Insight Leads To Mercy
by Rev. Jonathan Gale
6th October 2013
Nehemiah 5: 1 – 13
Nehemiah Deals with Oppression
5Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin. 2For there were those who said, ‘With our sons and our daughters, we are many; we must get grain, so that we may eat and stay alive.’ 3There were also those who said, ‘We are having to pledge our fields, our vineyards, and our houses in order to get grain during the famine.’ 4And there were those who said, ‘We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax. 5Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.’
6 I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints. 7After thinking it over, I brought charges against the nobles and the officials; I said to them, ‘You are all taking interest from your own people.’ And I called a great assembly to deal with them, 8and said to them, ‘As far as we were able, we have bought back our Jewish kindred who had been sold to other nations; but now you are selling your own kin, who must then be bought back by us!’ They were silent, and could not find a word to say. 9So I said, ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God, to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? 10Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us stop this taking of interest. 11Restore 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.’ 12Then they said, ‘We will restore everything and demand nothing more from them. We will do as you say.’ And I called the priests, and made them take an oath to do as they had promised. 13I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out everyone from house and from property who does not perform this promise. Thus may they be shaken out and emptied.’ And all the assembly said, ‘Amen’, and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.
A Man Born Blind Receives Sight
9As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ 9Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ 10But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ 11He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ 12They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’
The Pharisees Investigate the Healing
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ 16Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’
18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ 20His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’
24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ 25He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ 26They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ 27He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ 28Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ 30The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ 34They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ 36He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. 39Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
The Jews come in for a bit of a hard time in our readings this evening so I thought I’d begin by using an expression in Yiddish: Well, what a shemozzle!
In our readings this evening we have two characters, Nehemiah and Jesus, in different times but in the same country, who make very different uses of the Law of Moses and yet do so for very similar reasons.
Nehemiah, restorer of the walls of Jerusalem, rescuer from the enemies of God’s people and bringer of good governance is confronted with injustice. The burden of debt imposed by wealthy and powerful Jews on their fellows has resulted in great suffering. Some have had to go so far as to sell their daughters and sons as slaves.
Jesus, bringer of salvation, rescuer from the sin that separates from God and bringer of the Kingdom of God and its benefits is confronted by the religious authorities. He has healed a man of blindness on the Sabbath and they disapprove.
In Vs 9 of our reading Nehemiah says, 9So I said, ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God …”
And he continues
Let us stop this taking of interest. 11Restore 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.’
Nehemiah is bent on restoring God’s rule in the Holy Land following the Exile to Babylon. He has much rebuilding to do, literal (in terms of infrastructure), and spiritual and social (in terms of compliance with the Law of Moses).
The Law of Moses provided for a just and compassionate society where all, especially the poor, were protected
Deuteronomy 15: 1 Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.
(No lasting debt allowed)
Deuteronomy 15: 12 If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you for six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free.
(No lasting slavery allowed)
11Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’
What about land holdings?
Leviticus 25 10And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.
(When Joshua entered the Promised Land, under God’s direction, every family – aside from the Priests and Levites who were to live by the tithes paid to the temple – was given land to farm. Every 50 years all land was to be restored to the original owners)
23The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. 24Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.
The Law is bulging with provisions for the poor, needy and disadvantaged. The commonwealth of Israel was meant to be just that – a place where wealth was held in common; a place where God’s ways were followed and therefore a place which God was pleased to bless.
On Wednesday morning I heard Tony Abbott say, “One person’s success is by definition another person’s failure.” The Prime Minister of Australia has very little understanding of the economy of God. In God’s eyes when the poor are blessed, all are blessed.
Nehemiah, critically aware that he was restoring the nation, was appalled at how the Law of Moses was being flaunted and he was determined to restore God’s ways of compassion to the nation. His use of the Law was to promote compassion for disadvantaged people.
In doing so he was appealing, somewhat strictly, back to both the letter and the spirit of the Law.
But what of Jesus and the Law of Moses? Well, we know that in Matthew 5: 17 he claims “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” In a macro sense he himself was the fulfilment of the Law.
But how did Jesus see the Law as he rubbed up against it in everyday life? Well here we have a fine example of how Jesus made use of the Law: he ignored the letter of the Law where following the spirit of the Law showed greater compassion. Full stop. His approach is encapsulated in the words of James who writes (James 2: 13) Mercy triumphs over judgement.
In opposition to Jesus stand the Pharisees, highly respected religious leaders in their time, and a group with whom Jesus clashed on a regular basis.
The Pharisees set great store by the Law of Moses. To the once blind man (Vs. 28) they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses. They looked back at a rigid set of written formulas. They saw them written in stone. They saw them as eternally applicable; and their approach to the various laws was that human lives were to fit around them. In healing a man on the Sabbath Jesus had, as far as the Pharisees were concerned, contravened the Law. That was it. No wriggle room.
Jesus of course famously said in Mark 2: 27 “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words God gave as much significance to the Sabbath as a period of restoration and re-creation for humankind as he did as a memorial to God’s creation of the universe. The Pharisees applied the law literally with little appreciation of the context and purpose for which it was written. As a result they were intolerant of anyone who contravened the letter of the Sabbath law.
What, for the Pharisees, was the outcome of this act of compassion on the part of Jesus? Well, their interaction with the man ends in them saying, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out. They label him a sinner because the healing flew in the face of their understanding of how to apply the Sabbath law; and they excluded the man because what Jesus had done presented a challenge to their positions as interpreters of truth. As arbiters of the truth, their apparent rectitude condemned and alienated a vulnerable man in whom God had just demonstrated his power.
In Israel was an instruction in the Law, honoured by Jesus when he healed the 10 lepers, of showing yourself to the priest when you were healed – so that he might declare you healed and reintegrated into society.
