Law, Money, and Usury
This essay is adapted from an address delivered by S. C. Mooney to a small gathering of Christian Financial Counselors in Columbus, Ohio, November 23, 1991. It was originally published in the Winter 2007 edition of the Kinist Review.
O Lord, who may abide in Thy tent?
Who may dwell on Thy holy hill?
He who walks with integrity, and works
And speaks truth in his heart.
He does not slander with his tongue,
Nor does evil to his neighbor, nor takes
up a reproach against a friend; In
whose eyes a reprobate is despised, But
who honors those who fear the Lord; He
swears to his own hurt, and does not
change; He does not put out his money
Nor does he take a bribe against the
innocent. He who does these things will
never be shaken.
This brief passage of God’s Word gives us a concise picture of the righteous man, who will dwell with God. When summing up the qualities of righteousness in a brief paragraph, one would expect that only the most general and important qualities would be included; one would expect that the summation would not be cluttered with trivial matters; one would expect that whatever it did say would be worthy of our devoted attention. Yet we find among all of the common virtues that we are not surprised to encounter one quality that stands out and strikes us as somewhat peculiar. Who is the righteous man, who will dwell with God, and will never be shaken? “He does not put out his money at interest.” (v. 5a) Modern Christian response to this text falls into two categories. There are those who are unaware that the Bible says this, and there are those who are aware of it, but have justified their practice of interest-taking contrary to this teaching by some method of “interpretation.” This suggests the first of three problems with financial teaching in the Church today: there is a grave deficiency in the handling of Scripture; there is a tacit antinomianism.
There is no use in the Church calling its teaching on financial matters “Christian” if on the one hand it is indistinguishable from worldly financial teaching and on the other hand it stands in sharp opposition to certain hard sayings of Scripture. To be sure, Christians who profess to bring a biblical financial teaching liberally incorporate a religious vocabulary, but in their practical aspects there is no difference between the “Christian” program and the worldly program. In many cases the only difference is that Christians speak about what they are doing with frequent occurrences of words such as “God,” “Stewardship,” “Prayer,” and the like. A truly Christian idea surely will be expressed in such terms, but simply incorporating a Christian vocabulary is not sufficient to make a practice in substance Christian. Jesus warned against the error of applying Christian vocabulary to non-Christian practice, “Why do you say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46) “He does not put out his money at interest.” (v.5a) That is an arresting statement. It tells us that the world is pursuing financial security in entirely the wrong way. It tells us as well that the truly Christian way is radically different than this. The message is very blunt and plain. Why is it that the financial teaching in much of Christendom seems oblivious to this clear requirement? Part of the reason is because the clarity of it has been muddied by claims that the legal requirement of the Old Testament no longer is binding on us since the Cross. The prohibition of interest-taking in the Old Testament is seen by many as simply an historical, and now obsolete, rule that
applied only to ancient Israel. The question posed in the opening verses of Psalm 15 now would be given a much different answer: “O Lord, who may abide in Thy tent? Who may dwell on Thy holy hill?” (v.l) Now many would answer, “He who has received Christ as his personal Savior.” Is this a wrong answer? Allowing for a lengthy discussion of possible doctrinal problems involving the concepts of “receiving Christ” and “personal Savior,” we may say, no, this is not a wrong answer. But is it a completely correct answer? To the extent that it implies that one’s behavior is irrelevant to his status before God, this answer is woefully incomplete.
