Having to deal with conflict and opposition are part of what it means to be human. There are those who try to avoid them, those who will do anything to try and please everyone so that conflict and opposition will never come their way, but the truth of the matter is that you and I will have to learn to confront opposition and we will have to learn to deal with conflict. I don’t like conflict. I don’t know anyone who does…Wait, yes I do. Maybe I should say I don’t know any sane person who enjoys conflict, but whether you enjoy it or not you are going to face opposition and you will find yourself in the midst of conflict from time-to-time in life. The question is, “What will you do when opposition arises and how will you handle conflict when it comes?”
Conflict can break out from absolutely any corner of our life. We can experience conflict with a co-worker. We can find ourselves at odds with a neighbor we barely know. If you have children then you already know that parenting through conflict is a Bear Grylls like survival skill. Anyone who is married or has been married knows that dealing with conflict with your husband or wife can either deepen or destroy the relationship. As I said, conflict can break out in any of our relationships. Conflict can even take place between complete strangers.
We saw in Nehemiah 4 that conflict broke out and opposition came from those who were outside of the community working on the rebuilding of the wall in Jerusalem. It has been awhile since we were in our study of Nehemiah so let me refresh our memories by taking you back to Nehemiah 4:7-8. Let’s read together.
7 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. (Nehemiah 4:7-8 NIV)
Nehemiah rallied the workers, he encouraged them: “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.” (Nehemiah 4:14 NIV) The workers pulled together, they came up with a plan, half worked while the other half stood guard, and they resisted the opposition. It’s a powerful chapter in the story of the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem.
We’ve seen the same thing take place in our nation when opposition has come from the outside haven’t we? When our nation is threatened by outside opposition we pull together, unity blossoms like flowers in the Spring, and we do what needs to be done to prevail against the opposition. We saw this happen with the attacks of 9/11 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Americans came together, we were willing to do what needed to be done to stand up against the opposition, and the petty conflicts we may have had with one another faded because of a greater call upon our lives.
We might assume that when we turn the page from Nehemiah 4 to Nehemiah 5 that it would be smooth sailing all the way to the finish line of rebuilding the wall, but don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Let’s take a look at Nehemiah 5:1-8.
1 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.” 3 Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.” 4 Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 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.” 6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 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 8 and said: “As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!” They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say. (Nehemiah 5:1-8 NIV)
Nehemiah had to have been blindsided by what he heard. There was conflict, deep conflict, that was eating at the souls of the people who were working on the wall. It turns out the greatest opposition was not that posed by Sanballat, Tobiah, and the surrounding nations, but it was coming from among their own people. The opposition from within was caused by some bad actors within the family of faith–this is the most destructive opposition of all. Someone once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” It is tragic and unimaginable, but all too often true. Let’s go back to the verses we just read and see if we can find the details of what was taking place.
In verse 2 we find people whose resources had been used up. They had sons and daughters, but no grain for food. In verse 3, we find farmers who were forced to mortgage their farms, vineyards, and homes in order to get grain to feed their families. In verses 4-5 we hear about those who were having trouble paying the King’s tax. All of this was brought to the attention of Nehemiah who was so busy fighting off the opposition from outsiders and trying to keep the rebuilding of the wall moving forward that he was oblivious about what was going on right beside him. Verse 1 tells us how Nehemiah got the message and who was guilty of the exploitation and oppression taking place. Take a look at verse 1 with me.
1 Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. (Nehemiah 5:1 NIV)
The poor were being oppressed. How and why were fellow Jews doing such horrible things to their own people? Those are great questions! To understand it all you have to go back to the beginning of Ezra so you can learn about the context of the present day situation Nehemiah faced. Remember, the Jews who had returned from Babylon to Jerusalem were mostly well-off financially. Back in Ezra 1 we learned about the “Love Offering” taken up by the Jews who were going to stay in Babylon, but wanted to send gifts with those who chose to go back to Jerusalem. They gave livestock, silver and gold, valuable gifts, and other goods. Later on, thirteen years before Nehemiah made his way to Jerusalem, another group of Jews left for their homeland and they brought more silver and gold and “the freewill offerings of the people” from Babylon (Ezra 7:16).
