Today in our series on National Recovery we are zeroing in on leadership. What does it take to lead a nation out of the mess and into greatness? As we’ve noted in the previous two weeks, there’s much we Christians have to own in the process. After all, one thing our elected officials have in common is this: they were all elected by us. We can yell and scream and rant and rave about our elected officials, but in the end, we’ve got to own some of the problems because we elected them.
Going forward, then, what should we be looking for in leaders worthy to be elected that could lead our nation to recovery? And for that, we open the bible to a story that might just be the best example of transformational leadership ever. This account has very real and very practical implications for us nationally, and, if we would just absorb them, it would prove a tremendous step toward righting our country.
And everyone seems to agree that righting our country is needed. Maybe you saw the fascinating results from a huge national poll that just came out earlier in September sponsored by SurveyMonkey and the Washington Post. That poll concluded two things about which Republicans and Democrats are agreed as the presidential election looms: (1) No matter who wins the election, it will do nothing to unite this country; and (2), 72% of both Republicans and Democrats say that this nation reflects their values less than it did in the past. What kind of leader is required to get things fixed around here? It’s largely contained in this Old Testament account.
Before we dip headlong into that account, let me give you some background. In 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar, king of the then-superpower Babylonian Empire, having conquered most of the known world, sets his sights on Israel. He takes it and the capital city, Jerusalem, handily and carts off the best and brightest to exile to Babylon. Fifty years later, we find the Babylonians are no more, supplanted by the new Big Man on Campus, the Persians and Medes, led by their king, Cyrus. Cyrus decided things might go better empire-wise to get many of those exiles back to their homeland—happier people are more productive people, and more productive people generate more tax dollars. And from his decree, 50,000 Jews head back to Israel. You can read about this first tranche who head home in the book of Ezra.
Back home, however, things don’t go very well for those Israelites. They build a new temple, nothing nearly as grand as Solomon’s original, but never get around to restoring the walls and gates of the city. So, no security from unfriendlies nearby. Ultimately, the economy tanks, and the people end up borrowing from neighboring countries to make ends meet. That goes badly for them. Eventually, most of their homes and property are owned by others, and even family members are forced into servitude to work off the debts.
Time goes by. . .a new Persian king, Artaexerxes, comes onto the scene. He continues the policy of resettling exiles. He also has a respected Jew named Nehemiah in his employ as cup-bearer. Nehemiah’s brother pays him a visit after a trip to Jerusalem. He describes for Nehemiah the dire circumstances there. Nehemiah is heartbroken, and he determines to seek the king’s permission for a leave of absence to return home and lead his people to recovery. Amazingly, the king agrees, giving Nehemiah all manner of money and supplies to get jump-started. That’s good, but there was more. The king also declares Nehemiah the governor of the whole region and hands him letters to pick up any additional goods and supplies from everyone he might meet along the 600-mile journey home—all to ensure that, when he gets there, he’ll have what he needs to get the job done.
Nehemiah gathers a bunch of his fellow countrymen, and they head out. When they get to Jerusalem, Nehemiah, under the cover of darkness, wanders around the city to get a bead on the situation. He eventually calls the people to a meeting and casts this great vision: We’re going to rebuild the walls, reestablish our security, fix this economy, and stop being the laughingstock in the region. Everyone is pumped to get to it. But, wait! A problem. Everyone is in hock and constantly in fear of losing their houses, land, and families. So, Nehemiah takes a bold step—and you can decide whether you’ve seen any of this kind of leadership in America lately. He uses his own personal wealth to pay off the debts of the people, requiring them only to make building that wall a priority. And excitement reigns supreme, the work gets underway, and everything’s going great. . . until. . . well, wealthy Jews conspired to get the poorer Jews to borrow more money, this time from them, at high interest rates. Their calculation: "No problem for us if these people can’t pay. They’ll whine and all, but ol’ moneybags Nehemiah will come to the rescue. He’s good for it. We’ll make a mint.” I think they misjudged Nehemiah a tad. See for yourself out of Nehemiah, chapter 5, as Nehemiah gets wind of the cries of those about to lose their homes and land again.
Nehemiah 5:6-13 I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, "You are exacting interest, each from his brother." And I held a great assembly against them and said to them, "We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!" They were silent and could not find a word to say. So I said, "The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them." Then they said, "We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say." And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, "So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied." And all the assembly said "Amen" and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.
He calls a meeting to read these shysters the riot act, but, interestingly, he begins the meeting talking about how he himself has dealt with the people. He says, “ Look, I paid off their debts myself, and you guys have operated to take advantage of them. Even now, there are people in need, and when I see that, I simply loan them what they need. I don’ t charge interest—they simply pay back that amount when they can." And we’re told an amazing thing: These loan sharks hear Nehemiah and were ashamed. They didn’t even try to make a defense.
