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simps_usuryThe church, Christians, well people generally really, have a habit of MAJORING on minors. Making mountains out of molehills, and molehills out of mountains. Carefully straining a tiny gnat out of your coffee and not taking much notice when a camel falls into your drink (Mt 23:24). Six disputed Bible verses that apply to a small minority of “them” can keep people happily arguing for years. But the plain teaching of scripture that applies pretty much to all of us can be easily and comfortably ignored. “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Mark Twain

When did you last hear a sermon about usury? When was it last discussed in your Christian group, church council, synod,…? When did you last find a debate on this in your Christian media?

Usury is the charging of interest on a loan.

The Bible is consistently pretty clear:

Ex 22:25 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.
Lev 25:35-37 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.
Deut 23:20 On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite (literally brother, kinsman, one in a reciprocal relationship) 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.

Usury was consistently and unanimously condemned by popes, by three ecumenical councils, by bishops, and by theologians.

Fast forward to 2010. The total credit-card debt in USA is $840,000,000,000 Total consumer debt is $4,200,000,000,000

In New Zealand, credit card interest is often 19 per cent. Making minimum payments it takes 13 years to pay off a purchase and the accumulated interest! New Zealand’s population of 4 million has a credit-card balance of more than $3,500,000,000

A lot of the current financial problems, for example in the housing sector, are due to the actual value of the house being below the amount that has been borrowed to purchase that house. I have been told that people are being very, very quiet about the fact that this problem is even much bigger in the commercial property sector (I think his figure was 85% of US commercial properties being less in actual value than the money borrowed to own them).

All this is connected to our practice of usury. Islam continues the biblical tradition against usury. One can share in the gains if you lend money, but you must also be prepared to share in the borrower’s losses.

In brief: interesting how we so easily ignore clear biblical teaching when it is inconvenient to our own needs/perceptions/culture. When was the last time you heard a sermon explaining why usury is fine? And how easily we use the Bible to bash others we disagree with.

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15 thoughts on “Usury”

  1. Corey Furman

    Interesting, but more so as a sub-point to the larger subject of Stewardship.

    Still, I have some reservations with respect to some of your assertations. For instance, several of those references are offering guidance on how to deal specifically with the poor, and not how to behave in general.

    Also, I note that all of your references are are OT; what does the NT have to say on the subject? Obviously, this is a gateway into a much larger conversation.

    I don’t recall a single sermon ever on this particular topic, but I suspect that has less to do with willful avoidance and more to do with it just isn’t a sin you typically find people in spiritual crisis over. Here there be conjecture on my part 🙂

    1. Thanks Corey, I think Brian may have the point more clearly. I am not sure that it was “guidance”, but a rule. Only once do I see the word “poor” mentioned – in the context I would suggest it means someone who cannot pay for what they are purchasing and hence needs a loan. I would also suggest that, following Brian, the New Testament only alters Old Testament rulings when explicitly stated. Matthew 5:17-20 etc. It is certainly of interest that you have never ever heard a single sermon about this – yet it was consistently the church’s teaching, regularly pronounced upon and reinforced until relatively recently. That it is no longer a sin or leads to any spiritual crisis and yet can be seen as a cause in the world’s current economic crisis is certainly worthy of much further reflection. I have decided, Brian, to leave the post up – but do understand your concerns.

  2. Dear Fr. Bosco,

    I think we can be clear that there are certain parts of the Bible which are obvious metaphors, e.g., prohibitions against eating prawns or cheeseburgers, prohibitions against the mixing fabrics, and poetics like camels through eyes of needles and that whimsical image of jubilee, and the like.

    While on the other hand there are parts of the Bible that are clearly meant to be taken very literally, such as on the abomination of Sodomites, serial polygamy and of women usurping the role of men. I think eventually the Church will even repent of its innovations that contervene the clear teachings of the Apostles on the duties and responsibilities of thrall to master in that venerable, protective and instructive institution of labor and industry which was so instrumental in the advancement of of Christian society throughout the world in the face of dark heathenry and paganism.

    I think it best if you were to take down this bit of fancy off the internets. As your figures indicate, a lot is riding on this, if you take my meaning.

    Many thanks

  3. I too think Brian must have the point more clearly…

    I used the wrong word when I said “guidance”.

    I do not believe that the Law has been abolished. I do however believe that from a certain perspective it has been superceded, in the sense that whereas the former was a list of Do’s and Dont’s Because I Said, the later is the Law of Love. Seen from this view, we don’t take advantage of our brother – who is everyone – because we love them more than ourselves. In this regard, it is more restrictive.

