By Kim Reindl
Lesson for the week of Aug. 25, 2013
Scripture: Nehemiah 13:10-12, 15-22
Opening questions: When have you found it difficult to keep a pledge or a promise that you have made to yourself or someone else? What made keeping that pledge/promise so difficult?
Promises are often easy to make and difficult to keep. Most of us are confronted with the truth of this statement when we think about our New Year’s resolutions. How many of us promise ourselves every January 1 that we are going to lose weight, exercise more, or spend more time with family and friends? We may begin with the best of intentions, yet as the days go by and old habits fail to be replaced by new and better ones, we often find ourselves right back where we started. Such was the case with the post-exilic Jews. Although the temple had been rebuilt and promises had been made to follow God’s law, the people’s old ways of life were quick to return in spite of their good intentions.
This final chapter of the book of Nehemiah, which concludes the Nehemiah memoir, offers a realistic picture of the human struggle to remain faithful to God. When Nehemiah returns from the royal court to govern the province of Judah a second time, he finds several violations of the communal pledge to “walk in God’s law” (Nehemiah 10:29). Tobiah, Nehemiah’s enemy (Nehemiah 2:19; 4:1-3; 6:1-9), has been given living quarters in the temple by his relative, the priest Eliashib (Nehemiah 13:4-5). Such is a sacrilegious act of defilement since Tobiah is neither a Levite nor a priest and he is an Ammonite (Nehemiah 13:1). Also, perhaps because of Tobiah’s presence within the storehouse, Nehemiah discovers that the Levites and the singers have not been adequately provided for. As a result, those responsible for overseeing the temple and worship have been forced to leave Jerusalem in order to earn their living on their farms. Furthermore, Nehemiah finds that the Sabbath has been profaned. Work, harvesting, the use of animals, and commerce are taking place on the Sabbath, all of which are a direct violation of the law of God that the people have pledged to observe.
Since Nehemiah is a Persian official, he has authority over the temple and therefore seeks to rectify the situation through instituting several reforms. Nehemiah removes Tobiah from the temple, reinstates the Levites to their posts, and confronts the officials with their acts of disobedience. As a result “all of Judah brought the tithe of the grain, wine, and oil into the storehouses” (Nehemiah 13:12). Nehemiah appoints “faithful” treasurers to oversee the proper collection and distribution of the tithe, which provides income for the priests and the Levites. Finally, he makes family heads responsible for enforcing Sabbath observance (Nehemiah 13:17) and posts guards at city gates to prevent trading on the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:19). In the end, Nehemiah reminds the people that temple violations and profaning the Sabbath threaten to destroy the holiness of the city. He states, “Did not your ancestors act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city” (Nehemiah 13:18)?
The struggle of the Jews in the time of Nehemiah is the same struggle that we face today. We may be tempted to say, “How could the Jews, after all that they had been through, return to a disobedient way of life?” Yet, isn’t the same true of us? We may have the best of intentions when it comes to being obedient to God, but the reality is that we often fall short. It is easy to allow old bad habits to creep back into our lives. Decisions to turn away from God are not usually drastic acts of defiance, but rather subtle movements toward distractions that erode our faithfulness over time.
Obedience to God is not always easy. Sometimes obedience requires ridding ourselves of certain “enemies” that invade and diminish our storehouses of faith. For example, we must rid ourselves of complacency that allows us to accept things just because they are familiar. We must rid ourselves of negligence that allows us to take for granted the gifts and sacrifices of others. Finally, we must rid ourselves of the allure of productivity that allows us to forget the sanctity of time and the need for rest.
Nehemiah’s reforms sought to secure the identity of God’s people through their obedience to the ways and teachings of God. In spite of their waywardness, Nehemiah continued to call the people back to their commitment to God and their life in community. Although we may fail at obedience, we, like the Jews of long ago, are continuously called to a life of faithfulness. Yet, the lure of the world and the lie of the false self are often more enticing to us than the truth of God’s promises. Therefore, the choice of obedience is a day to day decision. Sometimes the decision is hour to hour, or even moment to moment. Regardless of the struggle, the obedient life is always the life that we are meant to live, not so much for God’s sake as for our own sake. Thankfully God has offered us the gift of the Spirit and the presence of the faith community to empower us each step of the way.
Questions for further reflection:
Kim Reindl chairs the Discipleship Ministry Team for the North Georgia Conference and is available to lead retreats, workshops, and seminars through Pomegranate Christian Education & Formation, www.pomegranatece.com. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.