The Moneylender and His Wife by Massys

Not everything in the Fathers makes us uncomfortable in a wow-that’s-a-bit-backwards kind of way. Sometimes, the Fathers makes uncomfortable with ourselves. Turning again to Leo’s fourth letter, we find this:

As well, we have commanded that the following not be passed over: that certain people who are seized by the desire for foul profit work for usurious money, and wish to grow rich off interest. It grieves us that this action falls not only against those who are established in clerical office but also against the lay people who wish to be called Christians. We decree that this be claimed more harshly against those have been restrained before so that every opportunity to sin be removed.

And there we have it, friends. The early Christian condemnation of lending at interest. And not just early Christian, but mediaeval and early modern as well. I’m not sure when Christians started lending at interest, but the majority tradition says it’s a bad idea.

What makes Leo interesting is his inclusion of lay people in his censure of lending at interest; hitherto, the injunctions were against the clergy. Now the canons are interesting themselves in the financial dealings of the whole people of God. And the people of God are found wanting (more money).

Just as the general trend of biblical ethics tends toward the eventual abolishment of slavery, so too does it tend towards not lending at interest. The Law says not to lend at interest to fellow-Israelites. When we consider what the Law tells us about our righteous God and how we are to live with one another in its light, then we can easily come to the conclusion that lending at interest to anyone is a bad thing in God’s eyes.

Now, most of us aren’t moneylenders. And if we do, it’s probably to a friend, and we don’t expect interest when the loan is repaid. Nonetheless, most of us are probably borrowers. Indeed, is not our whole financial system based upon the lending of money and the charging of interest in its repayment?

C S Lewis, I believe, once noted that there is something terribly wrong with a financial system based upon a practice that Scripture condemns. And here, in Leo, we see tradition adding its own two cents’ worth.

Advice from this? Probably to pay off your credit card as quickly as possible and then at the end of every month. From the borrower’s perspective, usury is bad because it makes us beholden to another person — and the only Person(s) we are to be beholden to is God.


4 thoughts on “Moneylending

  1. Whenever you deposit money in the bank (checking or savings) you are, in effect, lending at interest, since that is what the bank does with your money. Whenever you buy stock or a bond, you are investing in the hope of gain. Whenever you participate in a pension fund you are lending at interest, since that is what the fund does with your money. Whenever you take out a mortgage you are borrowing at interest. Lending at interest and investing for gain are pretty hard to avoid unless you take your wages in cash and keep them in a mattress.

  2. It is challenging to compare modern money practices with ancient and medieval ways. In our society, money isn’t real, it is fake money typed in on a computer in the Federal Reserve. Since total money constantly goes up, interest is part of that fake money system. In ancient times, money was constant with little or no inflation.

    • You make a good point, Allen. I think the real interest we should be cautious of is credit cards and loans. This is money we have borrowed from others and have to pay back at more than what the rate of inflation is. In some cases, credit cards can be usurious and exact excessive interest, which is why it’s in the consumer’s best interest (ha!) to pay back promptly. But perhaps ‘pay off your debts quickly’ isn’t so much Christian advice as sound financial planning! But I think we should still ask ourselves whether we need to take out a loan or make a large purchase on credit or if we can do without something we want so as to avoid debt that is not just what we paid out but the interest that will come in the long run.

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