You have to also remember that there were Jews who were living in Jerusalem before the first or second group from Babylon ever arrived and they were overwhelmingly poor. They were living in a desperate situation surrounded by enemies, their wall of protection around the city was down, and they were exploited by neighboring nations who would raid Jerusalem. Couple this reality with the famine we read about in Nehemiah 5:3 and you’ve got the ingredients for an unavoidable tragedy…unless God’s people behaved in God’s way. That is not what took place. James Montgomery Boice lays out the downward spiral of what took place.
The sequence would be: 1) a lack of adequate food, or hunger, 2) the mortgaging of the fields for short-term cash to buy grain and pay taxes, 3) loss of the fields because of an inability to repay what was borrowed, and 4) the selling of sons and daughters either into indentured service or outright slavery for the sake of survival. The details are different, but there is a similarly downward-spiraling sequence among the poor today. And like today, it was the poor, not the well-off who protested the injustice. (Boice, James Montgomery. Nehemiah. pg. 62).
The wealthy Jews were making loans with payday loan rates and taking land and even people’s children as collateral! When the crops failed because of the famine, the creditors came in and took their vineyards, farms, and even stooped so low as to sell the kids into slavery. And this was being done by their family, some Jews were taking advantage of those who were losing everything, and crushing their own people. Verse 5 had to have been spoken by a momma. Listen to her broken-hearted cry to Nehemiah.
5 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.” (Nehemiah 5:5 NIV)
We are powerless! The people who were suffering were not powerless because God had placed them between a rock and a hard place. They were powerless because their own people were exploiting them so they could line their own pockets with cash and property, and even child labor. It’s just not right!
I’ve been thinking about this during the past week. Right now we have so many Americans who are vulnerable because of Covid-19. What is it, something like 40 million Americans have lost their jobs? No doubt many of those jobs will come back, some of those who have been furloughed are going to make it, but there is a subset of that 40 million who live paycheck to paycheck and are now in dire straits and for no fault of their own. There are many folks in our community who have lost their jobs and there are countless opportunists who are more than willing to seize the moment and profit off of their hardships. We can’t be like the opportunists, we must come alongside those who are vulnerable and help them. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.
Have you noticed how many pawn shops and payday loan businesses there are in our neighborhood? I read an article from The Tulsa World this past week that was published just one month ago. The headline read, “Pawn shops playing role in economically distressed Covid-19 environment.” Phillip Church, the president of the Oklahoma Pawnbrokers Association said,
I’ve always said we bank the unbankable. Your average blue-collar worker here in America, they either don’t have a bank account or can’t get a bank account. Most of them are living paycheck to paycheck. (Tulsa World. April 12, 2020)
I think it’s a little more than a stretch to say pawnshop owners “bank the unbankable.” Maybe he should have said they make bank off the unbankable. I will promise you that my banker doesn’t treat me like the owners of pawnshops treat their patrons. I’m grateful that in Oklahoma we have “usury laws,” laws that limit the rate of interest lenders can charge, but the problem is that pawnshops are exempt from those laws. And don’t get me started on the payday loan businesses. Did you know that in Oklahoma the average annualized interest rate at a payday loan business is 395%! People that have bad credit, folks who need help, but can’t get help in the way that many of us get help, are used and abused by payday loan sharks.
I mentioned earlier that God’s people didn’t behave in God’s way and therefore God’s people who were in need were experiencing excruciating suffering in Nehemiah’s day. God had taught His people what to do, how to help one another, but greed was a greater motivation than holiness and righteousness. This was not new to Nehemiah’s day. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos had grilled God’s people for their greed and their neglect of the poor over and over again. God’s people knew people because God had taught them over and over again. Let me show you a couple of examples from God’s Word. Turn all the way back to Exodus and let’s read what Moses taught God’s people. In verses 25-27 we read,
25 “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. 26 If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, 27 because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. (Exodus 22:25-27 NIV)
The Jews were allowed to make loans to Jews and non-Jews alike. They were allowed to charge interest on loans made to non-Jews, but they weren’t allowed to charge interest to their own people. Let’s take a look at another example, this one found in Leviticus 25:35-38.