    1. Thanks Corey for the clarification. Following, then, the direction you are taking this, could you clarify further please: have you ever placed your money in a bank and received interest from it? The bank, on your behalf, lends your money out at (higher) interest to “our brother”, passing on some of that interest to you, contrary to the clear, consistent teaching of the Bible and church councils etc. In my city we do have a Christian bank which lends out money without charging interest, and people deposit funds on this bank without receiving interest. Is this what you mean?

  4. Darren Andrus

    Good points; however, seems to be several topics in one post.
    1. Majoring on the minors.
    2. Churches role/responsbility in identifying usury.
    3. Churches responsibility to the poor (Ex. & Lev.)
    4. Responsible business relationships (Deut.)
    5. Credit Card Debt & The current housing crisis.
    Which some of these topics may have less to do with usury and more with personal responsibility. There will always be man trying to gain advantage over another man. So where does individual responsibility fall? And how do we interpret Matthew 25:14-29 and Luke 19:11-26? Thanks.

  5. Bosco;

    There are three initial things to note here:
    1) The prohibitions against usury are founded in the lending and not the borrowing
    2) The prohibitions are against usurious lending by the people of God; which means us, but not by those who are without faith
    3) Those who lend usuriously today are primarily corporations which, before secular law, are artificial persons only capable of holding values enshrined in the charter, articles, and memoranda.

    My first conclusion then is this: that the Bible does not instruct Christians to prohibit a company (as understood in the secular manner) from lending usuriously. Although it does point towards the evil in such a practice, it also points towards the evil of even the very passage of time in this present age.

    Now there remains two questions:
    1) Whether the company can rightly and morally be considered non-Christian if it comprises in part Christian shareholders, directors or employees (different questions in each case)
    2) Whether there are other parts of the NT which address Christian forms of lending and what their implications are for the argument

    In terms of a realistic assessment, I suggest that:
    1 i) Being a shareholder of an usurious company is to commit usury; and this includes usurious mutual societies or investments, for you profit in proportion to the usurious gains
    ii) Being a director (or fund manager) of an usurious company is to commit usury; for the decision to stop lending at usury is given into your power
    iii) Being an employee of an usurious company is not necessarily to commit usury, perhaps unless in such employment you actively promote usurious loans; many in such companies do great good in helping to ensure more responsible lending and more ethical forms of debt collection.

    2) The role of a Christian in lending however is much more than just lending without usury, it is to lend without hope of return of even capital.

    Luke 6:30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.

    Luke 6:34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.
    35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.

    Through teaching about money, Christ illustrates forgiveness; and yet, just because he illustrates forgiveness, it does not mean that it applies only to forgiveness. That which a man owes to you can be a moral debt due to being wronged or a financial debt due to his possession of your funds; yet in both cases you hold the man in bondage until you forgive him or he compensates you for your loss.

    Based on this, I don’t think that a “Christian bank” which lends money without charging interest but does secure loans or take measures for the recovery of debt can claim to be a Christian bank. This basis should also, I believe, hold for all the forms of ‘allowed usury’ which have been recognised by the Church at various times. e.g. there is no basis for charging a man the fair value of what you lose by lending him the money if you lend without hoping for even the capital to be returned.

    My final conclusions then are this:
    – That whilst we might witness against the evil of usury we do not have the authority to demand non-Christians cease the practice; this being poor material for sermons because it is founded in feeling good pointing at ‘those bad non-Christians’ rather than looking at our own faults
    – That we do make decisions as Christians in terms of investment and employment that could be usurious and should be avoided; this being a suitable topic for sermons of broad applicability
    – That we as Christians, through generous lending, without usury, and with forgiveness of debt from the time of lending such that any repayment is an unexpected blessing, are able to reduce the evil of usury by providing an option other than usurious borrowing; this being a suitable topic for sermons where preachers don’t mind being labelled communist or worse insults for the sake of actually preaching the word of Christ.

  6. (Tongue out of cheek)


    I think I had heard about something like that in Islamic societies.

    How does it work? How do they stay open? How do they interact with risk and loss? Do they ever say, “No,” set limits, or actively seek repayment in default? Is there any material advantage to savers?

    I’m reading Partner to the Poor, A Paul Farmer Reader about how the there are TBMI (transnational bureaucrats managing inequality). The whole business all neatly institutionalized and sanitized with oh-so-rational-sounding, free-market-economics dogma that regrets the lack of cost-effectiveness and non-sustainability of actually addressing poverty and health inequality in a meaningful way, yet glaringly glosses over that now-assumed, and somehow nearly-universally-assented-to part that the wealthy nations, the people in them and particularly the wealthiest people in the the wealthiest nations, absolutely positively must have everything they want, as much as they want, when they want it, and to do with what’s left over as they want, (and very important) all with caprice, and without pangs of conscience, the poor be damned.

