentage to the stable of guides that uses their store. It is a mutual agreement that works in many countries and sights. In those days, I made my primary income from guiding, and the rate was small, so the shopping was essential to a good paycheck. People would approach me and ask which ring looked better on their finger, and all I could do was think, “Which is more expensive?” As soon as I started my own business in that field, I cut shopping to a minimum, and refused to accept any money from shops. I increased my per day salary to compensate, and told people what I tell them to this day: “Buy anything you want. I don’t accept percentages, and I ask the stores to lower your price to give your money more buying power. It costs them nothing, so they are usually willing to do it.” I did what I did because I hated how accepting that money made me feel. I know it is part of a system, and I begrudge no one else for operating in it, but I couldn’t. I teach Bible on site, and I don’t want that conflict in my heart and mind over money. It doesn’t feel clean to me.

What is clear to me now, is that temptation is a part of life we all have to face on some level. Sometimes we are taking advantage of others, and sometimes they are taking advantage of us. If any of these problems have been in your life, the set of tests from the journal of an ancient leader of Nehemiah chapter five will help you identify and deal with the issues of exploitation and greed!

Key Principle: We are physical beings that can be broken by another taking advantage – but we also have to admit we are sometimes tempted to take advantage ourselves.

Test #3 Handling Broken Spirits (Nehemiah 5:1-13)

When enemies could not blast the leader from his work, when gossip and criticism did not stop the work (as we noted in Nehemiah 4), the tempter loaded Nehemiah’s path with broken hearted “high needs” people, and followed up with temptation to lure the leader into accepting perks…with the promise of gain! Both of these problems is very real for a leader, and we will look at each separately – to take each seriously…Let’s look first at the broken spirited that came before him.

To be clear, a “broken spirit” is one who has been crushed under the load of discouragement, and is, perhaps slowly, becoming ineffective in the work they were assigned.

Reasons people’s spirits become broken: (1-5)

Why do people get discouraged in the work that God gave them to perform? Let me offer four reasons from the text. First, look at the first five verses of the story:

Nehemiah 5:1 Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. 2 For there were those who said, “We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live.” 3 There were others who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.” 4 Also there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. 5 “Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others.”

People can be pressed downward in four ways, according to this story:

Exploitation by someone trusted (1). In this case, land holding Jewish relatives that were in Judah before the rebuilders came with Nehemiah were taking advantage of those who returned from Babylon to rebuild the walls with Nehemiah. The painful part was not the economics of borrowing – that was common. The painful part was the coldness and lack of compassion from people who were kin. How could they not understand that the returnees were building, not simply for their own benefit, but for the nation’s benefit? I am sure they felt the way some of our veterans have felt when they didn’t get proper benefits after service of our country. They were hurt, and but today’s hurt becomes tomorrow’s anger, and the third day’s bitterness. If you have ever been exploited by people in the family, when you honestly were working to help the many – and not yourself – you know how these abused relatives felt.

Defense of someone close (2). Along the same line as exploitation by one that was trusted, there is a second issue – the extreme sensitivity we have for those we hold dear – like our children. If you are a normal parent, you know what I mean when I say that “You can hurt me, and I will ‘get over it’, but if you hurt my child, I may struggle to EVER get past it.” When we are protecting others, any pain that comes to them hurts us greatly. As a child, I never believed what my father said until I was one: “It is going to hurt me more than it hurts you!” I believe him now, because I am a dad. Defense of someone close has its own brand it leaves on your hurt heart.

Defense of things (3). Others in the text simply said: , “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.” Any day I call the health insurance provider for my family I feel this level of pain and injustice. One of my children say a doctor for minutes in the hospital and was billed $1118.00. No particular services were rendered, and the insurance decline to pay any of it. The doctor’s office took forty percent off the bill if we agreed to pay immediately. How did we feel? We felt that no one living in our community, regardless of their knowledge, should be able to outlandishly bill a fellow citizen at such an alarming rate, simply because they could. We feel ripped off. They got paid, because I am a local Pastor and cannot leave all of us open to accusation in the way I pay my bills, but I feel ripped off – and I get frustrated trying to fight to hang on to both the things God gave me to steward, and deal in a way that doesn’t harm my testimony. If you have felt this, you know what the people who were facing a famine felt. They were working harder and going backwards…and that is a burden to negotiate in the heart, as well as the wallet.

Stress of excessive burdens (4). Still others complained: “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards.” Who cannot understand the frustration of having to stretch to make end’s meet so that government can so wisely spend our collective funds?

CNS News reported last month: “The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is planning to spend $3.35 million to ‘improve the quality of media content and strengthen the media’s capacity to meet professional standards.’” The kicker is that this is to improve media quality, not in America, but in Armenia! “No American media organizations are eligible for the grant, but ‘government controlled and government owned organizations’ in Armenia are encouraged to apply.” Doesn’t that warm your heart? Just knowing that Armenians will get better news coverage is worth a few extra pennies out of this week’s check, isn’t it?

The author Michael Snyder has made a career out of cataloging the strange a ridiculous wonder that is our US national budget. He wrote long lists of the things we are spending federal dollars on. I won’t drag out the pain, but a few are just too good to pass up:

• The U.S. government is spending $750,000 on a new soccer field for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.