35 If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. 36 Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. 37 You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit. 38 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. (Leviticus 25:35-38 NIV)
God’s direction for His people was clear, crystal clear: Don’t loan them money with interest and don’t sell them food at a profit. There is a time to make money and there is a time to help those who are hurting. When God leads people across our path who are hurting we need to put aside profit so we might help a brother or sister out.
You are all too familiar with the way people in our culture target those who find themselves in a precarious predicament in life. It’s the way of the world, but it is never to be the way of God’s people. If you are a business owner and a follower of Jesus, you must remember that you are a steward of what God has given to you and that you are to run your business in a way that honors and glorifies God regardless of what the other owners in your industry do. What is your motivation to do the right thing, even if it means you give up making a profit from time-to-time? That’s a great question and the answer is the same as that given to those in Moses’ day: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.” God has blessed you, He has provided for you, and you are never to lose sight of that my friend or you will become just like them.
We learn in verse 6 that when Nehemiah heard about what was taking place he was very angry. Some of the Bible commentaries I’ve read this past week have had a tough time with Nehemiah’s anger, but let me tell you there is a time to be angry. The Bible tells us to “be angry, but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). Jesus was angry at the moneychangers who took over the court of the Gentiles in the temple. Jesus was angry when a man with a withered hand came into the temple on the Sabbath and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law watched, hoping Jesus would heal the man so they could finally “get” Jesus. They had no concern for the man. Their only concern was to put a stop to Jesus. Here’s the difference between what made Jesus angry and what makes us angry. Jesus became angry when others were being exploited and abused. We get angry when we are mistreated.
Nehemiah became angry because Jews were being exploited by Jews. It just wasn’t right. Because it wasn’t right, Nehemiah did something about it. He confronted those who were doing wrong. He brought them all together and stated his case: “You are charging your own people interest! You are selling your own people!” After Nehemiah confronted the wrongdoers we read: “They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.” They knew better, but greed had led them to do the unthinkable. We are vulnerable to the same pull of greed in our own day aren’t we? And let me say, you don’t have to be a business owner or wealthy to get sucked into the sinkhole of greed. Nehemiah wasn’t finished. Look at Nehemiah 5:9-11 with me.
9 So I continued, “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? 10 I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! 11 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.” (Nehemiah 5:9-11 NIV)
Nehemiah told those who were guilty that he and his men had also loaned their neighbors money and grain. He doesn’t say that he charged them interest and there’s no reason to believe that he did, but he uses his own involvement in making loans to say, “We must stop charging interest!” Nehemiah said it’s time to give it all back. Those who are hurting need their fields, vineyards, olive groves, houses, and even the interest you have been charging them–give it all back.
I’m shocked because no one called for an attorney, there was no trial needed. All of those who had been charged agreed with Nehemiah. They said,
12 “We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.” (Nehemiah 5:12 NIV)
Nehemiah wanted more than their word so he called in the priests and had the men make a pledge in front of witnesses. You and I both know that we can experience a change of heart, even shed a tear of repentance, and yet in no time find ourselves back in the same old habits. We need accountability just like those in Nehemiah’s day.
This is a powerful lesson, a powerful reminder for you and me. We are to love people, all people, in the same way the Lord has loved and continues to love us. We are to hear the cries of those who are hurting and instead of taking advantage of their desperate situation, we are to come alongside them and help them just as God has helped us over and over again.
It is in times like this current time we find ourselves in that the Church, the Body of Christ, can shine with an unmistakable brilliance. One more thing before we get out of here this morning. Do you know that the early Church grew by leaps and bounds not because of their theology and Bible studies, but because of their lives. Those early followers of Jesus lived a life that was different from the common culture of their day. Those who were not followers of Jesus were open to hearing their message about Jesus because there was something distinctively different about the way they lived their lives, the way they treated outsiders and those who were hurting, and the way they conducted their business. So much has changed from Nehemiah’s day until our day, but this still holds true–if you want to effectively share the Good News about our King then realize others are watching you. Those who don’t know Jesus will read you before they will ever read the Bible or some book of theology. What are they learning as they watch and read you and me every day? Oh Lord, let them see You as they watch us!
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
May 31, 2020