    It all seems very much like the same thing. Partly like the Island of the Blockheads in Pinocchio, where free rein to appetites tricks and transforms into beasts of burden for the system to hitched to bring in new meat for the voracious cycle.

    1. I am sorry, I am aware of it, Brian, but not the fine details, and only found a little about it online. I will try and do better. As I understand it, people deposit their money – they will get the same money back but without interest. In one sense, then, they are giving the interest away. People are helped financially, and required to return the money, but there is no expectation of returning more than they borrowed. As far as I know it was started here by a Baptist Church, and is called Kingdom Trust. If I have all this wrong – please correct me someone.

      Yes, the post appears to be being read in a number of different ways. Which is fine. 🙂

  7. I am fascinated with the rational, systematic and juridical responses to this post on injustice versus caritas/agape (I had to choose my words wisely here because the English word evokes disdain and incredulity these days). I may be mistaken, but it seems the tendency is to reflexively advocate for The Man and The System.

    NB: It is common in the face of abuses of power for the narrative among the larger group of participants, witnesses and on-lookers to get very rational, avoid emotion, make excuses for the abuse and above all blame the victim. There is even the Stockholm Syndrome to reckon in such a milieu, where victims of abuse identify with and defend their abusers.

    Jesus (and the Prophets) had a bad habit of running afoul of the rich and powerful (or as you might have it, the practical and the reasonable).

    The question is whom do you defend in the face of abuse of power? The System? The Man? The Poor?

  8. This is why I had a bit of trouble connecting. Similar to Darren, I read the initial post as having several loosely connected points.

    When I looked up the first two scriptures you pointed out, BibleGateway.com notes that an alternate interpretation might be excessive interest. That has a significant impact on your argument. I don’t make the conclusion that it is unsinful, but I respectfully susgest that this also fits the way the world works. I don’t particularly enjoy paying the interest on the loan I had to take out to pay for my house, but neither do I feel that the lending company has sinned. Money accumulates value over time, and when that money is loaned out, the lender has reduced liquidity – and therefore ability to do commerce. Doesn’t that institution have the right to expect a return on their investment in me?

    I believe we can gain insight into this when we think of the parable of the talents (as Darren points out). God is pretty clearly represented by the man who goes on a journey, gives his money to servants, and expects a return on his investment. Now we have to be careful when trying to apply a siritual concept to a physical one, but I do think we can safely conclude that God at least recognizes this to be so.

    In any case, I return to my concluding thought. Sin is sin, but I don’t think this is a major source of spiritual crisis. In my humble opinion, our time is better spent teaching ourselves Christlike stewardship.

  9. Thanks Corey for moving the conversation forward. Even Darren’s list of points does not IMO make them unrelated. I understood my post to be about our regularly focusing too much on things that often do not affect us significantly, and neglecting to focus on things impacting most of us. Especially neglecting to focus on things where we ourselves may be made to realise that we need to change our lifestyle and have been the cause of misery. The example that sprang to my mind was the current world-wide economic situation that is a reality in a great proportion of households and actually has a strong biblical teaching and a consistent teaching from the church until relatively recently when, as all have indicated, that teaching has not only ceased and reversed completely, but no one has even heard an explanation of this reversal and a recounting of the biblical and Christian tradition. A corollary might be taken, that what we hear so much of in churches today may be completely reversed and forgotten about in the future.

    You would have to give the precise URL for a translation of the Hebrew word neshek to mean excessive interest. In any case, when is it excessive? Is the charging of 19% on credit cards excessive?

    My reading of the parable of the talents Luke 19:11-27 & Matt 25:14-30 attempts to hear it as Jesus’ poor, oppressed peasant hearers would have heard it. You appear to correlate the one who is economically powerful and has total control over his subjects to the point of executing all opposition with God. I wonder if that was what Jesus’ peasant hearers heard, or if that was the reason why Jesus would be a threat to the powerful to the point of needing him done away with by the very rich and powerful that he is here, in your interpretation, extolling; this interpretation in the context of Jesus’ teaching on the dangers of riches, the abuse of authority, and respect for the little ones and the poor. The question I would pose is: was the third slave right in refusing to collaborate further in making his rich master richer? Can we hear it through the ears of the original peasant hearers as a warning to the rich about their exploitation of the weak?

    Finally, what is the Christ-like stewardship that ought to replace this reflection?

  10. Corey Furman

    Wow. Let me say that I have difficulty in relating at your level of intelligence. I’ll not try to make to poor a showing 🙂

    First, let me say that I did not intentionally mean to say that your points were unrelated. I can tell that they are, but I your mind works a bit faster than mine does, and I had some trouble keeping up. Don’t take my confusion to be a critique.