Some in our day have lapsed into a sentimental view that men need a Savior because they are weak; the Savior is strong and smart, and he will help us to get more satisfaction out of life. However, any who take the Bible at all seriously will recognize that in reality our need of a Savior arises from our sin. “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.” (I John 3:4) The issue between men and God is that men have transgressed the commandments of God, are guilty before Him according to that standard, and are worthy of death. But even many of those who appreciate the true nature of our need of a Savior yet fail to grasp the full extent of the remedy that our Savior provides. One aspect of this remedy is that because of the Savior’s work on our behalf, having borne the wrath of God in our place, now we may escape the penalty for our sins; now we may go to heaven instead of hell. This is a glorious truth, but a large measure of its glory lay in the fact that it is more the beginning of a new life than it is the end of an old life. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (II Corinthians 5:21) Once a man has “received Christ as personal Savior,” he finds that he must proceed with life. He must do something. Now, there are only two ways in which one may live his life. He may do so sinfully or righteously. There are no other alternatives; there is no gray or neutral area. In Revelation 19:8 there is a wonderful image of the Church as a bride made ready for Christ, “And it was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” Redemption is a positive and a negative thing. Negatively, our sins have been taken away. But this cannot leave a vacuum. Positively, we must put on a new life of righteousness. We must appear before our Bridegroom properly attired. Having put off sin we must put on righteousness. We may see the same point presented in different imagery in Romans 6:4-11:
“Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
There is only one manner in which we might live before God, and that is “in Christ Jesus.” Sin leads to death, but having died in Christ we now live anew with Him. In ourselves, we cannot keep the Law of God. “. . . the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the Law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” (Romans 8:7) Our redemption in Christ does not mean that the standard of the Law of God is removed. We must bear in mind that this standard in the Law forms the entire basis of the issue between God and men in the first place. It is because of our failure according to this standard that we are in need of a Savior. There would be no need for a Savior to do anything for us if the answer were simply for God to decide to forget the standard. However, this may never be, for the standard is an expression of God’s righteousness, which will not change. The standard holds, and our redemption means not only that the penalty due us for our sin is averted, but as well it means that as we go on in life we may have the power in Christ to live a new life of righteousness.
“For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3,4)
What is the outcome? As we live the Christian life we must be about the business of spinning those gleaming white linen robes that one day we shall wear at the wedding feast. We do not strive for this in our own strength, for we already have become convicted that in our own strength we never can please God. But as God’s own “instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6: 13) we may glorify Him with our righteous acts. We either shame Him and scandalize the Gospel with our sin, or else we glorify our Savior with our obedience to His own standard of righteousness. If we love Him, we will keep His commandments. (John 14:15) It is quite dismaying how some Evangelicals completely ignore the Creation Mandate of Genesis 1:26-28, explain away Old Testament Law as dead, antiquated rules for ancient Israel, reduce the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 to the level of passing out Four Spiritual Laws booklets, and then turn around and wonder, “What does God want me to do?” Whole books are written and seminars are held on, “How to find God’s will for your life.” Men scoff at the plain commandments of God, such as the prohibition of usury, and then turn around and beg God to tell them what to do! Men say that they have “received Christ as personal Savior,” to whom the “personal Savior” says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) Or, as John the Baptizer warned the Pharisees who had come for baptism as a show, “Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:8-10) Of course, this view raises a number of questions. What about the laws of the temple, especially those pertaining to the sacrifice of animals? Clearly, not every law is binding on us today? How shall we tell the laws that still apply from the laws that have been superseded? And a number of other similarly complicated questions could be posed. It is not the purpose of this essay to deal with these matters. The main point here is to urge the view that the enduring standard of righteousness is in the commandments of God, and to stimulate serious inquiry into this standard. It is not necessary to grasp full detail of all the complicated issues in order to grasp the general truth that it is God who sets the standard of righteousness and that we continue to bear obligation to this standard even though we are forgiven and redeemed. The Church today in large measure fails to take seriously the standard of righteousness in the Law of God. As a result the message of Psalm 15, particularly as it pertains to financial matters, is mostly ignored. Even where this message is not ignored it nonetheless often is distorted by two further problems, which inhibit correct understanding. To these we must now turn.
