Interest in the Bible

Interest in the Bible July 20, 2013

Fred Clark recently noted how odd it is that some will make an issue that is of at most tangential interest (pun intended) to the Biblical authors a litmus test of religious identity, but ignore things that are emphasized repeatedly. One obvious example is the Bible's prohibition against charging interest (at least when lending to others who are also part of God's people). It says this clearly, on numerous occasions. Here's Exodus 22:25:

If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.

And again, in Ezekiel 18:11-13:

He eats at the mountain shrines.

He defiles his neighbor’s wife.

He oppresses the poor and needy.

He commits robbery.

He does not return what he took in pledge.

He looks to the idols.

He does detestable things.

He lends at interest and takes a profit.

Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he is to be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.

What the Bible prohibits, modern Americans and modern American Christians have made characteristic of their lifetyle and livelihood. And yet when some of them pretend to be emphasizing what the Bible emphasizes, they are believed.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me make my point clear. It is not that I think people really ought to be doing everything the Bible says (“even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff,” as Ned Flanders once put it). It is that people who are not consistently following the Bible's teachings should not be pretending that they are.

Although I confess that I am curious what American Christianity in our time would look like if it did take a stand in opposition to the lending of money with interest…


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  • Changer

    It might look something like the lslamic banks; not sure how they work, but I’m pretty sure they don’t charge interest?

    Maybe it could be done on a favour system- ‘I lend this to you now, you lend to me later…’

    Or it would be just like friends lending money to each other. I’ve never charged my friends interest.

    It would be interesting to see.

    • