A good politician’s reverberating mistake

Readings : Nehemiah 13.23-31; Matthew 5.38-48

You can watch this sermon here (27:00-52:00, with prayers from 52:00-54:00).

I respect and value Nehemiah because he was a politician – a good politician, good hearted, good ideas, great skill and courage. 

Politics is unavoidable in our living together. We know how much we need good politicians every time we suffer from bad politicians. Doing without politicians is not the answer.

Nehemiah was sad when he heard how his home city, Jerusalem, lay in ruins, and its people were in distress (ch 1). Like Jesus, he wept over the city, the polis (Luke 20.41-44). He evidently had the heart of a good politician

And then, because he loved and he cared, he did not stay in his comfortable high-status job as the king’s cup-bearer. He risked involving himself in a political community that had to be built again from the foundations. 

He got walls built, mobilizing people to join in hard work, and securing fairness for oppressed and dispossessed people. With skill and courage, he curbed obstructors and enemies of the project. The city was on its way to being a viable human community (chap 2-7).

This effective and useful politics brought the people to the day when they could celebrate and enjoy their life together. The city worked. They held their heads high. (chap 8-10). 

But Nehemiah, this good, successful politician, was human. And that means fallible, able to make mistakes, even liable to make mistakes.

I think Nehemiah made a fateful mistake. It was a bad thing to do at the time. It repeated and grew out of past mistakes and it reverberates to this day. 

You may not agree with me in saying he made a grievous mistake. Nehemiah did not think he made a mistake. He believed what he did was necessary and right, in accord with the will of God. And you may agree with him. 

So there is an issue here, let’s see what it is and then consider our response. 

It happened like this: 

The people stand in the sun, listening to the law of God being read all the morning, and then they commit themselves to following it. Be doers of the word, not hearers only (James 1.22-25). Following the will of God involves action – and a morning’s reading of the law gives us too much to do all at once. So we ask, what one thing are we given to do here and now? 

The people heard the law. It seems no one picked out Deuteronomy 4.6: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ No one said to the people around, This command will give us focus, amidst the welter of detailed instructions. 

They did not highlight Leviticus 19.18: ‘Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD’. 

Much later, Jesus put these two commands together and said, There is no commandment that has higher priority than these (Mark 12.29-31). 

And they missed Leviticus 19.34: ‘The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the native-born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God’.

This commandment calls us to remember our ancestors’ hard deep experiences of being vulnerable strangers needing hospitality and friends and only sometimes finding them. But we run from the past and tend to learn little kindness and generosity from its negative and positive sides. We easily manufacture and nurture grudge out of the stuff of memory, or we sweep it away into an oblivion of irrelevance. 

So, on the day, the people heard these words, but did not begin to work out how to enact them (James 2.22-25). Nehemiah found something else to put his weight behind. He records: ‘I saw Jews who had married local non-Jewish women… and half their children spoke the local language of Ashdod…’ (13.23). He was incensed. By authoritative administrative action, Nehemiah achieved mass compulsory divorce, and Ezra (10.1-43) infected the event with religious fervour. They saw it as doing the will of God. 

Is this not the tragic mistake of this good politician? Nehemiah focused his inspiring leadership into this policy. He beat the mixed-marryers and pulled their hair out: isn’t his brutal impatient anger a warning signal that something may be going badly wrong here? Did Nehemiah pause to count his fingers? (Ephesians 4.26,27).

To answer that question let us put ourselves imaginatively in the real human situation. I imagine it with the help of what I see and hear in my own small personal corner, and with what I see in Gaza and Israel now, and not forgetting Ukraine. 

See it in the simplest, most human ways you can think of: You have before you a Jewish father, a Palestinian mother, and their normal children – by normal I mean children who are hard work, sometimes a worry, sometimes like Max who wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another, so his mother called him Wild Thing and sent him to bed without any supper – you know the story. But with all that, at the same time, these normal children are lovely hopeful children, we love them to bits and we won’t have you saying a word against them – they are wonderful and precious, lighting up our lives. 

This family now stands before you, a government official, or perhaps, just an officious person, and you say to the father, ‘Send your wife away, she is a foreigner, not one of us; this marriage is a danger to the future of our culture – your children are not speaking our language – and to our religion, she will tempt you to worship her god which is no god.’ 

The poor man protests, ‘But this is my family, I love them, we all love each other, we are growing in love all the time, we are looking after one another and living as well as we can, even through the bombing, and we don’t see why we should separate. We will not let go of each other. If you don’t care much about me, think of the children and what you will be doing to them’. 

And you, the official, is required to say, ‘Look it is written here in the law book, you just have to do it. The government has decided in their wisdom. And if you won’t divorce, I will beat you and tear your hair out.’ 

I ask you, now, Could you do that? Wouldn’t the bit of human kindness you have in you revolt against it? And if you were to do it, could you live with yourself? And if you did manage to live with yourself, tell me, tell yourself honestly, what will you have made of yourself? How will you stand in the inescapable light of God (Matthew 25.31-46)?

Go through this exercise: stand in imagination observing all this being argued out and decided – do you want to say breaking up this family was a good wise and human action? 

Maybe some of these mixed marriages were rotten – just as some unmixed marriages are bad. Are we to think they were all loveless, abusive, destructive, marriages which should be stopped? No attempt was made to discriminate between loving and unloving marriages. The criterion of this policy was not love, but achieving holiness by rejecting foreigners.

Marriages are mixed in many different ways, not just in ethnicity and language and religion. Many marriages which look unpromising to outside judges, blossom with love between partners and between parents and children. Love is there, bearing fruit in all sorts of ways, love that wells up from the depths of life together and makes people beautiful and happy and resilient. Love lived together images God in the world –– ‘God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God’ (I John 4.16). (compare Tim West and Prunella Scales)

Nehemiah seems to have been proud of cleansing the people from foreign connection. At the end he asks God to remember him and reward his good works 13.14, 30. Some thought then, some say now, that God authorized action of this kind. Can we avoid making up our minds about whether God is in this action or not? How do we think it through? 

As you confront this poor mixed family, giving them this terrible instruction, you might remember that Jesus said, Look at how it works in human life, ‘A man leaves his mother and father and cleaves to his wife and so the two become one flesh.’ And don’t think that happens without God, or that God doesn’t value it. Quite the opposite: ‘ What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Matthew 19.6). Nehemiah – Jesus – whom shall we follow? 

Let’s remind ourselves a bit more about Jesus. As Christians, we say we are followers of Jesus don’t we? Our values, our vision, our hope we derive from the grace of God who lives humanly in Jesus. We acknowledge Jesus as Lord. We find our way in life by walking with and after Jesus in his way. That is why we read the stories of Jesus and hear his words. There is our guidance. There are our marching orders, our invitation into the life of God. 

And, here’s the question for us as we engage in reading the book of Nehemiah: Is Jesus the Lord of our reading, of the way we read? How can we read Nehemiah under the direction and in the light of Jesus? 

Reading Nehemiah’s story with Jesus – doesn’t it suggest Nehemiah was making a sad mistake here, one that still shapes much human living? 

Jesus lived and shared God his father in societies where many people were separated from others by culture and loyalty, and some were separated by the religious conviction that God expected from them to be holy by being separate from other people. They held aloof from others because they were proud that God made them different: they were trying to be truly holy, really God’s people, following the law, while other people were ignorant and careless about God’s word. So other people are a danger, or at least uncongenial. Separating from them is then seen as wise precaution, a mark of real holiness, genuine dedication to God. 

And Jesus mixed freely with all sorts of people. And he crossed all kinds of boundaries, he ate with tax collectors and sinners.

Jesus healed on the sabbath, and ‘the holy people said it was a shame’. They did not value love in action, if it did not follow proper procedure. 

So he suffered from the disapproval of holy-separationists, who saw him as an unholy lawbreaker. 

He told stories, like the one about the Pharisee who prayed, ‘I thank you I am not like other people, or even like this taxcollector’ (Luke 18.9-14). Such stories annoyed them, even though Jesus aimed to were intended to enlighten them, and help them turn from death to life.

A woman anointed Jesus, when he was at dinner in a righteous man’s house, and the host thought Jesus should have known she was a sinner. (Matt 26.6-13;Mark 14.3-9; Luke 7.36-50). The host kept his holy distance, but Jesus let her touch him. Jesus saw the love she had, saw that her love was in response to the forgiving love she had received, saw the love she had for Jesus, who was on the way to his lonely death. He saw love in its many rich dimensions and valued it. Love covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4.8). 

Love bonded people together in holiness, the shared holiness of the freely-mixing Jesus and the mixed-up woman who was a sinner. This is not merely shocking, not just a difficult puzzle to get our heads around, it is the demanding generous call of the kingdom of God. And it makes inclusive community, it carries Nehemiah’s project further than he could manage, for in the end his was an picky, excluding community. Walls were built – was it not necessary? – against aliens, not to welcome them? Walls of stone, and then walls of stone-hearted regulation and pulling out of hair.

Jesus was happy to reach across the barrier to touch the untouchable leper and he heal him (Mark 1.40-45).

