Proper 26 / Pentecost 23 — 4 November 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — Evensong, 5:00 pm
Ps 24, 29 Nehemiah 5:1-19 Luke 12:22-31
Restore to them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.
One of the things that’s kind of nifty about Evensong is that we get to hear Scripture readings, especially from the Old Testament, that compared to the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary are really remarkably obscure.
Did any of you attend last Sunday’s Adult Forum, when Fr. Mel talked about “The Changing Lectionary”? Yeah, neither did I. (Sorry about that, Mel!) But if any of you were there, you’ll recall that one of the things I assume he talked about was that in the new Revised Common Lectionary, at least during the second half of the year, the first readings at the Sunday Eucharist are generally in a course sequence from the Old Testament, so we are given a more coherent survey of the Hebrew Scriptures over the three years. This as opposed to the Roman-based Prayer Book lectionary that we had been using for the previous thirty years, in which the Old Testament readings were generally, and sometimes rather vaguely, keyed to the Gospel reading for the day. But even the Revised Common Lectionary with its more coherent survey never gets quite as obscure as the Book of Nehemiah. Well, that’s not quite true. There is one Sunday, out of the three years, in which we hear a passage from Nehemiah, in which the priest Ezra reads the Book of the Law to the people in Jerusalem. (Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year C — that was last January — so it’s over two more years before it comes around again. Only now the Revised Common Lectionary gnomes in their infinite wisdom have edited out all the really obscure and largely unpronounceable Hebrew names of all the Levites who were standing with Ezra while he read the Law. Well that’s just no fun at all! Those of you who have ever been a reader on that Sunday are doubtless deeply grateful to the Lectionary gnomes.)
That’s why we have Evensong!
The Book of Nehemiah, along with the Book of Ezra, which is related to it, recounts how the Jewish people were allowed to return to their homeland of Judah after several generations of exile in Babylonia following the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans. Nehemiah was a Jew who had been cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia (you’ll recall that the Persians had conquered the Babylonians or Chaldeans, and being somewhat more flexible in their imperial policy were willing to let the Jews go home if they wanted to; some did, some didn’t). Nehemiah asked to be allowed to return to Judah and oversee the rebuilding of Jerusalem as governor of the province of Judah in the Persian empire. And that’s sort of where we pick up in the reading this evening.
Nehemiah was supervising the rebuilding of the city walls of Jerusalem; the work was being done largely on a volunteer basis by men who had returned to Judah from the Babylonian exile. There were other people, however — in some cases Israelites who had stayed behind when the Babylonians conquered the land and took the bulk of the people captive — they were probably people of no great significance with whom the Babylonians didn’t want to bother, but of course after the exile they were able to take over the abandoned lands and raise their social status significantly — and they were very much opposed to the rebuilding and refortifying of Jerusalem. Another group may have been those subsequently identified as the Samaritans, who had been imported into Israel following the conquest of the northern kingdom, and they also opposed the restoration of Jerusalem. So working on the walls of Jerusalem not only involved doing heavy construction with one hand but also holding a sword in the other, lest the anti-Jerusalemites attack them to stop the rebuilding.
Then on top of this, the men who were doing the work also had their own work to do on their own farms, raising crops, not only to produce food for themselves and their families and their neighbors, but also to earn enough money to be able to pay the Persian taxes. So a lot of these folks were in very tight circumstances, often deeply in debt, typically to the rich and well-born of their own people. They often had to sell their land, or send their children into apprenticeship or “service” or even slavery, just to eke out a living.
When this came to Nehemiah’s attention, he was seriously ticked, and he called an assembly, chewed out those who were exploiting their poorer fellow Jews, and put an end to it. I suspect that actually getting this reform accomplished was not as simple as the way Nehemiah tells it afterward! But that’s often the case.
Nehemiah himself makes a point of the fact that he did not draw the full usual salary for his position as governor, so as not to be a burden on the people. He does call God’s attention to this. Yeah, well…. Nehemiah was a very good and honest governor, if perhaps not the most modest man in town, and something of a hard-nose. But it was what the Jews needed at the time in order to get their nation reestablished. By his own example of caring for the welfare of the people, especially of the poor, and by calling to account those who would exploit them, Nehemiah was in his time a beacon and sign of God’s Kingdom.
© 2007 William S J Moorhead