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.
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?