When the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of families and said to them, ‘Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here.’ But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, ‘You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us.’Ezra 4:1-4
In 2018, an article in Forbes magazine opened, “Every person and every organization want to do the right thing in the right way.” I don’t know if I totally agree with the author’s assertion. It seems like sometimes people want to do the wrong thing. In Romans 7.15, Paul said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
People often have an inner conflict about what to do and why to do it. We know we should eat healthier, yet junk food can be alluring. We know we should exercise, but that means getting up and doing something.
As a Christian, it gets a little harder. We know we should love our neighbors as ourselves, but that’s hard. We’re supposed to have the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. We do sometimes… sometimes. We know we should die to ourselves and live for Christ… we have work to do.
The idea in the Forbes article is that doing the “right thing in the right way” is in both one’s personal and professional best interest. In other words, we are all incentivized to do the right thing. We eat better and exercise because it’s good for us. We can love our neighbors and live for Christ because it’s who we are as Christians.
The Forbes article was obviously about business. In business, doing the right thing can be a challenge because a lot of people have trouble distinguishing their own self-interest from the company’s, and companies come and go. Since 1955, 90% of Fortune 500 companies have vanished. Think about that. Everything keeps changing even if we are trying to do what’s right. Some researchers from Washington University estimate that in 10 years, 40% of the companies on the S&P 500 will be gone.[i]
Change is a constant
Change is a constant. Of course, that idea is nothing new. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said as much 2,500 years ago. “One can never walk through the same creek twice.”[ii]
Change seems like it has been one of the major themes this year. What we are doing and the ways we do it were unimaginable just eight months ago.
Even though many of us want to get back to what life was like before COVID-19, the future is going to be something different.
In business, companies react to a changing environment or they cease to exist. Since people are not corporations, we have to think about it a little different. We process the changing environment and figure out what we want to do. We don’t necessarily face the same existential crisis businesses face.
Salt & Light
Instead, for us, it’s a question about how we want to be. Are we going to be the salt of the earth? Or, are we going to lose our flavor?
Are we going to be the seasoning that brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control to life?
Or, are we going to do something else? Are we going to be the light of the earth? Are we going to shine before everyone? Or, are we going to hide our light away?
Lesson for today from Ezra
The question of how we want to be brings us to Ezra. The ancient Israelites were captive to the Babylonians. Then, King Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians and told the Israelites that they could go back to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. As they headed home, they wanted “to do the right thing in the right way.”
For those who were born during the 70 years of captivity, Cyrus’ proclamation would have been amazing news. They might have gone back to Jerusalem singing and dancing for joy.
Recall Ezra 1, when Cyrus said they could rebuild their temple. One problem involved the people who had been in Jerusalem before they returned. Cyrus didn’t really address that. Ezra 4 opens by identifying the people who had been in Jerusalem as the “enemies” or “adversaries” of Judah and Benjamin.
These “enemies” or “adversaries” went to Zerubbabel and Joshua and asked if they could help rebuild the temple.
Zerubbabel and Joshua were some of the leaders of the Israelites. Zerubbabel’s name means “offspring of Babylon” so he was likely held in the Babylonian captivity and almost certainly born there. He was a descendent of David and gets a shout out when Matthew 1 lists Jesus’ lineage. Haggai 2.23 refers to him as a servant of Yahweh.[iii] If there ever was someone who wanted to do the “right thing in the right way,” it was Zerubbabel.
He said, “No. No, you can’t help.”
Through Cyrus, the ancient Israelites understood that it was God who told the people to rebuild the temple.
A return home
As they returned to Jerusalem, they viewed Cyrus’ edict as God’s calling, and they thought God’s calling was exclusive. They interpreted the instruction to rebuild the temple to mean just them and no one else should rebuild it.
Reading the story from their perspective gives us insight into their justification. They thought things were going the way they were supposed to go. They thought they were doing the right thing, and maybe they were.
The Babylonian captivity ended. They returned home. Cyrus said they could rebuild the temple. The only wrinkle came from some people who they didn’t know who wanted to help them. Trying to make sense of what was really going on gets a little muddy at this point. Were the people making a genuine offer of help? We just don’t know.
One way of translating Zerubbabel’s response in Ezra 4.3 is, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God.” The NRSV says, “You shall have no part with us in [this].” They were saying, “This is none of your business.”
What is right?
One commentator connects the Israelite’s response to the denominationalism we experience every day in our faith journeys. He writes, “Western Christians have surely known the danger of being so sure of their correctness that they see those with other views as being divisive.”[iv]
Thus, we have Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Church, and Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors of Protestants.
Sometimes when we feel opposition to doing what’s right, we should pause to ask if we are, in fact, as correct as we think we are. Oliver Cromwell famously said in his letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, “Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”[v] To borrow Cromwell’s prose, from the “bowels of Christ,” it’s sometimes impossible to imagine that we may be mistaken.
We become so sure that we are right, everything else appears to be an anathema. Only God is perfect. Only God knows everything. We face uncertainty each day. Change and uncertainty are both constants in this word. We can go forward into the changing seas of life, with all of the uncertainties we face, in faith that God is still present.
Lessons for Today
The ancient Israelites provide many lessons for us for today. In Ezra 4, we find a group of people who wanted to do what is right. They wanted to do God was telling them to do. We don’t know if they got it exactly right.
For us, we can take this lesson as aspirational. We can seek Christ and try to be the salt and light. We can maintain an openness to God’s leading and the possibility (or likelihood) of having to make some course corrections, or changes along the way. Change and uncertainty are constant. Yet, God is still with us, loving and leading us. We just need to remain open to the one who began a good work in us.
[i] Jamshid Vayghan, “Doing The Right Thing And Doing It The Right Way,” Forbes, February 21, 2018.
[ii] Heraclitus, Fragments, trans. Brooks Haxton (London: Penguin, 2001).
[iii] Russell Fuller, “Zerubbabel,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 829.
[iv] Ralph W. Klein, “Ezra-Nehemiah,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 700.
[v] Oliver Cromwell, The letters and speeches of Oliver Cromwell with Elucidations by Thomas Carlyle, ed. S.C. Lomas, vol. 2 (London: Methuen & Co., 1904), 79. https://books.google.com/books?id=v_VFAQAAIAAJ.