Then I pressed further, “What you are doing is not right! Should you not walk in the fear of our God in order to avoid being mocked by enemy nations? I myself, as well as my brothers and my workers, have been lending the people money and grain, but now let us stop this business of charging interest. You must restore their fields, vineyards, olive groves, and homes to them this very day. And repay the interest you charged when you lent them money, grain, new wine, and olive oil.”
Nehemiah 5:9-11 New Living Translation
Not all the challenges that Nehemiah faced in his mission came from the outside. He also faced challenges from within. One of them involved the wealthier Jews taking advantage of their less fortunate countrymen in a time of financial distress for the whole nation. Judah was a province under the control of a foreign power (Persia). Persia was known for demanding hefty tributes from its vassal provinces. These tributes were especially hard on the less wealthy landowners who had to pay the same amount regardless of the wealth they possessed. Often they needed to borrow from wealthier Jews to be able to cover their tribute and supply for their family. Lending to the poor was allowed in Jewish law, but the charging of interest of your fellow Jews was forbidden. Many were disregarding this part of the law and taking advantage of the less fortunate ones. The result of this injustice led to many of the poorer families having to sell family members into slavery to cover their debts.
The poorer families came to Nehemiah with their plea for relief and he was incensed by the report he heard. He knew that everyone was important in working together to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and this practice was not helping them. It also dishonored God and reflected poorly on the people in the eyes of their enemies. They needed to demonstrate to those around them that they respected the dignity of their fellow Jews more than the cultures around them. They believed that all humans were created in the image of God and taking advantage of each other in this way showed disregard for the image of God in their fellow human beings. Nehemiah demanded that the wealthy members of their society discontinue this practice of charging interest immediately and pay back the interest they had already taken. He also set the example in his own practice of lending to those in need without charging interest. The people repented and agreed to do what Nehemiah ordered them to do.
Our society often tells us it’s normal and customary to profit from the misfortunes of others. Laws are sometimes written to give advantage to those who are wealthy. As followers of Jesus, we have the opportunity to demonstrate a different set of values, though. We believe that all humans are created in the image of God and are equal before God, regardless of their social standings. By refusing to take advantage of the misfortune of others regardless of what is allowed by the law, we demonstrate to the world around us that we put the dignity of our fellow humans ahead of our personal gain. In doing so we honor God and present a good witness for Him before a world that is watching to see if Jesus’s followers are any different than the world around them.
God, help us to remember that all humanity is created in Your image. Remind us that when we honor the human dignity of others regardless of social standing, we honor You.