Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers … “Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen, and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery, because our fields and vineyards belong to others.”
– Nehemiah 5:1, 5.
OVER THE PAST TWO YEARS OR MORE, the media has highlighted a fast-growing disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. While the “haves” are enjoying ever-increasing opportunities in education, housing, leisure, careers and other lifestyle choices, the “have-nots” are finding themselves more trapped in traditional low-skilled jobs with incomes barely enough for subsistence. Just as demand for luxury housing is increasing, the demand for low-cost, one or two-room rental flats is also on the rise. Consequently, there is a swirling tide of discontent and alienation among the young working class against the upper middle-class.
The Church is caught in a paradox. On the one hand, the message of the Church – that God’s heart belongs to the last, the least and the lost – gives hope to the marginalised. On the other hand, the Church is one of the most elitist institutions in society. A large proportion of the privileged class is represented in the Church, while only a handful of churches comprise or have successfully integrated the poor and the marginalised into their congregations. is paradox – of the Church being on the one hand a voice of hope to the masses and on the other an elitist institution – brings to the fore the question of the role of the Church in society with regards to the poor and marginalised.
It may be argued that the reason for our personal wealth is that the Christian faith and its teaching on clean and holy living invariably produces successful persons. e argument goes that we are rich and successful because we were obedient to God, and that our godly ways resulted in our success. is is undoubtedly true; yet the question that confronts us is: Is it enough that we are honest in our dealings, or are we required to live by a diﬀerent code altogether?
Nehemiah chapter 5 records a situation where the poor in Jerusalem raised an outcry against the rich. Unlike the situation recorded in Micah and other Old Testament prophetic books where the rich were accused of dishonest and violent dealings, the rich in Nehemiah’s time were not guilty of any dishonesty or violence. Apparently the rich were above board in their dealings. In fact, some of their charges were fair by any standards today. Nevertheless, their dealings oppressed the poor and caused hardship.
The rich in Nehemiah’s time were not evil-hearted people. When told of the suﬀerings that they had caused the poor, they were remorseful and immediately vowed to rectify the situation at great cost to themselves. Evidence shows that these rich people were truly God-fearing. Somehow, in the midst of their pursuit of wealth, they had become blind to the plight of the poor and the hardships that their practices had caused. They had been insulated from hearing the cries of their suﬀering brethren. Transformation took place when Nehemiah heard the outcries of the poor.
Our pursuit of wealth and the trappings of luxury desensitise us to the hardships that the poor face. Recently, a colleague brought to my attention the plight of a 13-year-old girl (let’s call her Jane) who had been regularly attending our weekly children’s club.
Jane’s father had recently been released from prison, but was living with a girlfriend. Her mother was more concerned about finding another man than she was about caring for her three children. Jane, being the middle child, was the least favoured in the family. Her older sister, the family’s pride and joy, was already serving time in jail. Jane was failing nearly every subject in school, had started smoking, and was threatening violence to other school children.
My colleague had a plea: “Can you help us find her a private tutor who can also mentor her?” I was incredulous. How was I to ask anyone to personally tutor this girl for free when the government oﬀers free classes and private tuition fees are exorbitant? Does Jane deserve such luxury?
Deep in my heart, I knew that a committed and godly tutor might be Jane’s only lifeline. Jane did not deserve this luxury, but if anyone needed it, she did. We can no longer ask whether or not the poor deserve help. We have to ask whether they need it.
I am proud that the Church as an institution has been found to be blameless in its dealings in the eyes of the State. We enjoy respect from the authorities largely because we are regarded as people of integrity. But the question with regards to the marginalised is not whether we have acted honestly or not. Rather, the question that confronts the Church is this: have we heard the cries of the poor? Notwithstanding our honesty, have our actions or apathy caused greater hardship to them? How do we individually and corporately bridge the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, and thereby credibly bring the gospel of hope to the marginalised?