    As for your questions:

    >>Was the third slave right in refusing to collaborate further in making his rich master richer?

    I assume you ask this facetiously. This is Scripture, and I think Jesus is trying to demonstrate examples of sinless and sinful behaviour. Still again, I believe these are designed to teach the hearers spiritual concepts, and we must be careful when we try to apply it to other situations. In other words, I think the message is that we haver to use the gift of salvation to produce a spiritual harvest, and I’m not 100% certain this translate to how we should deal with money. I think it’s applicable, I’m just not sure.

    >>Can we hear it through the ears of the original peasant hearers as a warning to the rich about their exploitation of the weak?

    I’m not qualified to answer this. With all due respect, that seems like a leap in logic. If anything, the larger message is that it is right to do as one’s master bids.

    >>Finally, what is the Christ-like stewardship that ought to replace this reflection?

    Stewardship is most definitely applicable to every one of us. I believe that 100% of my resources is on loan to me by God. It’s his, all of it. He gives me charge of some resources both as a gift and to enable me to do his will. This last is the very heart of Christian Stewardship – the using of resources wisely and never wastefully, to do God’s will.

    For instance, barring unusual circumstances, Christians shouldn’t ever manage their money so poorly that they have to declare bankrupcy. This reflects badly on other Christians and is a lousy witness. On the contrary, we should be setting aside money in case things go wrong, or a friend needs help.

    As for links:



    As to whether or not 19% interest on a credit card, someone once said, in reference to defining pornography: “I’m not sure, but I know it when I see it.” I would suggest that 19% interest appears to be usury on its face.

  11. I think that we have lost sight of the radical nature of the Kingdom of God, which is at hand, among us and like leavening. It is not comfortable, tidy, respectable and bourgeois or entrepreneurial or capitalist. I will go out on a limb and say that the Christianity was usurped, co-opted, tamed, regulated and put to work for the top-down social order by the Imperial Roman apparatus beginning with Constantine. The Gospel has survived as an unwelcome, feral thing ever on the margins, ever and anon blossoming in reforms, ever to be corralled, broken and bridled before too much harm to “the way things actually are” gets done.

    But to think for one minute that the prevailing order of neo-colonial, global-economy, corporatocracy passing for capitalism is in congruence with the preaching of Jesus Christ is be deluded. It is to be gravely mistaken to think that the Pharisees are a manifestation of first-century C.E. Roman-occupied Palestine. It is to be deluded to surmise that the cast of characters in the Bible are ancient, Levantine, Jewish, quaint or distant. They are voraciously, dangerously present here and now, in us.

    Come with me to places I know first-hand, Los Angeles, Detroit or Tijuana or Haiti, and I can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Caesar, Rome, the Chief Priests, Scribes, Sadducees, Pharisees, Tax Collectors, Sinners, Lepers, and the Possessed are all alive and well and living in your neighborhood. We are they. We are perpetrating great evil on the poor this very moment. I’m doing it while I sit in my living room, with electric lights blazing, and type in this comment box ostensibly about religion and spirituality, with clean water, safe food, refrigeration, too much shelter, too much transportation, too much stuff, too much education, a safe work environment, a safe community, etc. while the least of these is thirsty, hungry, naked, displaced, oppressed, exploited, raped, beaten, kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned, blown up, shot, right now, even as I strike this key. We have found the Enemy and He is Us.

    The first step towards realizing the Kingdom of God is certainly not by performing apologetics for the opposite way of living and relating. Such is not what Jesus Christ preached, and to cherry pick a verses here or a verse there to justify it all is very much like what was done for centuries with regard to slavery. Many powerful, wealthy people have a compelling, vested interest in the injustice of such a status quo. It was the “way things are” for millions and millions, for centuries the world over, and still is for far too many, in too many places, right now. All that does not change that it is wrong. It is a great evil. And it is not the Good News preached by Jesus Christ, no matter how one rationalizes it. There is a Christian duty to refrain from it and to take action to stop it, not to excuse it and to explain it away.

  12. Thanks Corey, I only have time at the moment for the briefest comment. Your noting of “excessive interest” in NIV says more about the accuracy of that translation and the particular bias of those who produced and use that translation than of the meaning of the Hebrew. It may be appropriate in a commentary, sermon, or reflection about the original Hebrew text, but I cannot find any reputable, scholarly work, in the short time I’ve looked, that would agree with it as appropriate as a translation. Hope that helps. And would appreciate any Hebrew scholars who could demonstrate that actually NIV at this point has the correct translation, and all others are incorrect.

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