II. Monetary Idolatry
Our Psalm tells us that the man who will abide with God is he who does not put out his money at interest. Here is a biblical directive involving “money.” The motivation of financial teaching in the Church today seems to be the goal of discovering what is the Christian thing to do with one’s money. But, failing to start at a deeper level, to discover “What is money?” leaves the Christian with one of two presumptions. He must presume either 1) that money is a static concept; that it is now what it always has been; that everyone knows what that is, or 2) that it is entirely acceptable to allow the current monetary “authority” to define money however they wish, and that when the English Bible says “money” it is hermeneutically sound to substitute the current political reality about “money,” whatever that may be. The trouble with financial teaching in the Church today is that neither one of those presumptions is safe. There is no substitute for a careful and serious inquiry into the nature of money and the radically biblical teaching about money. It is necessary to be “radically biblical” because, while there are numerous studies about the biblical teaching concerning money, few if any allow the Bible to comment on what money fundamentally is in its basic nature. One of the problems of coming to a truly biblical understanding of the fundamental nature of money is that the word “money” is extra-biblical. There is no Hebrew or Greek word that may be translated directly as “money.” The word “money” derives from the surname of the Roman goddess Juno Moneta, in whose temple the emperor had established the royal mint. The mint was for the purpose of striking silver and gold into coins. In the most strictly etymological sense, the word “money” imports “silver and gold coin.” In our day the word “money” is enlarged well beyond this strict sense, and now refers very broadly to that function which silver and gold coins used to serve, and in turn to whatever is employed to serve that function. There is a monetary function observable in Scripture, and so we are not surprised that modern, English translations of Scripture should include the term “money.” But we must not simply assume that one approach to the monetary function is as good as any other. We cannot merely take it for granted that whatever the world is calling “money” today is close enough to what is meant in the English Bible where the word “money” occurs. The idea of “money” is something that we hardly can avoid reading back into Scripture. In order to read the biblical idea of “money” out of the text itself, it first is necessary to be clear on the original terminology. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word that is translated “money” is keseph, a word that literally means “silver.” Also, in the New Testament the Greek word most often translated “money” is derived from the root arguros, which literally means “silver.”
One of the clearest examples of the monetary function in Scripture is the account of Abraham buying the field and cave from Ephron for a burial site, in Genesis chapter 23. Here property in the field is transferred from Ephron to Abraham by means of an exchange. Ephron transfers some property to Abraham and simultaneously Abraham transfers some property to Ephron, namely, “400 shekels of silver.” Following the execution of the exchange, neither one remained in debt to the other. The monetary function is to maximize the efficiency of the exchange of property among men. We know, as noted earlier, that God commanded us to fill the earth and to rule over it under Him. We know that we have a standard of righteousness in His Word to guide us in this task. We know as well that the production and employment of a wide variety of goods will help us to do the best job of this. Title in property and the free exchange of property among men are social institutions that were created by God and are implied in His charge to us. He also has given us the means of optimizing the efficiency of the exchange of property. There is the old and familiar tale about how inconvenient it is to arrange direct exchanges of goods not involving money - what is commonly called “barter.” Farmer A needs some shoes, so he offers Cobbler B some quantity of wheat for a pair of shoes. But, alas, Cobbler B does not need wheat, however, he does need a stool. Only slightly daunted, Farmer A takes his wheat in search of a Carpenter who may need it, with whom he may exchange it for a stool, so that he might then take the stool back to Cobbler B, and get his shoes - all before someone else comes along and meets Cobbler B’s need for a stool first. Money streamlines the process of the exchange of goods by means of providing something that everyone desires, and therefore no one must search high and low for someone who will agree to receive it in exchange for anything. But, what shall serve this monetary function?
There are two schools of thought on this question, and then there is the Christian view. Unfortunately, most Christians today are divided between the schools of thought arising from the unbelieving world. One school says that it really does not matter what is chosen to serve the monetary function, because in the end the whole idea is only the agreement of men. They say bottle caps could serve as money just as well as anything else, so long as everyone agrees. Since many men across a broad spectrum of society must all agree on the same thing for money, this usually results in a political elite declaring what shall be money and then holding everyone else to it. The other school says that money is not something that the state can decree, because decrees of the state cannot create value in men’s hearts, and unless men innately value a thing it cannot possibly serve as money. This school suggests that in an evolutionary process quite similar to their idea of the evolution of the human species, the free exchanges of men over time naturally constituted the isolation of what the free and innate valuations of men regard as “the most marketable commodity.” This, of course, turned out to be gold. Yet there is some difficulty in explaining how silver fits into their theory. Historically, silver has a longer record as money than does gold. Also, even though this school is utterly convinced that gold has been demonstrated as universally desirable, they really are not sure why men should innately desire this metal.