The blind man ignores the religious authorities. He returns to Jesus once he has washed in the Pool of Siloam and his sight is restored. At one level this is natural but at another it is an indication of where he believes authority lies. He goes back to the source of his healing to share his joy and no doubt to express his gratitude.
Not so what Vs. 8 describes as The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar. They take the man to the Pharisees. You see society too is blind until its eyes are opened by God. There is a hint that they are reluctant to see this man’s status change. They were his neighbours and knew him as a beggar. Instinctively they knew that the conservatism of the Pharisees would be opposed to the change God had wrought in the now formerly blind man’s life. Perhaps they could somehow wind the clock back. Is that what they were hoping for? Or were they simply so used to the oppression of conservatism – preserving the status quo – that they could do nothing other than take this incident to those who proclaimed on all things – those who interpreted life for them? Either way, though they may not have known it, they were allowing their worlds to be shaped by people who did not have their best interests at heart.
The Pharisees loved their place in society, (Vs. 40) Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
O how careful we need to be! How easy it is to be a Pharisee today. When we take the Scriptures and mindlessly apply them as though they fell out of heaven this morning and apply a superficial and twenty-first century understanding of the words on the page to any and every situation, without an understanding of their context and without a spirit of love, we too are in danger of Pharisaism. O how blind are we who claim to see!
Jesus, prophet, priest and king is the new authority. In him is the fulfilment of the Law. It is to him that we should look for guidance, not only in the way we apply the law (whether it be in judging our own behaviours or the behaviours of others) and the principles we should use are the principles of compassion and mercy – the things that makes for the common good.
But especially should we remember that in God’s heart is a special place for the poor and disadvantaged. The Commonwealth of Israel is, within the Kingdom of God, found in the church (the Body of Christ) and that body is intimately connected to the head, Jesus himself. It is with his eyes that we should see.
Hebrews 12: 2 encourages us in the race of life to look “to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith”
Jesus’ task is to establish the Kingdom of God. That should be our focus too. It is to focus on the positives – a life of compassion and mercy – not on trying to eradicate the negatives, lest we be guilty like the Pharisees of trying to please God by surrounding him with a series of rigid laws that do nothing to attract people to God.
They say that people who breed Rottweilers have a simple but effective way of choosing a good puppy from a litter. The quality they look for is known as “gameness”. It is that delightful mixture of curiosity, confidence and the desire to engage – responsiveness really. They test this, I’m told, by waving a handkerchief and watching the reaction of the puppies. The puppy that pricks up its ears and trots towards the handkerchief to engage with it is the one they choose.
You see God’s moral laws are not a hoop to jump through; they are a challenge which tests our “gameness”. How do we respond to them? Do we interpret the moral laws of God as a means to preserve certain cultural or religious traditions? If that is so, what we are blind to is that these are the very attitudes that enslave us.
One of life’s ironies is that people fear freedom. But what they really loathe is being told that this is true of them.
The prime example of this is when Jesus enters his home town (Nazareth) and characterises the nature of his ministry in the words from Isaiah (Luke 4: 18 – 19) 18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
How nice, they say in Vs. 22.
But when Jesus implies that traditionally Israel has rejected the words of God (Vs. 28) all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
It’s not easy being honest with oneself – especially when someone else (and that someone can be God!) is pointing out one’s faults.
It’s not pleasant facing the challenge of God. We prefer to develop ways of safely encasing the challenges of God’s ways in traditions where they don’t demand too much of us; where we won’t have to change. We all too frequently prefer blindness to clear-sightedness.
The Gospel – the Good News – requires a response, and the best questions I can ask myself are these: Why am I resenting this challenge (this demand for change) presented by the Gospel? Is my blindness (in other words my self-justification) a Pharisaical response designed to keep God in a box? Am I scared of what change – a positive response to God – might mean for my own life? What it is that I really fear?
When we are honest with ourselves and with God, when we realise that we may not have been the sole arbiters of the truth, that God may well want to adjust us – and that he will do so lovingly and for our own good – it is then, I believe, that we are most open to receive from God.
How do we in life apply compassion and mercy? Well, simply put, the best test is in our attitudes to others.
In the game of Whist (and in other card games) one can use a trump card. I like to think of mercy as a trump card. The Scripture says Mercy triumphs over judgement(James 2: 13). I like to think of it as mercy trumps judgement – and it does too!
In general we follow suit – we follow God’s timeless laws: Nehemiah followed the Law of Moses because in his instance it was the most merciful course to follow.
Jesus did not. The suit he was dealt meant had he followed suit, he’d not have been merciful or compassionate. He played the mercy card. It was his trump card so he healed the blind man in contravention of the Law of Moses. He did so because this was the most loving thing to do.
As we pray now, think of your own life. Ask God to show you where you can be more loving, more forgiving, more compassionate, more merciful – in spite of what tradition demands.
Let us pray:
Loving God, not one of us has a perfect grasp of the truth. Not one of us is always loving in our attitudes. We come to you therefore, asking you to heal our blindness of heart. We confess our tendency to self-protection, our fear of change, our desire to use religion and tradition to shut you out of our lives, and to refrain from being merciful to others.
Forgive us, we pray. Wash us in the blood of Christ. Cleanse us from any rebellious or resentful ways and open our eyes that we might see and trust your loving intentions and the wisdom of your ways.
Give us the strength to sustain openness to your Holy Spirit as he gently leads us into areas we once feared. Help us to see the greater good and to welcome you, both into our lives and the life of the church. Help us to be compassionate and merciful in our dealings with all.
Open our eyes Lord, open our eyes.
We ask this in the name of Christ, our Lord.