There’s something ugly, something character revealing, about the politician who squeezes absolutely every inch out of their entitlements. Those who make sure that every dollar of those things that they can technically claim is used up, and who spend the time to do so.
Every few years there are outcries about some entitlement scandal in which a politician has to resign or pay back money in light of their, shall we say, creative attempt to prove that the holiday they had on the Gold Coast was for “research purposes”, or that the apartment they rented in the city was actually their regular abode when they were working in Parliament, even though they owned a home nearby.
It was indeed these “second home” expenses that brought down many a politician and resulted in jail terms for some during the 2009 expenses scandal in the UK. There was outrage among members of the public when they discovered the manner in which so much tax payers money was being used to fund profligate lifestyles of those who were already on a good financial wicket.
For many of the UK’s best known politicians it was either embarrassing, or career-ending. It was clear that these politicians who were elected to serve had forgotten that, and had become self-serving instead. Technically they appeared not to be breaking any of the rules, but in reality they were exploiting loopholes in exactly the way the self-righteous leaders of Israel exploited moral loopholes in Jesus’ day, whilst still adhering to the letter of the law.
And perhaps too – indeed most likely – these pollies had grown a sense of entitlement. I mean, it’s a tough job being a national MP, right? Late nights, lots of travel, trying to keep constituents happy. And then there’s the press! Oh my goodness, the press!
You can see how they got there. Increment by increment.
Contrast that behaviour with that of Nehemiah in the book that bears his name. He was the Old Testament leader of Israel who returned to the burnt out, broken down capital city Jerusalem to rebuild it after the exiles had started to trickle back from the Persian Empire. Nehemiah was used to living near luxury, as chapter one tells us his job was cup-bearer to the Persian king Artaxerxes.
Having returned with the king’s blessing to rebuild the city, and having been made governor, Nehemiah sets about the task in the face of opposition without and within. There is external opposition from neighbouring nations who threaten to kill the rebuilders. And worse than that, there is still a persistent sin in Israel, with internal opposition in the form of political intrigue by those opposed to his national/spiritual building program.
But to make matters worse the wealthier people of the land have started to fall back into the practices injustice and oppression that was part of the reason Israel ended up in exile in the first place. We read in Nehemiah 5 how Israelites were selling themselves into slavery to pay their debts to their Jewish brothers, and how the wealthy were hoovering up all of the land and vineyards, which according to the Law was not permitted, as the LORD had allotted inheritances to each family, and that it could not be permanently sold on or acquired. Nehemiah puts a stop to it all.
But more than that. Nehemiah does not call for a standard he is not willing to maintain himself. As the governor of the nation he had the right, like many of the political leaders of our day, to draw from the allowance of the governorship to feed himself and his entourage. In other words, not to be out of pocket, and with the always present temptation to line those pockets, with taxpayers money.
He doesn’t. Indeed this is what we read:
Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year – twelve years – neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. 15 But the earlier governors – those preceding me – placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that.
Nehemiah does not choose an alternate route to the other governors to curry favour with the public. He does not choose to forgo the entitlements because he’s well off. He chooses neither to “lord it over the people”, nor to exact his full financial rights, because he has reverence for God.
In short, he loves God more than he loves money. He loves God’s people more than he loves money and seeks their blessing not his own. And that is the mark of a true servant leader. In that way he was a shadow of the truly great Servant Leader – the Lord Jesus – who gave up all of his rights all the way to the cross. God the Son had the riches of heaven at his disposal, but did not burden the people, but rather lifted their burdens.
Two observations: First, as those involved in ministry leadership, the creeping sense of entitlement in terms of what we earn and how we exploit loopholes in expenses and tax-breaks is ever before us. And it comes even more to the fore when we are feeling tired, or angry or burnt out. There’s often a sense – unspoken of course – of “All these years I have slaved for you and you have not given me a tax-fee, non-declarable young goat that I might celebrate with my friends.” If you realise that you are starting to get to the same level of fiscal creativity as the UK parliamentarians in 2009, then watch out, your soul might be in a dark place.
But secondly, and this has been a clear pattern I have observed, abusive, narcissistic leaders in the church seem to have this in common: they are greedy for gain. Not just gain over people’s lives, or gaining control over a church, or ever gaining a platform. But good old fashioned greedy for financial gain. It’s such a common theme among those abusive leaders I have witnessed, and also heard about, that the pattern is clear.
I’ve yet to hear of a narcissistic leader who does not earn well above what others around him (and it’s usually a him) earns. And often I heard of such leaders who take an almost perverse pleasure in having a good wage, while the interns and also-rans they employ either have to make-do, or find their own earnings. What’s more they are more than happy to place burdens on their subordinates that they would never willingly bear themselves. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and heard it justified with a certain sense of pride. And I’ve yet to meet such a leader, who when exposed and sacked, does not exact as much as he can on the way out the door to the ongoing detriment of those he has already abused.
And the only conclusion you can read about such types, regardless of their theological acumen or their perceived success in building a large and/or influential church, is that they, like those in Nehemiah’s time, do not have reverence for God. And a lack of reverence for God does not mean that you have no reverence for anyone, it simply means you revere yourself. Or to put it in modern day psychological terms, you have an over-inflated sense of self”. I guess the Bible calls it pride.
This same prideful spirit that was in the previous governors of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s time, was also prevalent in the time of the Apostle Paul, and is also present today:
These are the things you are to teach and urge on them. and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain. (1 Timothy 6:5)
There are actually people who think that the prize for being godly is money. The goal of declaring the gospel is gold. Christian leadership is a byproduct to their true heart’s desire: wealth and influence among those who are wealthy and influential. Such leaders “demand the food allowance of the governor” because they see themselves as special, and because they have lost sight of the Saviour.
Let’s be careful therefore that we do not fall into the trap of seeking entitlement because we can. It truly is the canary in the mineshaft of where are hearts are when it comes to love of God or love of money. And a growing sense of angry entitlement could be a sign that you are on in burnout mode. You might need to step away for a season to reexamine where your heart is at.
Or you could be reading this as someone who – as a leader in the church of God – is greedy for gain – whether that be lording it over people, or flashing a wad. You need to repent. Either way, there is someone – or Someone – who sees all of this and will call to account. For as Nehemiah prays at the end of chapter 6:
Remember me with favour, my God, for all I have done for these people.
Done for, or done against “these people” – we can be assured of this, God will remember. We must take this to heart.