In whose interest?

Basil the Great, among the most renowned of the early Church fathers, states:

When the prophet wished to describe in words those who have attained perfection, those who are about to attain to everlasting life, he reckoned among their noble works the following: “They do not lend money at interest.” This sin is denounced in many places in Scripture. Ezekiel accounts the taking of interest and receiving back more than one gave as being among the greatest evils, and the Law specifically forbids this practice: “You shall not charge interest to your relative or your neighbor.” And again the Scripture says, “Guile upon guile, and interest upon interest,” and a certain Psalm moreover says regarding a city that prospers amidst a multitude of evils, “Interest-taking and guile are never absent from its squares.” And now, the prophet identifies this very thing as the characteristic of human perfection, saying, “They do not lend money at interest.”1

Payday Loan Place, photo courtesy of Taber Andrew Bain https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewbain/524195139/I know this topic will be controversial. If I didn’t feel so strongly about its importance, I would not have broached it. But over the last five years I’ve come to see the loaning of money at interest as a source of a great deal of sadness and suffering in our world.

This post falls under the blog category of Biblical Words on Money that You Never Hear in Church. Usury was a serious concern in the Bible, yet today it isn’t mentioned from the pulpit.

This was not always the case. Most of the Church fathers addressed the evils of loaning money at interest, several Church councils banned it, the medieval church demanded that interest be denounced by every priest on a regular basis, and the topic of illicit interest remained central up through Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 16th century and even Pope Leo XIII in the 19th century. But as modern capitalism made usury a tremendous money-maker for the wealthy, the church prohibitions grew weaker and weaker until the issue stopped being addressed altogether.

How did we get here? Over the next few weeks I want to discuss what the Bible has to say about interest, how the Church has dealt with interest over time, and why the modern obsession with making money on interest has damaged our world.

Interest in the Bible

It is clear that interest was of major concern to Biblical authors. There are three main themes that are relevant to us.

#1 It is forbidden to charge interest to those whose welfare we care about

“If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.”2

“If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit.”3

“You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess.”4

These verses point out that taking interest from the needy is a form of exploitation, and taking interest from a fellow Israelite was a violation of that brotherhood. Only foreigners (those whom Israel was effectively at war with) could be charged interest.

In Nehemiah, we see both the damage of interest and the application of its ban in practice.

Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin… “We are having to pledge our fields, our vineyards, and our houses in order to get grain during the famine.” And there were those who said, “We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax. Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.”

I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints. After thinking it over, I brought charges against the nobles and the officials; I said to them, “You are all taking interest from your own people.” And I called a great assembly to deal with them, and said to them, “As far as we were able, we have bought back our Jewish kindred who had been sold to other nations; but now you are selling your own kin, who must then be bought back by us!”

They were silent, and could not find a word to say.

So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God, to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us stop this taking of interest. Restore to them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.”

Then they said, “We will restore everything and demand nothing more from them. We will do as you say.”

And I called the priests, and made them take an oath to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out everyone from house and from property who does not perform this promise. Thus may they be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said, “Amen,” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.5

Nehemiah’s recitation of the Lord’s command was enough to get the people to change their ways. But the passage goes beyond a simple repetition of the commands. The circumstances and pleas of the people are emphasized to remind us that lending at interest was prohibited specifically because it was a means of profiting off those in need for the sake of greed. Families are suffering, inheritances destroyed, solely so the minority of Israelites in privileged positions can make a quick buck off of everyone else.

How does this apply to those of us who are not part of Israel, but who are part of the New Covenant signed with the blood of Jesus Christ? The general ethic appears unchanged – Jesus is not one to reduce our commitment to mercy, and throughout the New Testament it is clear that we are to have an open hand towards the poor and needy.

Several Church fathers (including Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome) argued that Jesus goes even further that the Old Testament on this issue. In the Christian ethic of love for all, not only our neighbors but even our enemies are to be cared for, not taken advantage of with things like loans at interest. The key passage is in Luke 6:

If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

The principles that once guided our behavior with fellow believers now guide our behavior towards everyone. The follower of Jesus not only lends to enemies with an open hand, but expects nothing at all in return.

This segues well into our second principle.

#2 It is forbidden to exploit other people’s difficulties for profit

The prohibitions against interest are part of a broader warning in the Bible against using your financial position for profit, an ethic which would eliminate the power and profits of the moneylender. For example:

* Despite the lack of ability to charge interest or keep collateral, lending was still to be made with an open hand (Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Proverbs 19:17, Psalm 37:21-26, Psalm 112:5, Matthew 5:42, Luke 6:34).

* All debts are remitted every seven years (Exodus 21:2-6, Deuteronomy 15:1-3, 15:12-18, Nehemiah 10:31) and all family property restored to its historic owners every fifty years (Leviticus 25:8-55), thus diminishing the power of indebtedness.

* The collateral of the poor could not be held onto for even a night (Exodus 22:26-27, Deuteronomy 24:10-13, 17) especially if it was necessary for livelihood (Deuteronomy 24:6). Employers had to give workers their wages on the day, every day rather than holding onto paychecks for weeks or months (Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

* Profiting off the vulnerable was an act of the wicked (Amos 2:6-7, 4:1-3, 6:4-7, 8:4-8; Micah 2:1-3).