• If you can believe it, the U.S. government has spent $175,587 “to determine if cocaine makes Japanese quail engage in sexually risky behavior”.

• The federal government once spent 30 million dollars on a program that was designed to help Pakistani farmers produce more mangos.

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture once gave researchers at the University of New Hampshire $700,000 to study methane gas emissions from dairy cows.

• A total of $615,000 was given to the University of California at Santa Cruz to digitize photos, T-shirts and concert tickets belonging to the Grateful Dead.

• China lends us more money than any other foreign nation, but that didn’t stop our government from spending 17.8 million dollars on social and environmental programs for China.

• The U.S. government once spent 2.6 million dollars to train Chinese prostitutes to drink responsibly… (source: Michael Snyder).

We could go on and on… but I think this is enough to produce the groan that is called for to feel the pain of the people in Nehemiah 5:4. We all believe government can do and does do important things that help us stay safe. I want someone checking our food chain and water supply, and holding companies responsible for polluting them and endangering our children. At the same time, I will not personally sleep better at night knowing that Chinese prostitutes are drinking under their legal limits. I admit it: that is a problem I just cannot bring myself to care much about. I wonder what that says about me as a person? Perhaps I have the sense to know they have bigger problems to worry about.

The point is, there are broken spirits that leaders must face. They feel abused, and often have good reason to feel that way. What can a good leader do?

Reactions to a broken spirit (6,7).

Read the next two verses, and you will see the three recorded responses of the leader. Nehemiah 5:6 Then I was very angry when I had heard their outcry and these words. 7 I consulted with myself and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them, “You are exacting usury, each from his brother!” Therefore, I held a great assembly against them.

• First, he faced the fact that the problem left him with anger inside that had to be dealt with (5:6). A good leader understands and monitors his emotions – not to be self-focused, but to be self-controlled.

• Second, he took a step back from the situation and considered it before responding. Pondering is a good reaction, because it allowed him to think before he acted! (5:7). How often I WISHED that had been my course of action!

• Third, the leader took the problem to the source in a direct confrontation (5:7). Sometimes that is the only way to right the wrong. Matthew 18 reminds that it is the proper thing to do in cases between believers where one offends another – sin or not.

Reaching out to a broken spirit (7b-13).

The leader did not try to look as though he did not take a side. That is popular among leaders today – but is inappropriate when one has taken advantage of another. Listen to his words:

Nehemiah 5: 7b “…Therefore, I held a great assembly against them. 8 I said to them, “We according to our ability have redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; now would you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us?” Then they were silent and could not find a word to say. 9 Again I said, “The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies? 10 “And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury. 11 “Please, give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them.” 12 Then they said, “We will give it back and will require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say.” So I called the priests and took an oath from them that they would do according to this promise. 13 I also shook out the front of my garment and said, “Thus may God shake out every man from his house and from his possessions who does not fulfill this promise; even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said, “Amen!” And they praised the LORD. Then the people did according to this promise.

Brush by the seven parts of what we just read. We don’t want to get lost in the detail, but the steps offer a pattern worthy of a moment:

• He brought the sides together – and called a forum of two sides (public only when public sin) 5:7b. He didn’t try to solve the issue without all the players together – a very effective method.

• He made absolutely clear the violation as he saw it – in an attempt to lay the sin bare (5:8-9). There were no flowery words and long speeches – just clarity about the events and their meaning.

• He allowed a response time, but there wasn’t one (5:8). Agreement is about everyone getting on the same page with both the problems and the solution, but we must allow time for the other party to answer charges if they can.

• He set clear measurable conditions for reconciliation (5:10-11). There is no sense in trying to decide by committee or in debate what will resolve the issue. That should be decided before the meeting.

• He accepted reconciliation when conditions were met according to the standards of the Word of God (5:12). Interest was wrong, and they were in violation of God’s stated policy. When they admitted that, the conditions for reconciliation became crystal clear: get back into conformity with God’s Word.

• He committed ultimate judgment to God, who sees the hearts of men (5:13). He didn’t try to exact a pound of flesh beyond reconciliation. Either the meeting was to resolve the situation, or to punish people and satisfy the hurting emotions. He chose reconciliation – the right choice.

• He publicly praised God with everyone else because reconciliation was available to all! (5:13).

God called the leader to size up and confront the situation, and reconcile the parties to GOD’S STANDARD – not to feed the emotional need for revenge. This is the path to healing for broken spirits who have experience exploitation.

Yet, there is another side of exploitation the enemy can, and does, work within leaders. It is the danger of accepting the perks of the office…the rest of the chapter is about this problem…

Test #4: The Lure of Gain (Nehemiah 5:14-19)

People get exploited because of the basic GREED in human nature. Yet, it isn’t only something we encounter in OTHERS – it is something with which we must wrestle within as well….

The Privileges of Promotion (15)

The leader had an opportunity to live with four great benefits, in spite of the struggles of those around him.

Nehemiah 5:15 But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people and took from them bread and wine besides forty shekels of silver; even their servants domineered the people. But I did not do so because of the fear of God.