The Christian view points out weaknesses in both of these schools, but Christians today take almost no opportunity to bring a Christian witness in this field because they already are committed to the doctrines of the unbelieving schools. A truly Christian witness points out to the first school that if money is only a paper, legal document, like the Federal Reserve Notes of today, then it is not tangible property; that exchanges involving such so-called “money” are not really exchanges at all, since only one party to the transaction receives property, while the other party receives only a note of debt. At best, transactions involving Federal Reserve Note currency may be characterized as surety arrangements. Popular financial teaching acknowledges the Bible says that surety, while not unlawful, is ill-advised (Proverbs 11: 15). Most Christians rightly are leery about “going surety” when it comes to things like co-signing for a loan, but at the same time think nothing of staking their whole financial security in the surety arrangement of the Federal Reserve System. The Federal Reserve System is a quasi-governmental bureaucracy that is in charge of what is called “money” in our land today. It is not really Federal since the twelve banks in the system are owned outright by a consortium of shareholders, many of whom are not even U.S. citizens. There really is no Reserve, since the currency has nothing whatever to do with silver or gold. In the early days of the Federal Reserve System, established in 1913, Federal Reserve Notes were redeemable in gold. Today they are not. The fantasy still persists in a surprisingly large segment of the population that there is some kind of “backing” in silver or gold behind our so-called “money” today. There is not. In the worst possible light Federal Reserve Note currency is an outright fraud. The claim of the text on the paper is that it is a legal document, a legal tender note. But vital data for any note, such as the name of the payee, the due date of payment, and of what payment must consist, is missing. Either it is a fraud because it represents itself as a note when in reality it is not, or else if it is a note, as it claims to be an obligation of the U.S. Government, then in the best possible light one offering this currency is involved with the U.S. Government in a grandiose surety arrangement to pay the debt.
Contrary to clear and sound biblical truth, many Christians today are seeking to build financial security in Federal Reserve Notes, the very thing that may well be the ruin of our entire economy. They are unaware of the history of “fiat” money, i.e. so-called money that is the invention of an elite. Such would-be money cannot survive in the long term. All such monetary experiments historically have ended in a hyperinflationary ruin or a deflationary collapse. God already has provided a thoroughly stable monetary commodity in silver and gold, yet many in the Church today fail their opportunity to witness to the grace of God in our lives, and preach alongside of the unbelievers that gold is a “barbaric relic.” Just like the world, many Christians seek wealth in the creations of men, paper or data entries that these would-be gods would like to call “money,” and shun true wealth in the tangible creations of the only true God. There are some Christians who understand the highly dubious nature of what is called “money” today, and who yet lose an opportunity of their own to preach the truth to the unbelieving silver and gold men. As noted above, the unbelievers today, who nevertheless advocate a silver and gold money, really do not know why men value these metals. One of the reasons that silver and gold are so hated by many is that so much evil has been perpetrated in the world, throughout history, because of men’s idolatrous lust for the so-called “precious metals.” If men seek these metals for any other than the proper purpose, then this esteem of them inevitably turns into yet another idolatry. A Christian witness is sorely needed that men naturally are prone to esteem silver and gold simply because their Creator esteems them (Genesis 2:12) and they are made in the image of their Creator. There is no other explanation, and yet the Christians are silent. Christian silver and gold market technicians speak at the world’s silver and gold conferences, and yet it makes no difference; the unbelievers are not challenged in their idolatrous view of gold.
