Usury

I am appreciative of all the gracious and challenging interaction on my recent post on the parable of the Talents. While I remain convinced that something along the lines I have proposed is the correct reading, the argument needs bolstering in a couple of areas. We’re going to look at usury in this post.

Usury

In the law, usury (charging interest) was forbidden to the poor and needy in Israel (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-37). After the forty years of the wilderness wandering, however, we begin to see  a shift from mere law-obedience into the application of the law into new situations, known better as wisdom. One of these maturations was with regard to usury. Deuteronomy 23:19 says “You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest.” Notice that this is a universal statement: no believer could charge interest in what he gives or lends to another brother. It is possible this expansion of the law comes as a result of Israel’s reflection on their lowly status with regard to the other nations (Deut. 7:7-8); to God, Israel herself was lowly and in need. Israel was still permitted to lend to the Gentiles (Deut. 23:30), but with regards of any within the covenant, or Gentiles in the land, they were forbidden to lend with interest. Life in the land was to be holy, as God was holy, and God does not lend with interest, but rather gives to his servants freely.

The prophets then take up this expanded application of the usury laws in Deut. 23 and apply it to the abuses during the Kingship period. The righteous man in Ezekiel 18:8 “does not lend at interest or take any profit,” but the wicked man “lends at interest, and takes profit.” Such is called an “abomination” and results in destruction (Ezek. 18:13). Nehemiah accuses the rulers in Israel of exacting usury from their neighbors and brothers (Neh. 5:7,10). Psalm 15:5 declares that the one permitted to dwell in God’s house is the one who does not lend with interest. Proverbs, often the refuge of pro-capitalist writers, even declares in chapter 28 that the rich man who lends with interest is gathering wealth which will be handed over to the man who gives to the poor.

The main intent of these laws appears to be the prevention of men from accumulating and hoarding wealth. God’s principle concern is with the amassing of wealth as a stumbling block to godly living and Israel’s reliance on God Himself for her provision. That is, the conflict over wealth in Israel’s history is one that has to do with faith. Israel could choose to put our trust in God, or in money, but not in both (Matt. 6:23-25).

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ (Deut. 8:11-17)

This is precisely what happened. Israel forgot that God gave her all the provision that she had, and as a result wanted a King like the other nations. They wanted a King like Pharaoh, a King like Babel, an imperium, a Pax Israelia. God gave them what they wanted, but it came with a stern warning: the King shall not “acquire for himself excessive silver and gold,” (Deut. 17:17). The King which Israel chose, unsurprisingly enough, was a young princeling, the son of Kish, a “man of wealth,” (1 Sam. 9:1). This King, the Kings after the way of the nations, would not rule selflessly and provide for the needs of the people, as Yahweh had done in the wilderness (Deut. 8:1-10). Instead, these kings would take from the people in order to reward his own servants:

He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves, (1 Sam. 8:14-17)

As any reading of Kings and Chronicles makes clear, this is precisely what happened. The Kings of Israel amassed great wealth and oppressed the people they were meant to protect and care for. The prophets arose and called Israel back to the law she had broken, and this featured, extensively, the documentation of her accumulation of wealth. The accumulation of wealth through peaceful business practice was condemned as the sin of Tyre: by “your great wisdom in your trade you have increased your wealth, and your heart has become proud in your wealth,” (Ezek. 28:5). Yet the King of Tyre, the King of this great wealth, is identified with Satan: “You were an anointed guardian cherub. I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God. … In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God,” (Ezek. 28:16). Tyre’s business wisdom and trade is even denounced as “the unrighteousness of your trade,” (Ezek. 28:18).

There is, of course, much to be said about wealth in Scripture. But we have here identified what we might call the “central theme” of the Bible’s teaching on wealth. It is rare that a positive of wealth is mentioned without its caution or warning, and the negative far outweighs the positive mentions. Our temptation is to emphasize the exceptions and ignore the warnings.

Thus, when we come to Jesus, we must see that He is carrying on in this central theme regarding wealth. “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23). “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful,” (Matt. 13:22). “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on,” (Mark 12:43-44). “he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty,” (Luke 1:53). “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” (Luke 6:24). “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God,'” (Luke 12:20-21). “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you,” (Luke 14:12-14). “‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt,” (Matt. 18:32-34).

Usury is forbidden because it is wealth acquired without effort, an increase without an output. It is essentially a fee taken from one who already has need of help. It is “easy money.” Such money, the Bible says, is extremely dangerous because it tempts us to believe we have provided for ourselves and made ourselves rich. It leads us directly into self-reliance, which leads to doubt and lack of faith. For if you can provide for yourself, what need is there to depend upon God?

