Nehemiah is one biblical character whose attitudes, lifestyle, strategies and priorities work together to change society for the betterment of poor people. As governor of the city of Jerusalem—working for a foreign power—he risks his position to advocate rebuilding of the city walls in order to protect the native (mostly poor) Jewish population. Nehemiah is well rewarded materially for his leadership role. It would have been easy for him just to enjoy the privileges that went with his position. Yet when Nehemiah is approached by a group of Jews who are struggling economically he intervenes to help them. Like many Jews, they had ended up with crippling debt, forfeited their land, even becoming enslaved, because many wealthy people exploited unfair advantages during a tough economic climate. Nehemiah’s response is to publicly denounce the exploiters and challenge them to give back what they had taken. Remarkably they did! Additionally, Nehemiah organizes a relief program for those in distress and institutes long-term financial reforms to ensure those impoverished were able to develop a livelihood again.
But the most remarkable feature of Nehemiah’s response is a costly, personal change of lifestyle. Having observed how his predecessors and their assistants “laid heavy burdens on the people” and lorded it over them, Nehemiah chooses to reduce his income, live more simply and refuse many of the benefits he was entitled to. To reduce the tax burden on the people, he takes over the expense of 150 Jews, officials and foreigners, serving in his administration. In doing so he expresses a generous hospitality, hosting them daily at his own table (Nehemiah 5:14-19). See "Restoration of the Wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:1-7:73)" in “Ezra, Nehemiah & Esther and Work” at www.theologyofwork.org for more about Nehemiah’s use of his wealth for the good of the people of Israel.