THE STORY OF USURY

September 22, 2019

Deuteronomy 23:19-20

I am guessing that few of you have heard the story of usury. It is an old story, one that preachers rarely tell any more. It is going to take me a while to tell you the story. I warn you ahead of time, as you listen, you may wonder how this story applies to us. I will get to the application eventually. But let’s start at the beginning, long, long ago, some three thousand years ago.

After the LORD emancipated the ancient Hebrew refugees from their enslavement in Egypt, the LORD spelled out hundreds of laws for the newly formed “nation.” The laws covered an immense range of activities from personal matters such as hygiene and fashions, to business matters such as assigning liability and loaning money. The laws on loaning money banned Jews from charging interest on loans to fellow Jews.

Exodus 22:25 laid down the rule: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal: charge no interest.” Leviticus 25:35-37 reinforced the rule by again forbidding Jews from charging interests on loans to fellow Jews who become poor. Deuteronomy 23:19-20 broadened the rule by forbidding interests on loans to any fellow Jews, whether poor or not: “Do not charge a fellow Israelite interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest.” At the same time that Deuteronomy granted an exception, the rule permitted Jews to charge interest on loans to outsiders.

You are familiar with how interest works. You loan me $100 at 5% interest. As soon as I start paying you back, I start paying some toward the principal and some toward the interest. I eventually pay you back the one hundred dollars plus at least five percent or five dollars more, probably more than five dollars, depending on how long it takes me to pay back the loan. The old fashioned word for the amount that I pay back beyond the original loan is usury. Any amount of money added onto the original sum loaned was usury. Under the Old Testament usury laws, if you loaned to me $100, you could only be expected to get back $100. No extra interest charges were allowed.

This policy may seem short-sighted to us, but according to the Old Testament usury was criminal. Charging interest or collecting usury on loans to fellow Jews, according to the social critic Ezekiel, was as detestable as committing robbery, adultery, or idolatry (18:5-9). The just Hebrew loaned money without expecting to make a profit, without charging any usury (Psalm 15:5).

The New Testament makes no explicit judgment on usury, but on one occasion Jesus spoke out about making loans. In Luke 6:34-35, He said: “Love your enemies, do good to them and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” Jesus seemed to break down the distinction between not making interest-bearing loans to fellow Jews but allowing usury on loans to outsiders. Jesus challenged his followers to treat insiders and outsiders the same. Jesus went beyond expanding the Jewish practice of forbidding usury, he said that the most loving approach is to abandon the expectation of collecting the loan principal at all!

The early Christian leaders and for centuries thereafter the Church emphatically and consistently endorsed the Old Testament rule of condemning usury. The government permitted businesses to legally collect usury, but the Church forbad Christians to collect or pay interest on loans. Some exceptions were made for late payments of loans, in which case one making the loan could collect a penalty but only at the end not over the term of repaying. Apart from that exception, charging interest was uniformly condemned. Numerous church councils issued pronouncements calling for persons collecting interest to be excommunicated, expelled from the Church and forbidden to be buried in church graveyards. In the ninth century the Holy Roman Empire outlawed usury, outlawed collecting any more money than what was loaned across Europe.

For centuries thereafter the Roman Catholic Church condemned usury, first, on the basis of Scripture, which uniformly forbad usury, second, on the basis of centuries of church tradition, which consistently forbad usury, and third, on the basis of reasoning. Their reasoning was essentially similar to our proverb “Money doesn’t grow on trees.”

When a farmer bought a tree, planted it, nurtured it, and later harvested it, the value of the tree grew over time.  A tree was once worth 5 pieces of silver produced apples and wood eventually amounting to 20 or more pieces of silver. Trees, livestock, land, houses, and commodities increase in value over time. But, they thought that money did not grow. If you hid one hundred pieces of silver under your mattress, after five years you would still have one hundred pieces of silver. Therefore, money did not grow under mattresses or on trees. The value of money did not change. 

This rock solid stance condemning usury among all Christians began to crumble during the 1500s and 1600s, about the same time that the Protestant reformers began chipping away at the rock solid control of the Roman Catholic Church. A few Christian leaders began to propose exceptions to or limitations on the condemnation of usury. Pope Leo X in 1467 allowed Christian charitable pawn shops to charge 6% interest as a way to help defray their operating costs in order to compete with other for-profit pawn shops. Protestant leaders likewise began to allow their parishioners to charge for commercial loans at interest rates of 5% or so, as long as the merchants did not take advantage of the poor or let money-making defile their spiritual motives.

Intense debates among Christians over usury came to the fore as Europe’s economy gradually changed. Instead of economies relying on local farms and small scale local trading of commodities, emerging economies relied on wide scale overseas and international trading. The new economy needed flexible financial means to promote trade over greater distances, including lines of credit, bank notes, bonds, insurance, and printed money.

These new ways of handling money prompted Christian leaders to rethink their view of money. In the new economy, it seemed that money could grow. One hundred dollars invested in a cargo ship today sailing to the Americans could return in a year with a cargo worth twenty or thirty percent more. On the other hand, the value of money could also decline. The amount of wheat that one could buy for one hundred dollars today might be much larger or smaller than the amount of wheat one could buy in two years. Christian leaders began to grasp that the value of money was not steady; it could fluctuate with inflation or deflation or returns on investments.