The financial teaching in the Church today largely is in the grip of monetary idolatry, whether the idolatry of men, the would-be money creators, or the idolatry of gold, the evolutionary “most marketable commodity.” There can be no true financial security in a world that does not accept the truth about the most rudimentary financial concept: the idea of money. The ideas of the two schools of unbelief have been stewing for centuries. There is no possibility that any answers will emerge from either of them. Christians alone are in a position to bring the witness of truth to this field, and to glorify God with the truth about money; that God has instituted among men the exchange of property for mutual service in their common endeavor to achieve rule over the earth in His name; that He has provided real property in silver and gold for the purpose of achieving the highest efficiency in this process of exchange, which even in employment of these metals is the final exchange of property - not the giving of property in consideration of a debt or a credit; and that He has placed within our hearts the natural or innate esteem of these metals, so that the money would be a uniform institution among men. Christianity alone has this saving message for the financial world and yet many Christians are busy instead studying the idolatries of unbelief.
The third problem with the financial teaching in the Church today is that it subscribes to the Babylonian, rather than to the Biblical, doctrine of interest. To return once again to our theme text: the righteous man, who will abide with God, is he who “does not put out his money [silver] at interest.” (v.5a) We now understand from the foregoing what is meant by the term “money” in this verse. We now are ready to explore the full extent of the directive that is presented here. In view of the critique provided above of antinomianism, let us take this passage seriously as having an important message with direct application to us. This message usually is missed today either because it is ignored or because it has become the
victim of “interpretation.” Though we may be less prone to ignore this word, it remains to explore the errors of various faulty interpretations. The question of usury or interest has been debated – even among the unbelieving - for literally thousands of years. The first thing that Christians need to understand about interest-taking is that the Church stood united firmly against it for fifteen hundred years. The early councils of the Church, in addition to producing the renown creeds, also pronounced on a number of ecclesiastical and social issues. Many of them openly condemned interest-taking. Up until just several hundred years ago it was the common understanding, not only of the clergy, but also of the general membership of the Church, that the Bible condemns interest-taking. This was not a condemnation of certain types of interest taking, or a condemnation of “usury” as opposed to “interest,” but it was a self-conscious condemnation of the general practice of requiring in repayment of a loan of anything any amount in excess of what was loaned. In sorting out how the Church got from there to where it is now we must delve into the very meaning of the term “interest,” and the dual concepts of “usury” and “interest.”
A common impression today is that “usury” means “exorbitant interest.” This is not inaccurate in terms of the popular usage of about one hundred years ago, however, the word has a long history that must be taken into account when reading older English translations of the Bible, such as the King James, published in 1611. The term “interest” does not occur in the King James Bible. At that time it was just coming into usage, and at first meant “a compensatory payment.” In this era everyone understood the word “usury” to mean exactly what we now mean by the word “interest.” For example, Nehemiah 5:11 in the King James makes it clear that English-speaking people four hundred years ago understood that one percent constituted “usury.” In the biblical languages, there is no such thing as what we now have in the way of a dual terminology such as “usury” v. “interest.” Any discussion or interpretation of the biblical requirement that is couched in this dualism (e.g. “usury” is “interest” that is taken from poor people) not only is not faithful to the true biblical concept of “usury,” but also is impossible to express in the biblical languages and would not have been possible to express in the English language four hundred years ago. The truly biblical concept is a single, simple concept that we may express by our modem word “interest,” or the older word “usury,” so long as we understand that these mean exactly the same thing as interchangeable terms.
By way of the unbiblical dualism, various interpretations of the biblical prohibition of interest have sought to carve out an area of interest-taking that is reserved for Christians to pursue. Certain types of interest-taking are supposed to be of the sinful kind (which the interpreters enjoy calling “usury”), while other types are supposed to be perfectly normal, righteous behavior (which, of course, is called “interest”). This is done, for example, by appeal to Exodus 22:25, “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest.” The interpretation proposes that what is condemned here is only interest taken from “poor” people. The conclusion is drawn that interest taken from “rich” people is fully allowed. Aside from the problem of how to know who is “rich” and who is “poor,” this conclusion is unwarranted simply because it is not entailed in the premises. That is, even if there were an airtight means of distinguishing “rich” and “poor,” and even if Exodus 22:25 really was a prohibition of usury only in the case of loans to the “poor,” it still is completely invalid to conclude from this that any other sort of interest-taking is allowed. A statement of what must not be done does not, by itself, imply what may be done. For example, consider v. 22 of Exodus 22, just three verses up from the prohibition of usury, “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan.” Who will seriously suggest that we may conclude from this that affliction of married women and children with parents is permitted? If an act is condemned in a highly particular case in Scripture, this in no wise gives us any grounds on which to draw the conclusion that this same act in all the many cases not mentioned must be allowed.