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The Parable of the Talents Redux

Tim Gallant, whose work on paedocommunion and the Apostle Paul I have greatly appreciated (and would commend to all), has graciously replied to my first post on the subject of the parable of the talents. He brings ten counterpoints to my reading, and while I can’t really respond in depth to them here, I would like to make a few observations.

First, the key to understanding my reading lies in the last few paragraphs of that earlier piece, concerning the context of the the parable. That is, the parable is dealing with eschatological judgment just like the others, and for this reason it does bear a similarity of style to the other parables Gallant notes, speaking of “entering into your master’s joy” and of the “outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But similarity of language does not an argument make, because the context and details tell us how the author is using his language and how we are to understand what is being said. I am contesting that the parable depicts a judgment as Israel would expect it, according to her unrighteous messianic expectation. This reading is based upon a close reading of the character of the “hard man,” and which would suggest that Jesus’ use of these eschatological phrases is subversive. If Gallant wants to read the parable the way the others have been, he must do so on grounds other than those contested phrases. To do anything else is to simply assume what he wants to prove, which will get us nowhere.

Understanding that my reading does not eliminate the dimension of eschatological judgment eases his objections substantially, because I am saying that this parable is a picture of how Israel expects the messianic judgment to go. So to unrighteous Israel, God is the “nobleman,” and the last servant is indeed “unrighteous.” They expected those who have done much with their master’s wealth to be rewarded, just as the first servants are, by being appointed to rule over the world in the same way that the Gentiles currently ruled it. Of course, they saw themselves as those who had done much with what they had been given. But the parable exposes the true foundation beneath their expectation: they are actually robbing from others (continuing Jesus’ non-stop accusations that the Israelite leadership and the Pharisees are oppressing and robbing from God’s faithful). The nobleman’s response to the last servant is what Israel expected God’s response to be to those who had in one way or another “compromised” their faith. Jesus then corrects their expectation by saying that it is those who refuse the trappings of power and identify with the poor that will be vindicated in the judgment.

This eases his objections because a number of them assume I am ignoring this dimension of eschatological judgment (by my count, no. 2, 3. 4. 5. and 8 do this). He says that the servants depicted elsewhere are servants of God not of the wicked (correctly), but has missed my main point, which is that Jesus is presenting the judgment as Israel expects it. So to Israel, the “nobleman” is God an the servants are Israel. Gallant’s point is true, but does nothing to address the central issue at hand. All of his observations in these places are true, but they are true according to both our readings. The misunderstanding here is probably my fault; I don’t think I quite made this nuanced point until the end of my post and understressed it in my intention to emphasize the unrighteousness of the “nobleman.”

Second, my case is built on a close reading of the character of the “nobleman” in the parable, and it is this point which Gallant has not addressed. To maintain that the “nobleman” is Jesus, we seem to have two choices. 1) we can shrug our shoulders and say that Jesus was okay with usury (which a number of people have done) or 2) we can say that the parable isn’t really about money after all. Gallant has taken this second choice. He writes,

it assumes that the parable really is directly about money, whereas very few (if any) of Jesus’ parables are that direct regarding their subject matter. If that assumption is wrong, it falsifies everything, for several reasons, including the subversion of Jesus’ point about “gaining money at interest,” and equally the supposedly unjust character of the “nobleman” in view.

As I have learned from a number of men, including James Jordan, Peter Leithart, Douglas Wilson and many others (not that they are responsible for my reading of this passage), we cannot dismiss the details, and the surface level and symbolic level have to match one another. I note that Gallant is here accusing me of the same thing which these men have been accused by others. Their covenantal reading of John 15 (the vine and the branches) has been accused of delving too close to the details or of taking a metaphor too seriously (Gallant agrees with their reading in Feed My Lambs, p. 139). Yet a number of disagreeing scholars accused them of reading too much into the details of that passage, despite the fact that their reading was correct. The typical reading has the patriarchs of Genesis as vile sinners, but a close reading demonstrates they are righteous (Jordan, Primeval Saints).

If the details lend themselves in one direction, and in order to maintain our reading we must invert the surface and “spiritual” meaning, warning bells ought to be going off in our heads. If the point of the parable is about our “gifts” or “covenant keeping” or an such other things, why does Jesus use the image of money? If His point has nothing to do with economics, why does He bring economics up? If what the nobleman (Jesus) wants is good (spiritual increase, etc.), why does he choose to portray it as usury? Many of the other parables are always based on some kind of material observation that grounds the spiritual interpretation. The parable of the sower is based upon agricultural observation, as is the wheat and the tares, and the symbolic or deeper level of meaning depends upon the surface layer for its structure. But the surface and deeper meaning are at odds in the traditional reading of this parable. Just as a usurer brings an increase of his own fortunes, so too is it with the Kingdom of God? Or: God is like a man who gives care of his property to servants who he expects to increase it by usurious lending? If anything is a tin-eared reading of the passage, it is this. It rings awkwardly against what we know of Jesus and of God. Is it not more likely that Jesus’ point here is that Israel’s understanding of God is faulty, thinking that He will reward them for not just sitting on His property but making more of it? Yet their gains are ill-gotten, and instead He will come to judge them for not caring for the least of these, but actively stealing from them. The last servant’s comment is important here: “Take what is yours.” By implication, he is saying that the interest collected is not his, it has been stolen from others. This is the general attitude toward usury by Jesus, and continued in the Church Fathers.