Faced with the realities of their new economy, Christian leaders, especially Protestant leaders, began to question of the appropriateness of holding fast to the Church’s fifteen hundred year old tradition of condemning usury. They began to question the appropriateness of holding fast to the Scriptural rejection of charging interest on loans. During the 1600s the dominant view in Christian Europe about usury changed. Christian leaders no longer forbad all forms of usury. Instead they gradually modified their views. Some rejected only excessive forms of usury, exorbitant interest rates. To fix interest rates, Parliament set the maximum lending rate at 5% in 1713. By 1791 all thirteen American colonies set maximum lending rates at 8% or below.

Even the often-slow-to-change Roman Catholic Church began to change its perspective on usury. In 1745 the Pope had declared that all usury was unlawful, but a century later the Church redefined usury to mean only overly oppressive interest rates charged to impoverished debtors. Eventually both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches dismissed the three thousand Scriptural condemnation of usury and the 1500 year old tradition prohibiting usury as well as the longstanding custom of defining money as unchanging in value. The change was so complete that three hundred years later in our modern era no Christian tradition defines usury, by that I mean paying any amount beyond the original principal of a loan, as a sin. Few Christians even know what usury is.

I imagine most of us have credit cards, or have taken out car loans, or have applied for college loans, or are paying back home mortgages. If so, then we have all violated the Biblical prohibition against paying interest on loans. Yet I don’t sense any of you feeling guilty about it; I don’t. We may feel regret for having to pay such high interest rates on our outstanding credit card balances, but we don’t feel guilt over having taken out a loan. We accept the practice of charging and paying interest as necessary and vital for the economy.

I warned you that the story about usury would take some time for me to tell. One reason I tell the story is because here is an instance where the church at large has changed its mind, reversed its stance. From condemning usury the church eventually came to endorse forms of usury. From upholding a consistent Scripture command the church eventually came to abandon it. From upholding a policy that was endorsed for over 1,500 years, the church eventually dropped it.

The story of usury is not the first or the only time the church at large has changed its mind on how to apply the Scriptures or reform a tradition. For example, we can look at the practice of slavery. For nearly seventeen hundred years the church at large condoned and sometimes practiced forms of slavery. Christians found support in the Bible for practicing the enslavement of prisoners of war and debtors and indigenous people, and later for enslaving captives from Africa. The tradition of the church long condoned such enslavement claiming it upheld longstanding economic and social practices. Only after decades of protests beginning in the 1700s and after the catastrophic Civil War in America, did Christians in America universally come to abandon and condemn the enslavement of fellow human beings. 

For another example, we can look at the treatment of women. For nearly 1900 years the church at large condoned, sanctified, and practiced subjecting women. Christians found support in the Bible for wives submissively subjecting themselves to their husbands and for excluding women from leadership roles in society and the church. The recurrent subjugation of women to men was in keeping with the order of creation, where God made Adam first, then created Eve to help him, supposedly giving divine sanction to male superiority  The tradition of the church long condoned such subjugation, excluding women from ordained ministries and opposing the right for women to hold property, conduct business, vote, not to mention earn equal wages. Only after decades of protests did suffragettes win for women the right to vote one hundred years ago. This issue sadly is not yet settled, for some Christians are still restricting the role of women in the church.  

On the question of enslaving people, on the treatment of women, and on the practice of usury the church has had to change how it applied clear-cut instructions in the Bible and to change how it endorsed long standing traditions. In these three instances, Christians eventually modified or dismissed what they read in the Bible. Changes in the economy, in culture, in public education for women, in political visions for equality and the outcome of a Civil War prompted the church to reconsider its practices and beliefs.

I suggest that one way for Christians to address the question of homosexuality is to review the story of usury. Usury was uniformly condemned in the Bible. You may or may not be aware that homosexuality is uniformly condemned in the Bible: Leviticus 18: 19-23; 20:10-16; Romans 1:26-2:1; I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:8-11. Usury was consistently condemned as sinful in the church’s at-large tradition for over 1500 years. Homosexual behavior has been consistently condemned as sinful in the church’s at-large tradition, and is still so considered in some circles. Yet, and here is the point to consider, no contemporary Christian still treats paying interest on loans as a sin. Over time we have come to agree that the parts of the Bible and the parts of our tradition condemning usury are passé.     

Every Christian church must decide what parts of the Bible and what parts of tradition to keep and what parts to discard or modify. Some do it thoughtfully; some do it out of knee-jerk reactions. Some go too far in jettisoning the Bible’s guidelines; some go too far in enshrining two thousand year old traditions. But no one follows the Bible totally. If they did, then totally Bible-believing bakers would refuse to take credit cards from engaged customers for purchasing wedding cakes because doing so would condone the practice of usury, which if they literally believed the whole Bible would violate their religious beliefs. But no Christian follows the Bible that closely and that thoroughly and that literally. Every Christian and every church picks and chooses what to follow and what not to. We should consider carefully what lessons Christians have learned in the past before we decide what to fight for opposing or affirming in the present.