I serve as a full-time volunteer with an agency that coordinates homeless services. I thought a reflection on poverty would be apt, particularly given that we don’t have a “poverty” category yet on this blog.
Nehemiah 5 (NIrV)
1 Some men and their wives cried out against their Jewish brothers and sisters. 2 Some of them were saying, “We and our sons and daughters have increased our numbers. Now there are many of us. We have to get some grain so we can eat and stay alive.”
3 Others were saying, “We’re being forced to sell our fields, vineyards and homes. We have to do it to buy grain. There isn’t enough food for everyone.”
4 Still others were saying, “We’ve had to borrow money. We needed it to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 We belong to the same family lines as the rest of our people. Our sons and daughters are as good as theirs. But we’ve had to sell them off as slaves. Some of our daughters have already been made slaves. But we can’t do anything about it. That’s because our fields and vineyards now belong to others.”
6 I heard them when they cried out. And I burned with anger when I heard what they were saying. 7 I thought it over for a while. Then I brought charges against the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are forcing your own people to pay too much interest!”
So I called together a large group of people to handle the matter. 8 I said, “Our Jewish brothers and sisters were sold to other nations. We’ve done everything we could to buy them back and bring them home. But look at what you are doing! You are actually selling your own people! Now we’ll have to buy them back too!”
The people kept quiet. They couldn’t think of anything to say.
9 So I continued, “What you are doing isn’t right. Shouldn’t you show respect for our God? Shouldn’t you live in a way that will keep our enemies from making fun of us?
10 “I’m lending the people money and grain. So are my relatives and my men. But you must stop charging too much interest!
11 “Give the people’s fields back to them. Give them back their vineyards, olive groves and houses. Do it right away. You have charged them too much. Give everything back to them. Give them back the one percent on the money, grain, fresh wine and olive oil you have charged them.”
12 “We’ll give it back,” they said. “And we won’t require anything more from them. We’ll do exactly as you say.”
Then I sent for the priests. I made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. 13 I also shook out my pockets and emptied them. I said, “Some of you might decide not to keep the promise you have made. If that happens, may God shake you out of your house! May he empty you of everything you own! May you be left with nothing at all!”
The whole community said, “Amen.” They praised the Lord. And the leaders did what they had promised to do.
14 And that’s not all. I was appointed as governor of Judah in the 20th year that Artaxerxes was king of Persia. I remained in that position until his 32nd year. During those 12 years, I and my relatives didn’t eat the food that was provided for my table.
15 But there had been governors before me. They had put a heavy load on the people. They had taken a pound of silver from each of them. They had also taken food and wine from them. Their officials had acted like high and mighty rulers over them.
But I have great respect for God. So I didn’t act like that. 16 Instead, I spent all of my time working on this wall. All of my men were gathered there to work on it too. We didn’t receive any land for ourselves.
17 Many people ate at my table. They included 150 Jews and officials. They also included leaders who came to us from the nations that were around us. 18 Each day one ox, six of the best sheep and some birds were prepared for me. Every ten days plenty of wine of all kinds was brought in as well. In spite of all that, I never asked for the food that was provided for my table. That’s because the people were already paying too many taxes.
19 You are my God. Please remember me. Show me your favor. Keep in mind everything I’ve done for these people.
Three things strike me about this passage. The first is how similar this situation is to the situation of those experiencing poverty and homelessness in America. Often, we will look at those who achieved more than us – make more money than us – and say “oh, well, they must have had a family connection” or something of that nature. But when it comes to those who are poor we say “well, they just aren’t working hard enough”. Because we all know in our hearts how hard we work to make ends meet.
Yet, just like Nehemiah’s Jewish brothers and sisters, many people in America face rising costs of living and don’t see much of an increase in their pay. Therefore, many of them have to choose between paying for their home or paying for their food. When it comes down to it, we know which of those is going to get paid for. No matter how hard they work, they can’t make it by. Sometimes, this is the result of debt. Debt to hospitals, when trips were made for illness without insurance (because minimum wage jobs don’t provide it), student loan debt, mortgage, car loans, credit card debt, etc. And often these come with soaring interest rates. Our whole system of money is based on credit, trust, and interest. It is an evil system, it is a pagan system.
The second thing that strikes me is that Nehemiah didn’t try to just feed his brothers and sisters. He didn’t give money to charity. He went directly to those oppressing his people and said “STOP!”. He addressed those directly in power and advocated for a response. And they listened because what he said was truth.
The third thing that strikes me is just how good Nehemiah is. He wouldn’t fight the oppression of his brothers and sisters and then contribute to it by receiving the benefits of the government which taxed them unfairly. He simply did what was right in the eyes of God: just like Dorothy Day, just like Dietrich Bonhoffer, just like Martin Luther King, just like Michael Sattler and the early Anabaptists. Nehemiah refused land, food, and payment from the government he served.
Sometimes, when fighting poverty, we can get mired in a lot of theory and half-truths about the nature of the mission. It’s all about charity; or, we just need to “teach a man to fish” (nothing I hate more than that phrase). No. These answers are in the right direction, but they are incomplete. Martin Luther King once said “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar…it is recognizing that an edifice which creates beggars needs restructuring”. May we all have this compassion, God willing.