 

The Parable of the Talents

It has become clear to me that the parable of the talents is almost the premier go-to example for Christian proponents of capitalism, libertarianism, or conservatism. As such, it represents a major stumbling block in our way of understanding the implications of Jesus’ teachings.

The parables in particular are given awful treatments by the vast majority of readers and commentators, twisted out of shape and into accord with preconceived notions, usually on some form of privatized, individualistic readings popularized in the 18th and 19th centuries. The parables are not little stories to illustrate spiritual ideas. They are not really about getting into heaven, the human soul, or any of the other common readings. They have to do with Israel as the people of God, and the Kingdom that Jesus was announcing would arrive at His resurrection.

Matthew’s parable of the talents is one of the most commonly misinterpreted parables, one so completely misread that we end up turning Jesus’ point on its head. The typical reading of the passage goes something like this: “Jesus tells us that good stewardship means investing your money in a capitalist economy and condemns sitting on what you have without generating more of it. In this way He supports the use of capitalism and tells us to go out and put our money to use in the economy as good stewards of what we have been given.”

The other alternative is scarcely better, spiritualizing its force away so that it concerns our “gifts” or “callings,” the final judgment, and the return of Jesus. This is also wrong.

The place which both views agree with each other is on the identification of the wealthy protagonist with Jesus Himself. As we shall see, this reading creates a great deal of tension in how it represents the character of Jesus (or God). As I have always emphasized on this blog, we must read carefully and into all the details if we are to correctly read any passage of Scripture. So what does a close reading reveal to us about this “nobleman”?

First, it tells us he was a “nobleman.” This does not sound very much like Jesus, who has been preaching to the poor, who has shown solidarity to the poor throughout the gospels, and who has condemned the rich and wealthy and powerful throughout. This does not sound like the Jesus who has said that His Kingdom would be characterized by a voluntary surrendering of power and wealth (see my comments on the Beatitudes) and who Himself willingly surrendered everything to take on our flesh and experience our poverty and pain (Phil. 2:5-7; Heb. 2:17-18). This Jesus, the Jesus of the gospels, isn’t likely to count Himself among the powerful or wealthy.

Second, the servant who did not invest the money given to him says “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid” (Matt. 25:24-25). A couple of people have suggested to me that the servant simply misunderstood the character of his master and merely thought he was a hard man, but this doesn’t seem to be the direction the text is heading. The “nobleman” does not protest this summation of his character, but rather confirms it: “You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest,” (Matt. 25:26-27), and then punishes the servant for his refusal to do what the nobleman demanded (Matt. 25:28-30). This, again, does not sound very much like Jesus, who describes His yoke as “easy” and “light,” not “heavy,” (Matt. 11:28-30). This is specifically a call to those who labor and are under heavy burdens as a release.

Third, the “nobleman” demands that his servants commit usury, forbidden in the law and the prophets. He tells the “unfaithful” servant, “you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest,” (Matt. 25:27). That is, the “nobleman” has demanded his servants violate the Torah in one of its most basic precepts, the practice of usury (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-37; Deut. 23:19-20). The practice of usury was considered a direct affront to Yahweh, and the one who practiced such things would answer with his life. The Psalmist declares that the one who will dwell with God in the Temple is the one who “does not put out his money at interest,” (Psa. 15:5). Ezekiel declares that the righteous man “does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice,” (Ezek. 18:7-8). In contrast, shall the wicked man who  “lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself,” (Ezek. 18:13). Jesus even upholds this principle Himself (Luke 6:34-35). After all, He came to fulfill and uphold the law, not do away with it (Matt. 5:17-19). Jesus would never encourage usury, let alone demand it of His servants. The “nobleman,” on the other hand, expects and demands it, reaping what he does not sow and harvesting what he does not plant. The “unfaithful” servant has something startling and challenging to say to the “nobleman” when he returns his money to him: “Here you have what is yours,” (Matt. 25:25). In other words, the servant says, “I know that you take what is not yours from others by usury, but I have not done this. Here, take back the money that belongs to you.” This so-called “unfaithful” servant is actually challenging the “nobleman” on his behavior. He is saying, “I know you take things that don’t belong to you, but here, I’m returning what does belong to you.” We’ll come back to this servant in a moment.