• First, Nehemiah was entitled to tax those under his care, like the other governors. He was entitled to a forty shekel salary stipend. By law, he was allowed – but by conscience he couldn’t do it.

• Second, he was entitled to use the other barter taxes to live well – in bread and wine.

• Third, he was entitled to operate a collection system that allowed for his servants to force the people into submission, and offer him budgets for entertainment, etc.

• Fourth, he was allowed to personally elevate the status of those close to him – to serve his household.

A good leader may not take all that he is allowed to take – because it would present undue hardship on the people he or she leads. Yet, the temptation will be presented to take advantage of people – and that has to be monitored both within and without.

The Policy of the Promoted (14,16)

Nehemiah wasn’t simply self-justifying his practices in this journal – he was explaining what he believed Godly leadership was all about. Look again at his journal:

Nehemiah 5:14 Moreover, from the day that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, for twelve years, neither I nor my kinsmen have eaten the governor’s food allowance… 16 I also applied myself to the work on this wall; we did not buy any land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work.

• He said he did not take rightful salary, because he didn’t require it and thought it burdensome on the people.

• He claimed that he did not withdraw involvement in the work – but labored with the people.

• He stated that he did not take advantage of “perks”, at the expense of people (such as real estate, etc.).

• He made clear that he kept those about him in the work– not as lords, but as leaders!

As a leader, Nehemiah identified WITH the people, not ABOVE the people. He made one law for himself and his house as with them. Dangers lurk when leaders do not see themselves as PART of the work. Even in the work of the ministry, I want people to observe that I give my best to the tasks I am assigned to do – and that I am diligent in even the details. The better the living example, the better the student can see how the model of work should flesh out. If we lack discipline as leaders, we can expect even worse from followers – that comes with the stewardship of the leader’s life.

The Personality of the Promoted (17,18)

Notice how personal and personable Nehemiah was in his leadership. He wrote:

Nehemiah 5:17 Moreover, there were at my table one hundred and fifty Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. 18 Now that which was prepared for each day was one ox and six choice sheep, also birds were prepared for me; and once in ten days all sorts of wine were furnished in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the governor’s food allowance, because the servitude was heavy on this people.

• Good leaders are aggressively and deliberately generous people (5:17). I am continually amazed at how stingy some people are with their time, talent and treasure. Some of the most influential believers I have known make a regular practice of being generous in every area – and people love them for it.

• Good leaders are comfortable and hospitable (5:17). Awkward people don’t lead well. We need to recognize one of the great needs in leadership is not only character – but comfortable atmosphere. If a man or woman is awkward with people, they will lead poorly.

• Good leaders are careful stewards of what God entrusts to them – both in people and in goods. Notice he counted all that were served (5:18) and could account for all the wealth spent properly.

• Good leaders are sensitive to the needs of people (5:18). If the leader doesn’t understand how the people are feeling, he or she will make critical errors in assumption.

I think this is one of the problems of our day in America. People don’t trust the government and they don’t like the aggressive stance on social change that is being shoved on us. It makes us suspicious of every change in school curriculum or NSA search. We don’t know what they are up to, but we don’t really trust their agenda. When that happens, bad blood poisons good intentions. A good leader moves to make clear what he or she is doing, and why. They know the people they lead – and what is important to them. Yet, even if all that is true – a good leader MUST have ONE MORE ESSENTIAL COMPONENT… Trust in God. Good leaders depend on God. Look at the way the passage ends

The Prayer of the Promoted (19)

Nehemiah 5:19 Remember me, O my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.

• He remembered the secret of his success is not found in him or his abilities.

• He recognized the object of his labor was “for this people”, not for personal fame or building a personal power base. God blesses unselfish labor.

The problem is this: leaders DO get perks. It is FUN to lead if that is what God called you to do. While that is true, it is also true that a leader can be tempted to take advantage of the perks and not serve diligently or steward wisely. Thomas Carlyle was right: “Adversity is hard on a man; but for every man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity.”

We are physical beings that can be broken by another taking advantage – but we also have to admit we are sometimes tempted to take advantage ourselves.

Let me close this story of two tests by thanking God for the direction given in His Word on practical troubles…During Superbowl XXXVII, FedEx ran a commercial that spoofed the movie Castaway, in which Tom Hanks played a FedEx worker whose company plane went down, stranding him on a desert island for years. Looking like the bedraggled Hanks in the movie, the FedEx employee in the commercial goes up to the door of a suburban home, package in hand. When the lady comes to the door, he explains that he survived five years on a deserted island, and during that whole time he kept this package in order to deliver it to her. She gives a simple, “Thank you.” But he is curious about what is in the package that he has been protecting for years. He says, “If I may ask, what was in that package after all?” She opens it and shows him the contents, saying, “Oh, nothing really. Just a satellite telephone, a global positioning device, a compass, a water purifier, and some seeds.” Like the contents in this package, the resources for growth and strength are available for every Christian who will take advantage of them. (Observation from A. Todd Coget, Sermon Central illustrations).

The Word provides the necessary means to navigate life well – but it takes the effort of one to open the package…