Economy matters. It is at the center of Nehemiah’s rebuke of the people of Israel in Nehemiah 5. But Nehemiah’s vision for how resources should be used doesn’t fit neatly into the way I have grown up thinking about economy. Nehemiah is not really concerned with the national economy of Israel, nor is he just rebuking the people of Israel for how they have managed their individual economies – how much credit card debt they’re carrying, how they budget, or whether or not they’re preparing for their retirement. But reading Nehemiah I can’t abrogate my personal responsibility for how I manage my resources, nor can I limit the effects of my economy to anything less than an entire community. Nehemiah is rebuking the people of Israel for limiting how they approach their resources to anything less than a relationship.
This vision of economy does not fit into a modern vision of economy. When I say that, I am not trying to separate out the modern view of economy from my own which is somehow separate and biblical. I may “know” that the Bible speaks against the people of God exploiting one another with high interest rates, and my thinking probably benefits from being taught and raised by Christians who have considered this passage and many others to develop their own theologies of economy, but when I think about money my thoughts naturally lie in the same patterns that Nehemiah is rebuking the people of Israel for falling into.
Those patterns are fundamentally self-interested. For the people of Israel the patterns manifested in the charging of interest rates, the acquiring of land, and the selling of the people into slavery among one another. Other times I’ve read this passage it has been easy to focus on those individual directives and think about issues like interest rates or slavery as they apply to the Christian throughout history. But while such comparisons may be true and applicable there is a broader mindset implied by these issues which I have missed by focusing on the individual directives of the text. Because excluding slavery which has been rightfully accepted as something fundamentally wrong, the other issues that Nehemiah condemns I would call simply – good business, or sound personal finance goals. If I let someone borrow a large amount of money, charging interest is a good way to make sure that the money is repaid in a timely manner and that I can profit from the interaction. And the accrual of property or material possessions is essential to the American Dream. I can understand the people of Israel charging interest and buying property from those around them because that is how I’ve been taught you achieve financial security and beyond that the good life.
Practically this isn’t just how I think about “the good life,” it’s how I’m tempted to plan for my life. This past week I was offered a job working at Forcepoint, the company where I have been interning. At the time of writing this I think I will take it and continue working there for the next couple years. Because the job is in the growing field of cybersecurity, I will be making more money than I expected to as an English major fresh out of school. On the one hand I am very thankful for how God has and will continue to provide for me by giving me a job that will allow me to be faithful to the financial commitments that I made to go to school. But this week as I thought about the offer, and more specifically as I thought about the number associated with the offer I realized how easy it would be over the next years of my life as I made money to use that money to only advance my cause. To make investments that would help me, my future and so help me to achieve the “good life.”
This is exactly the mentality of the children of Israel that Nehemiah is rebuking in Nehemiah 5. The actions are not all necessarily evil when considered in isolation. Buying land for instance is not something that is being unequivocally condemned in the Bible. The problem is that the people of Israel are not just buying land, and charging interest; they are buying land and charging interest from their neighbors who as a result of their actions are living in poverty and selling their children into slavery. The problem with the children of Israel and my plans for the future are that they are sinful and prioritize individual welfare in opposition to how God desires us to think – by thinking of others before ourselves.
This is not my call to a new monasticism. This passage does not condemn the use and enjoyment of God’s good gifts to us, what it does condemn is the pursuit of those things without considering the needs of those around us. Thankfully this passage also casts a vision for what this looks like through Nehemiah’s account of how he used his resources. At the heart of Nehemiah’s account of himself is an awareness that if he was to take advantage of his position and accumulate resources he would be accumulating them from the people he governs. Not only does he refuse to take from them he goes a step further by opening up his table to 150 of his fellow Israelites as well as guests from the surrounding nations. Nehemiah makes clear that he provided all of the food at his own expense.
That is what I could easily forget to do as I start to make money, and as other expenses and interests interest me. Oh I would give the occasional token gesture, but what Nehemiah describes is so much more than slipping the occasional twenty into the offering plate. It is a lifestyle aware of how your actions affect others and actively seeking to help those around you who are in need. I can’t follow a lifestyle haphazardly. I need to plan to be generous, and have the eyes to see how I can be generous with the good gifts God has given in a way that can be helpful and life giving to the people around me.
Image: freeimages/Victoria Herrera