Taken together, you can see how even without the specific commands against interest, lending at interest in most cases would be out of line with the ethic of the Bible. God tells us to respond to economic disparity by acting with concern towards the poor, working with as much energy as possible to even things out. As Paul says,

I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,

“The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.”7

Interest takes money away from those who need it in order to line the pockets of those with money to spare. In the world of the Biblical Jubilee that cancelled debts, prophetic denunciations of those who accumulate land and money, and a Jesus who questions whether the rich can even be saved, there is no room for a policy that ensures the rich will get richer at the expense of the poor without even having to work for it.

#3: Lending at interest was seen as a mark of unrighteousness

Outside of the commands, the Bible describes those who loan at interest as having a taint about them. By demanding interest they indicate that they had not placed God’s concerns and concern for others above their own selfishness.

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.8

In Psalm 15, lending at interest is placed alongside lying, slander, taking bribes to hurt the innocent, and doing evil to one’s friends. All things the righteous would never partake in.

Proverbs reflects Psalms in this manner, including the suggestion of future judgment.

One who augments wealth by exorbitant interest gathers it for another who is kind to the poor.9

God will reward those who are kind to the poor, not those who use interest to profit off the poor. It is interesting that the English translator here has translated the two separate nouns “neh’-shek” and “tar-beeth'” as the single phrase “exorbitant interest” rather than the separate nouns “interest and bonus” as they are defined in concordances and Bible dictionaries. In the postscript I’ll give the evidence for why “neh’-shek” clearly refers to any interest at all on a loan.

The prophet Ezekiel also stated that the righteous did not loan at interest:

“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right….does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.10

Ezekiel 18:5-9 describes the man of justice as one who does not profit off loans. This principle is emphasized repeatedly – the violent man is one who “takes advance or accrued interest” (18:13) and thus surely will be put to death, while the good one “takes no advance or accrued interest” (18:17) and thus shall surely live.

In a later chapter Ezekiel condemns the “princes of Israel” who are doing this very evil:

In you, they take bribes to shed blood; you take both advance interest and accrued interest, and make gain of your neighbors by extortion; and you have forgotten me, says the Lord God.11

The negative impression of those who gain at interest extends into the New Testament. In the book of Matthew a master described as a “harsh man” states, “So you know that I reap where I have not sown and and gather where I have not scattered” when his servant fails to earn a profit on the money he had been entrusted with.12 Though it should be taken with a grain of salt as it is not the primary point of the parable, it’s worth noting that a master who expects interest is depicted as a harsh man, and earning a profit on wealth is described as reaping where one has not sown.13

Summary of the Biblical position on interest

The Bible repeatedly notes that accumulated money gives the wealthy power over the poor. That is a power which followers of God shall not use for their own gain. They are not to profit off of the poor, they are to lend with an open hand to the poor, they are not to keep the collateral of the poor, they are not to keep the poor indebted to them indefinitely, and they are not to charge interest to anyone in need of money.

If we charge interest, we are assuming that those with wealth deserve to profit when lending to those without wealth. This is capitalist, but it is certainly not Biblical. Wealth is for serving God, to be freely given or loaned without interest or expectancy of repayment. The point is not to accumulate more wealth for oneself. As we know, those who chase after money are constantly running into problems and evils.14 Thus the desire to profit off of our advantages is counter to God’s desires for that money.

Is there anything in here that suggests that the Biblical issues with interest were specific to that time period, or specific to the Jewish people? I don’t see it. Rich profit at the expense of the poor in this age just as they did in that one. The poor or unfortunate lose their homes and their inheritance in this age just as they did in that one. The only difference is that we’ve normalized it, so people don’t even want to see it as wrong.

Next week we will see how the Church fathers and councils have dealt with the issue over time.


Postscript: does “interest” really mean “interest”?

One way that modern interpreters have attempted to wipe away the Bible’s words on interest has been to reinterpret the verses to mean a ban on “excessive interest” or “unfair interest” or something to that effect.

Such an interpretation finds no basis in the text. According to Strong’s Concordance, the word neh’-shek (נֶ֫שֶׁך), which is the word used in every passage quoted, simply means “interest.” Smith’s Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Nave’s Topical Bible, the notes to the Geneva Bible, and the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia all agree on this point. Attempts to redefine the word as “excessive interest” or some other variation go outside of the evidence. Interest is forbidden, full stop.

