Usury

 

“If you lend money to any of my people who are needy among you, do not be like a moneylender to him; do not charge him interest. If you do take the garment of your neighbor in pledge, you must return it to him by the time the sun goes down, for it is his only covering—it is his garment for his body. What else can he sleep in? And when he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am gracious.”
-Leviticus 22:25-27

Recently, I came across this article on usury. It’s a fascinating read, and probably more deserving of your time than this devotional. Reading it reminded me of the longstanding debate within certain church circles: what is usury?

In the past few years, certain Christians have tried to reclaim the use of the term “usury,” and the moral authority which comes with it. It’s been used in relation to payday lending, subprime mortgages, the “guaranteed credit” approach to selling used cars, and many other predatory lending practices.Have they gone far enough? Have they gone too far? Are they even on the right track?

Lending in the ancient world was a fairly straightforward transaction. When someone found themself in need – because the crops had failed, or the herd had been stricken with illness, or some other catastrophe had befallen them – they would go to someone with more than enough, and ask for some help getting back on their feet. Sometimes, the person would just make a gift of the needed supplies. Other times, the supplies were given in a loan, with the expectation of repayment at the next harvest, the next culling of the herd, or some other equally reasonable time. If collateral could be had, it was given. If not, today’s passage says the loan ought to be made anyway. The loan itself was not a hardship to the lender, and the borrower was able to make good on the debt, so interest would have just been taking advantage of someone in a time of need.

 

The landscape looks quite a bit different today.

Most of us are not farmers or herders, trying to cobble together an existence from the fruit of our ancestral lands. Most of us don’t even have ancestral lands.

When we borrow money, it can be for any number of things. Hardship is still near the top of the list, but it’s been joined by loans to purchase property and the now-booming education loan industry. Credit cards and consumer debt add yet another wrinkle, as who’s to say whether we really needed those clothes, that meal, or the new device we bought?

So how do we define usury, and how is it differentiated from, say, return on investment (something Jesus himself spoke positively about in at least one parable)? I think the answer might be in the passage quoted at the beginning of this post.

“If you do take the garment of your neighbor in pledge, you must return it to him by the time the sun goes down, for it is his only covering—it is his garment for his body. What else can he sleep in? And when he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am gracious.”

The difference between interest earned on an investment and usury charged on a loan is tied to the recipient’s situation. Investments can result in a profit. Helping someone in need should not.

By that standard, our current economic system falls woefully short. The highest interest rates are charged to the most vulnerable and least able to repay, while those who are well-off speak about leveraging low interest rates in order to increase their own wealth. Homeless and in need of shelter? Pay 29% interest on a credit card bill for a motel stay. Well-off and purchasing a fourth home? 3.8% sounds about right.

Those in need are penalized for being in need, while those in comfort are rewarded for being a good investment. That’s how we know usury has taken hold in our land.

Where do you draw the line between appropriate and predatory lending?