A Roman centurion , the powerful armed agent of the crucifying power, asked Jesus to heal his sick servant and Jesus did that (Luke 7.1-10). Jesus does not just tell us to love our enemies, he did that himself, praying forgiveness for those who crucified him. He loved his enemies. When he was rejected in a village in Samaria, his disciples offered to call down fire from heaven, -did they ask in their hearts, who were these foreigners to insult their Master? – and Jesus said, No, we don’t do that sort of thing, you clearly don’t know what sort of spirit you are of (Luke 9.51-56). 

Jesus travelled beyond his home territory. He encountered the syro-phoenician woman who pleaded with him to heal her deeply troubled daughter. Jesus said it was outside the terms of his missionary mandate, and it would be wrong to give her, an outsider, the children’s bread. Yes Lord, she answered, but dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table. He saw and wondered at her faith, and once more responded to this loving desperate mother, who was on the far side of the wall between Jews and others – she reached across the wall to him, I think we may say she opened a path for Jesus to break through the wall to help her. (Matthew 13.21-28)

Jews have no dealings with Samaritans (John 4.9); but Jesus asked the Samaritan woman to give him a drink of water. And he ventured the story of the Samaritan who was genuine neighbour, a helpful mixer (Luke 10.29-37). 

In the end he gave his life for his enemies (Romans 5.8,10), a ransom for many, dying on a criminal gibbet, numbered (Isaiah 53.12) with ‘transgressors’ – boundary-trespassers, joining other despised and broken people, and telling one of them, ‘You will be with me in Paradise today…’ .

Jesus called a mixed group of disciples to be with him and to go out and preach, and they behaved in very mixed and quite unsatisfactory ways. Even at the Last Supper, which we will celebrate today, in our sanitized form, Jesus had to be patient and caring with people who said they were his disciples, but squabbled about who was the greatest, while one plotted to betray him, and another said he would go even to the death with him, although Jesus knew truer and told him, ‘Peter you will deny me three times tonight – you will let me down no end, but I will pray for you that your faith will not fail – I will be faithful to you…’ All his life, Jesus ate with taxcollectors and sinners and all sorts, and he was still keeping that kind of mixed company at his last supper. 

Jesus loved, he saw love even in broken imperfection and cherished it, calling us out of hate to love, beyond stuttering love to its full flow. The alternative to sin in the way of Jesus was not the holiness of difference and separation, but love. 

And when Jesus came again after his death, to pick up the Galilee mission from where it had been broken off, he sent his disciples out to all people through all the world to invite them into the kingdom of his Father

And when the missionary disciples had a fit of holy separatism, as Peter did when he hesitated to take the Gospel to the Gentile Roman centurion, saying, Lord, I have never eaten anything unclean, I can’t cross this boundary – Jesus told him, What God has cleansed, let no one call unclean. God makes all things holy. God claims all things. (Acts 10-11) 

The way, and the word, of Jesus stands in sharp contrast to Nehemiah’s action against all these marriages

Nehemiah only saw sin and danger and social trouble. He wanted a community of pure race, that kept itself separate from others so as to be separated to God. Unhappily, he was one of the many, 

the many to which we belong, 

who do not have a sharp clear reliable eye for the possibility that

when people are genuinely separated to God

they will be taken, ever more fully, into the living love of God,

and carried out to the ends of the earth, to love ever more generously.

God gives us no choice, the love of Christ constrains, we are under pressure to love, as we are loved – we are loved as sinners, we are loved as ordinary creatures of God, no different from other creatures, not privileged or entitled to special treatment. The nearer we come to God, as God is in Jesus, the more the love of God will be shed abroad in our hearts, the more we will be one of the family of God, with all the other children of God, not looking to be greater than anyone else in the kingdom of God, just glad that we have a place in God’s kingdom where to be in even if only just on the edge, is to be as fully ‘in’ as someone at the centre (Entry Point 73, Revelation 21.22,23).

Nehemiah did not have an eye for the love that could have been found in at least some of those ‘improper’ marriages. But we are not here to judge Nehemiah. We can thank God he was a good politician, as frail human politicians go, and we can learn humbly from his mistake, for we also sin grievously. 

What we can take from Nehemiah, the questions we have to answer, are something like: 

What do I have an eye for? What do we? Do I recognize real love whenever I see it? Do I value real love whenever I see it? 

These are questions for my little everyday life.

They are also questions for the world we live in, the world of Gaza and Ukraine, even the world of the UK, the world within our reach. 

Revised text of sermon preached on 19 November 2023 as a contribution to a series on Ezra-Nehemiah

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