Nehemiah says, “Look, I know you guys have been operating this way for generations, but that doesn’t make it right.” See, when God established Israel, He made it clear that the nation was to be a people that owned, not borrowed. And if people in the nation needed something, the nation was to make that available to them at no interest. However, Nehemiah now tells them because of their duplicity, what was needed at the present moment was something more drastic: Give them the titles back to their land and houses, cancel their debt outright, and return any interest you have collected. And because of Nehemiah’s own personal integrity, the con artists agreed to do just as Nehemiah said.
Let’s ask this question. Can you imagine the President of the United States or the US Congress successfully facing down business leaders, bankers, or anyone who has ripped people off and getting this kind of response? Yeah, me, neither.
In fact, I tuned into to some of the Congressional hearings this past week that grilled the pharmaceutical company, Mylar, over the dramatic increase of the price of an EpiPen to over $600. Interestingly, I didn’t hear anything that resembled what Nehemiah heard from company representatives. “Oh, no, we’re not getting rich off of price gouging and hurting people who depend on these pens to live. We’re not make any money at all. Maybe it’s some unidentified middle man, somewhere out there in the ether, that’s to blame. But surely not us, surely not me.” And I’m thinking to myself, “Where is the shame? Where are the heads hung low, unwilling to even look into the face of their accusers? Where is the humility?” It didn’t exist. Remember the sub-prime mortgages that toppled the housing market back in 2008? Instead of letting the shysters pay, largely the US responded by printing more money to bail them out.
We have to ask, “Why is this?” Well, I think the Nehemiah story holds a clue, because it turns out he had something that apparently the President of the United States and Congress does not possess, something that could lead people to the shame and the resultant actions that shame should produce. And we find that as we continue reading in chapter 5. See if you can spot it.
Nehemiah 5: 14-19 Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people. Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.
Nehemiah clearly had something in his quiver that POTUS and Congressional leaders did not possess, something that took him 12 long years to develop, something that went beyond just the power and authority that came with his position as governor of the region. Something that led him to speak and shame the guilty into coming clean and making things right.
What was it? Moral authority. For those 12 years, Nehemiah purposely did not take all the goodies that came with the title “governor.” He was focused exclusively on what was needed to build the wall, to get the job done. So, he was unwilling to make life more difficult for the average family, unwilling to take the food, money, land for himself and his crew that came from Persia. In fact, he even forbade any of his guys to buy land. We’re not here to get rich off this assignment. We’re here to build the wall. And it cost him. He had to pay for a lot of the activities out of his own resources. He apparently didn’t care about building up a huge nest egg for himself.
Someone with moral authority has a ton of clout way beyond just their position. It’s that authority that can get people to line up behind you, inspired by your leadership to sign on to take the hill that seems insurmountable. Because you’re not looking to use or abuse them, you’re not asking them to do something you haven’t. You’ve risked it all for the cause, and they know there’s not a duplicitous bone in your body. You’re not out for you; you’re out for getting the job done.
So, why don’t we have Nehemiah’s to vote for around here? One reason is that I believe we have decided as a nation that it’s OK for a person to have a major disconnect between their private and public personas. Who cares anymore if someone says “X” but then does “Y”? Oh, yeah, we care when it’s someone from that other party, the one we don’t like. We want accountability then. But when it’s someone from our side of the street, well, it’s not that big a deal.
We’ve been trying to encourage ourselves to view our politics through our faith, not the other way around. And didn’t we just see from Nehemiah that really leading a people to recovery, out of horrific circumstances, takes not just having a position—or winning an election—but the moral authority to inspire people to make the sacrifices necessary for the good of the nation? And that inspiration comes, in large part, because they have witnessed that person sacrificing for the good of the nation. If national leaders want to have credibility to lead us to recovery, they’ve got to have moral authority. The term in the bible for this is “beyond reproach”—a rigorous investigation into a life that reveals no degree of separation from what is said and what is actually done.
So, politicians running for election, if you’re up to something that, if found out, would embarrass you, your family, your constituents, just walk away now. If you’re leveraging your position to get things, do things, the average bear can’t get or do, just walk away now. Save us all the heartache later when it comes out. If you’re an alcoholic or abuser of any substance, just get out of politics. We can’t afford more of your shoddy leadership, not with our country needing recovery. If you’ve used your position to build up your bank account, your network, your opportunities, rather than to get the job done you were elected to do, just step aside, please.
I’ve come to the conclusion that, were Nehemiahs from any party to be elected, they would be able to work together to solve things around here. I mean, if they are sincerely devoted to one thing—getting the wall built—they would be able to figure it out. I’d rather vote for a Nehemiah in a party I don’t normally vote for than one lacking in moral authority from my normal party of choice.
Maybe you conclude that our nation is in the kind of mess where we don’t have a Nehemiah to cast a vote for. Maybe it’s time we began to pray that God would send us such candidates in the future and help us endure the lack of good choices until He does.
Make sure you tune in next week, because we are going to discover just how much hangs, not on the masses out there, but on the seriousness of Christians who claim to be followers of Christ. Those people getting their act together literally determine everything about the future of our nation. So, hope reigns, but it doesn’t come cheap.