The early Church Fathers read the passages as banning all interest. As quoted in the St. Basil the Great homily at the beginning of this account, they believed “Ezekiel accounts the taking of interest and receiving back more than one gave as being among the greatest evils, and the Law specifically forbids this practice.” St. Gregory of Nyssa makes clear that all interest, not just that which goes above the rates allowed by Roman law, should be condemned, and “declares straightforwardly that sacred scripture forbids the taking of any surplus over and above capital, no matter what pretense at legality is made.”15 St. Ambrose forbids all interest at any rates and of any type.16 St. John Chrysostom noted that while civil law allowed interest to be taken below a certain level, even this was forbidden to the Christian.17 St. Jerome used Psalm 15, Deuteronomy, and Luke to argue that in Scripture the taking of anything for a loan is barred, even a fee at repayment.18 While in recent centuries some church figures eventually softened the commandments and allow some level of interest, a strain from Augustine of Hippo to Martin Luther was clear that taking anything over and above the principal of the loan was to be considered illicit usury.19

Footnotes:

[1] St. Basil the Great, Homily 8, “Against Those Who Lend at Interest”, from On Social Justice pg 89-90
[2] Exodus 22:25
[3] Leviticus 25:35-37
[4] Deuteronomy 23:19-20
[5] Nehemiah 5:1-13
[6] Luke 6:32-36; see also Matthew 5:42-48
[7] 2 Corinthians 8:13-15
[8] Psalm 15
[9] Proverbs 28:8
[10] Ezekiel 18:5-9
[11] Ezekiel 22:12
[12] Matthew 25:26
[13] Paradoxically, I have seen this very parable used to claim that Jesus affirms interest. First off, parables are always directed towards their central point – it’s a terrible idea to build a new theology, or contradict other clear commands, based off of circumstantial side comments which are not part of the parable’s central point. Second, the “harsh master” of Matthew 25 is part of the same Gospel tradition as the “shrewd steward” of Luke 16 or the “unjust judge” of Luke 18. In each of those parables a spiritual analogy is being made, but that in no way suggests that we should mimic the actual behavior in the parable. Only a harsh master who reaps where he does not sow would demand payback with interest, only a dishonest steward out for himself would defraud his master’s accounts to secure his own future, and only an unjust judge would refuse to grant a widow’s just case until she sufficiently annoyed him. Their actions are NOT a model for our actions or for God’s.
[14] Matthew 6:24, Mark 4:19, 1 Timothy 6:10-19, and many more such passages
[15] St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilia IV in Ecclesiasten
[16] St. Ambrose, Letters on Deuteronomy 34, 40, 42, 49, 50
[17] St. John Chrysostom, Homilia LVI in Matthew
[18] St. Jerome, Ezekiel Commentarii 6,18
[19] All citations from the Fathers taken from Robert P. Maloney, “The Teaching of the Fathers on Usury: A Historical Study on the Development of Christian Thinking”, Vigiliae Christianae Vol 27, No 4, pages 241-265

6 thoughts on “In whose interest?

  1. I was just recently talking with a friend about how the word “mammon” is no longer heard from the pulpit; and that it needs to be brought back into frequent use.

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  2. Oscar Delaney

    Nehemiah makes it sound so easy to change people: not only their beliefs and words but also actions. I wonder if he was just a great public speaker or if God somehow made sure everyone listening was ready to listen and respond or some other factors.

    Thanks for the detailed biblical analysis – that’s more of the old testament than I’ve read for a while. However I would also be interested in your more modern economic analysis – perhaps the third in the series? What would an interest-free system look like in today’s world? It seems hard to imagine everyone not charging interest voluntarily, though that would be a worthy goal. Yet, conversely, legislating to ban the charging of interest also seems difficult. Particularly when it would be in both parties’ interest to make a transaction with interest: for the lender so they can make money, for the borrower because presumably a loan with interest is better than no loan at all, at least working off a capitalist assumption of rational actors. (The aphorism ‘The only thing worse than working in a sweatshop is not working in a sweatshop’ could aptly be modified to ‘the only worse than a loan with interest is not getting a loan at all’, I think.) Perhaps where this falls flat though is when you take into account people being irrational and foolish and so needlessly taking loans with interest that in hindsight they know they shouldn’t have.

    Also, given that in our modern world loans and interest are (usually) done indirectly through banks, do you think it is wrong to keep my money in a bank, given that they are only able to give me a return on my capital by charging others interest on loans? That would be pretty radical, but perhaps the logical extension of biblical teaching into a changed world.

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  3. Nehemiah had both political authority and a form of religious authority among a people whose oppression left them without a whole lot of other options.

    Yes, I will enter into the modern questions in the 3rd essay. For now, I’ll say that besides charity (including the funding of charitable banks which loaned to the poor without interest, which actually happened in some Christian regions in the medieval period), there’s the option of shared investment. In Muslim banks, where interest is also supposed to be banned, someone with a business plan proposes the plan to the bank. The bank and the borrower work together to evaluate if the plan is viable and should be expected to succeed, and then they work out a shared agreement of how much each participant will invest, what their responsibilities will be in the joint endeavor, and what % of returns each partner will get. In this case rather than the money-lender being in a position of power, the lender and borrower are in a position of shared responsibility. If the business succeeds, they both reap income as agreed upon. if the business fails, they both lose together.

    I think we should always treat our responsibility and our control of other’s responsibility on somewhat different levels. I decided some time ago not to take out loans at interest or make money giving such loans to others. I believe that you are correct that banks only sustain themselves off of such profits, and as such it would be nice to be able to divest from such banks, but it is not always possible. The more people who reject the concept of interest, the greater opportunity for systems that don’t rely on it to develop.

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  4. Pingback: Usury and the Church – Stranger in a Slum

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