Another hermeneutical stumbling block is the provision in Deuteronomy 23:20, that interest may be taken from “foreigners.” This provision is coupled with another directive against the oppression of “strangers,” and the conclusion is drawn that interest taking cannot be inherently oppressive since oppression of strangers is prohibited in Leviticus 19:33,34, and interest-taking of strangers is permitted in Deuteronomy 23:20. In this case the premises of the argument are faulty, since the interpretation is built only upon the English as found in the King James translation. A casual survey of the original Hebrew terms reveals that the “strangers,” who are not to be oppressed in Leviticus, are quite different folk from the “foreigners,” of whom we may take usury in Deuteronomy. In the Leviticus text the term used is ger, and is sometimes given as “sojourners” in newer translations. In a parallel text, in Exodus 23:9 we read, “You shall not oppress a ger ... for you also were ger in the land of Egypt.” The ger were what we usually think of today as a “foreigner,” i.e. someone from another country. Ger were not hostile to those in whose land they dwelt. As a condition of residing in another land they agreed to abide by the laws of that land. Thus Israel accommodated non-Israelites so long as they lived according to the laws given by God. It was their faithfulness in holding to the laws of the God of Israel which bound Israelites from oppressing them. On the other hand, the “foreigners” spoken of in the Deuteronomy text were the Hebrew nokri. In all usage of this term in the Old Testament the nokri were known to be the wicked, detestable heathen, whom God Himself swore to purge out of the land of Canaan. They were the enemies of Israel, whose nations Israel was charged by God with overthrowing. The term is a complete connotation of evil. It is even translated a couple of times as “adulterous woman” in the New American Standard.
What is immediately evident from this is that the premises of those who wish to prove that usury is not inherently oppressive are misconstrued. The prohibition of oppression against the peaceful, law-abiding ger in Leviticus 19, joined with the provision for exacting usury of the wicked, detestable nokri in Deuteronomy 23, does not at all prove what the interpreters had hoped to prove. Rightly construed, the identity of the nokri, in light of the permission to exact usury, actually proves the opposite of their interpretation. It was precisely because usury is inherently oppressive that the permission in Deuteronomy 23:20 was granted. Since Israel was devoted to complete and unrelenting warfare against the nokri, the oppression that usury truly represents was a fitting aspect of this aggression. God told the Israelites, “I will not drive them out before you in a single year, that the land may not become desolate, and beasts of the field become too numerous for you. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land.” (Exodus 23:29-30) The oppression of usury was one way of keeping these heathen in check while the time consuming process of expulsion took place. Rather than creating for us a concept of lawful usury, a correct understanding of the provision of Deuteronomy 23:20 gives us a very serious warning about how we are to treat our brothers, and those who may not be our brothers in a spiritual sense, but who are like the ger and dwell peacefully among us. Usury is warfare. Most Christians today would find it abhorrent even to consider mounting a holy Christian war against the enemies of our faith. Let us be equally horrified to consider participating in the warfare of usury against our own brethren and against the peaceful ger, whom God says we must not oppress.