Fourth, the “nobleman” proves himself to be every bit the harsh and cruel man that he is in his response to the last servant. He strips the last servant of what he has and declares, “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away,” (Matt. 25:29). This again does not sound very much like Jesus. Do we imagine that Jesus would support stripping the poor or the laborer of what little they have, and give it to the rich? Does this sound like the Jesus of the gospels, of whom it was said, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;  he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty,” (Luke 1:51-53)? Does this sound like the Jesus who said that the Jubilee promise of Isaiah 61 was fulfilled in His own ministry (Luke 4:18-21), a final, eschatological Jubilee that includes the promise that Yahweh “has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God [upon the oppressors],” (Isa. 61:1-2)? Does this sound very much like the Jesus who said, “only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23)?

As we have shown, the characteristics of the “nobleman” are entirely contrary to the character of Jesus and His ministry. The question left to us is, “How could we possibly have inverted this parable at all? How could we have so seriously misunderstood Jesus’ ministry?” How could we have confused Jesus with Satan? Cruel, harsh, usurious, full of malice and avarice, taking what little the poor have and giving it to the rich? Sounds like a pretty good description of Satan to me. Reading the parable properly reveals that the “nobleman” represents everything that Jesus opposes, and the servant which the “nobleman” declares to be wicked, slothful and “worthless” (Matt. 25:26, 30) is actually righteous and faithful to God. The other servants whom the “nobleman” gives command over cities and much wealth are told to “Enter into the joy of your master,” (Matt. 25:21). We can now correctly understand this as a counterfeit of the Kingdom, a parody of God’s rewards in the Kingdom. Like with the hypocrites who pray to be heard by men, fast to be seen by men, and give to be respected by men, those who are set over the great and mighty things in the world have truly “received their reward,” (Matt. 6:2). Blessed will be the poor, but “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” (Luke 6:24).

So who is the nobleman and why does Jesus tell this right before the great judgment scene in Matt. 25? The answer involves all three of the stories in Matt. 25. It is of vital importance to note that this whole discussion comes on the heels of Jesus’ prophecy against Jerusalem and the Temple, predicting its destruction within a single generation (Matt. 24). This took place just as Jesus said it would, forty years later, in A.D. 70 when the Romans swept across Israel and tore down Jerusalem and the Temple. Immediately following this discussion, Jesus tells the parable of the virgins, ten of whom are prepared for this destruction of Jerusalem and ten of whom are not (Matt. 25:1-13). The ten unprepared virgins are shut out of the Kingdom, and represent those in Israel who have refused to believe Jesus’ words.

The parable of the talents then follows this discussion of those who are included and those who are excluded from the Kingdom, when it arrives, in A.D. 70. The parable of the virgins raises the question, “How do we know who is in and who is out?” To answer this question, Jesus tells two stories of two  judgments, both of which have to do with the arrival of the Kingdom. The first is the parable of the talents, which, as we have seen, is a picture of the sort of judgment which Israel expects. The “nobleman,” powerful and harsh, comes and rewards those faithful to his way of life, the life of mammon and rebellion against God. Jesus is subverting Israel’s expectation that the Messiah will rise up and slaughter the unfaithful in Israel (those who have not seemingly done anything with what God has given them) as well as the Romans, slaughter them and set faithful Israel over the cities and power centers of the world. This is a presentation of judgment as Israel expects it.

Jesus then immediately contrasts this with the true judgment of the Kingdom, when He takes the throne and uses Rome to destroy Jerusalem and the earthly Temple. In this picture of the rule of the Kingdom, Jesus inverts Israel’s expectation by rewarding those who personally assist the poor, who live the way of the cross in the expectation of the coming Kingdom. It is not those who have amassed great wealth or assisted them in such hoarding that will inherit eternal life but those who have lived according to the Kingdom code Jesus set out in the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of His ministry, the ones who voluntarily renounced what they had, who practiced sharing, hospitality, generosity, who fed and clothed the poor, who cared for the needy, who visited the widow and the orphan in their affliction. Only these will inherit the Kingdom. And salvation is at stake in this issue. When Jesus tells the rich man to sell all he had and follow Him, the rich man is sad. Jesus says, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Looking on, people say, “Then who can be saved?” Not, “How difficult for those who do not believe.” Not, “How difficult for those who have not heard the gospel.” Not “How difficult for those who hold to a different theological tradition than us.” Instead, salvation is (at least in part) about Mammon.

“How difficult for those who have great wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.”