The man who robbed God

Reading: Nehemiah 13:4-14, Malachi 3:6-15

Nehemiah and Malachi are complementary texts, just as Haggai and Zechariah were complementary texts to the book of Ezra. We cannot interpret what Malachi means without giving him his proper audience and place in history, nor can we interpret whether what happens in the narrative is good or bad without the judgment of the prophets.

You already know, I respect Nehemiah as a reformer, and I believe that he worked to correct the injustices that had become part of the system; but we have to realize that Malachi speaks against injustice that existed while Nehemiah was governor. Malachi is opposed to the leadership offered by the priests and Levites; this includes not only Eliashib, but also the government as since the time of Ezra the governor was also a priest.

Malachi is a trial against the Priestly government of Israel, and of course the government is guilty. One might observe that this is obvious as if it were not guilty, it would not need reformation; but it would be good to take note of what the crimes were — so I will make an incomplete list of the charges Malachi had against Nehemiah’s government.

  • Making light of God’s name
  • Offering stolen and inferior sacrifices
  • Because of divorce (Does anybody remember where divorce came up in these passages?)
  • Accusing God of injustice
  • Calling evil good
  • “Can a man rob God?”

The reading from Malachi I chose was: “Can a man rob God” because Nehemiah Chapter 13 indites Eliashib for doing exactly this:  Robbing God of the tithes and offerings. Taking the whole of Malachi’s prophecy against the leadership of Israel, we see that God’s position on the temple system is beyond a call for reform, and a complete: “I wish you would shut the temple doors.”

I know that if you have ever heard a sermon on Malachi 3:8-12, it is unlikely that the preacher pointed to Eliashib, or the little detail that the whole book of Malachi is about the corruption of the Priests and Levites, or even what a Tithe was in the Old Testament. This is not an appropriate text for “Stewardship Sunday”; but it is a highly appropriate text for Reformation Sunday. As you might know today is Reformation Sunday. Luther was opposed to the way the Church in his time and place was compromising her theology in order to raise money. The lesson of Malachi calling out the corruption of the Temple system, which included misappropriating the tithe seems quite appropriate for Reformation Sunday.

Now, in order for us to understand what it means that the high priest took from the tithes, we have to realize what the tithes were in an Old Testament context. Tithes were not a voluntary gift, but a tax, generally on agricultural production. If one reads through the books of the Law searching for the rules and the use of the tithe, one quickly learns that there were several tithes.

There was the tithe that went to the tribe of Levi. The Levites were landless, their inheritance was bureaucratic positions and 10% of the nation’s agricultural production. The bureaucrats had a real stake in the wealth of the nation, for as the nation prospered they prospered. There was a tithe of a tithe, or 1% that went to the temple system. There was a tithe that went to public festivals and holidays, and there was a tithe to meet the needs of widows, orphans, and resident aliens.

When we talk about the tithes, we are not talking about a voluntary religious gift of 10%, but we are talking about the bulk of the national tax system. We are talking about how government employees are paid, we are talking about public events, we are talking about a national welfare system for the most desperately poor. Taking from the Tithes and offerings isn’t something that just harms the temple, it is something that disrupts the entire province.

Now imagine what happens in this case: The Levites, who are basically born to do government work, suddenly are not paid. Imagine what happens if the road worker is not paid, if the policemen and firemen are not paid, if the courthouse clerks are not paid. Imagine what happens if the tax collector is not paid. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that those who can embezzle, or take bribes to survive will be corrupted, and those who cannot will seek day-labor instead of continuing to do necessary tasks such as maintaining the roads.

The leadership complains that God is being unjust, but this simple act made the entire nation unjust. Not only do the people who needed fed because they were wards of the state starve, but suddenly every tax collector becomes an embezzler, every cop shakes down people for money, ever petty bureaucrat seeks bribes. A society that is supposed to be a model for justice becomes like a corrupt African nation. Where there is widespread corruption, justice and prosperity are both impossible.

The lesson the prophets teach us is that leaders are not perfect but, Nehemiah did something that we rarely see. Nehemiah address the corruption at the top. He assigns people to account for the Tithes, and make sure that it is properly distributed so that people can do their jobs. By creating accountability for those who are at the top of the system, Nehemiah makes the system less corruptible.

Now, the obvious lesson here is that government officials should be held accountable, and that there should be a system to hold people accountable at ever level. Our system of government points to a system of checks and balances, and when we have reform to make government officials and workers more accountable, we usually call it increasing transparency.

A less obvious lesson is found when Malachi tells the leadership that God wishes they would just close the doors of the Temple. When we read Nehemiah 13, Nehemiah is absolutely offended that the misappropriation of the tithes makes it so the temple cannot properly function missing that this would also shut down the nation and cause the deaths of a number of wards of state.

Nehemiah did the right thing, but his motive was the wrong one. He wanted to save the temple, which was a symbol of not only God’s presence but also the authority of the priests. Clearly, if the corruption was complete enough to disrupt the normal functions of the temple, all of society was disrupted. Nehemiah addressed the corruption, not because it was destroying Judah, but because it was destroying the symbol of Judah’s position as God’s favored people. It is not a surprise that God spoke through Malachi suggesting that they close the door of the temple forever if they cannot practice justice.

The lesson I want us to take home is that yes, a man can rob God. When I studied this passage, one of the commentaries that I read was Calvin’s commentary on Malachi. I was rather surprised when I read what he said:

God then, no doubt, is deprived by us of his right, when we are unkind to the poor, and refuse them aid in their necessity. We indeed thereby wrong men, and are cruel; but our crime is still more heinous, inasmuch as we are unfaithful stewards; for God deals more liberally with us than with others, for this end–that some portion of our abundance may come to the poor; and as he consecrates to their use what we abound in, we become guilty of sacrilege whenever we give not to our brethren what God commands us; for we know that he engages to repay, according to what he said in Proverbs 19:17, “He who gives to the poor lends to God”

We rob God when we miss the point in the same way Nehemiah did, and have our priorities all wrong. Eliashib’s crime was bad enough; but forgetting that humanity is creating in God’s image, and valuing a building over the people was even worse. The Temple was a great symbol,  but it was a symbol created by people. If the doors closed forever, God would still be God. If Nehemiah’s first thought was to the people who’s livelihoods were stolen instead of the temple, perhaps Malachi’s prophecy would not have been necessary.

We should also remember the promise in Malachi — that if we do not rob God, the windows of Heaven will open. When I consider the effects of corruption, I realize that while there is corruption it hardly matters if the windows of heaven are open. There are no shortage of nations that should be wealthy, but widespread corruption keeps them poor. I read this, and I wonder if God ever closed the windows of heaven. I wonder if selfish priests, and indifference to the inhabitants of the land was enough to destroy all the wealth that was promised.

No matter what, may we honor God, and may we show our love to God by our behavior towards those who are made in God’s image. If we live in this way, I have no doubt that we will not rob God.

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