One final hermeneutical problem that we must address is a very common misunderstanding of the so-called “Parable of the Talents.” As this parable lies in the heart of what is perhaps the most popular attempted justification of usury today, there surely is no need to recount the story line. The important question is, “Did Jesus really approve of usury in what He said to the wicked and lazy slave?” Taken by itself, his statement, “Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest,” (Matthew 25:27) surely reads like an approval of usury. However, there is no warrant for taking this or any other statement of Scripture by itself. We must bear in mind that Jesus was speaking in a role as a human master to one of his servants. His statement is made in reply to some statements made by the servant. The servant said, “master, I knew you to be a hard man [in the Greek austere, i.e., harsh, burning], reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed.” (v.24) The servant is calling his master, played by Jesus, a harsh and thieving man. Do we simply accept this characterization as true? In reply the master begins, “You wicked and lazy slave…” (v.26) Ought we not to be more inclined to accept the master’s characterization of the servant than to accept the servant’s characterization of the master? This slave was lazy because he did nothing with the money that was entrusted to him. He was wicked because he slandered his master in a feeble attempt to justify his laziness. The statement of the master that is taken by many as an approval of usury really is the consequent of a conditional, “Then you ought to…” The antecedent of this conditional is “You knew that I reap where I did not sow. ..?” (v.26) The master is not approving usury any more than he is approving that slave’s characterization of himself. He is saying, in effect, “If that is what you really thought of me, then this is what you would have done.” The Luke version is particularly clear about this, “By your own words I will judge you, you worthless slave…” (Luke 19:22) This parable is not a justification of usury at all. The master’s statement that as a “sound bite” may appear to be approving of usury really is but a challenge to the insincerity of the wicked slave who wished to pretend that the master was a thief. The misunderstanding of this parable that turns it into an attempted justification of usury is fairly new. Even John Calvin, who fell victim to the two other hermeneutical errors just discussed, was not ensnared in this one. The sin of usury is the most dramatic way in which the financial practices of the world slaps Christianity right in the face. This presents the simplest and clearest way in which Christians can witness to the truth of Christianity and bring glory to God in the arena of financial practice, yet we find that there is an almost complete failure to bring this witness. And worse than that, the anti-Christian, Babylonian practice of usury actually is represented by many Christians as a biblical thing. Christians who do this slap the parable of the talents in the face when they characterize usury as “good stewardship,” completely ignoring what the master himself said was good
stewardship earlier in this very parable. Two times the master said to the servants who had “traded with the money,” “Well done, good and faithful slave.” Why do not Christians spend more time exploring what the Master Himself said was “good and faithful” handling of money, instead of focusing in on a hypothetical statement of what some wicked and lazy slave would have done in his own fantasy world? In keeping with a Babylonian value system, “trading with money,” which involves work, effort, risk, and so forth, is shunned in favor of usury, which is the safe, effortless, risk-free exploitation of other’s work, effort and risk for your own gain. The Christian way is for each man to “work in quiet fashion, and eat [your] own bread.” (II Thessalonians 3: 12)
There are other efforts also to re-interpret the biblical condemnation of usury so to make Scripture seem instead to approve it. Here the main points of the three most popular such attempts are reviewed briefly. Surely, this will be insufficient to completely change the outlook of some who already may have firmly held convictions favorable to a dispensational dismissal of Old Testament Law, modern concepts of money, and the practice of usury. However, it is to be hoped that these remarks might be found sufficient to stimulate many to serious study of these things. Surely our conduct must be guided and measured by some standard of righteousness. Is not God’s Law alone our standard? Surely we may not avoid the reality of money in everyday life, and, indeed, we are constrained to give the matter of money a great deal of our thought and effort. Is it not essential for us to search out a radically biblical idea of money? Surely by God’s common grace many who are of the world devise sound methods of financial dealings, and just as surely there is much coming from the world that is quite wrong. Is it not proper that we must “…examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:21-22)? The Church today in large measure has turned away from the biblical Law of Money and Usury, which wonderfully is summarized in a simple and straightforward reading of Psalm 15:5a. Contrary to the message of this text, so many today indulge in the Babylonian practice of usury, all the while calling it “good stewardship.” Repentance and return to a truly biblical standard sorely is needed if the Church today is to practice Christianity in all avenues of life and to present a truly and fully Christian witness to the world.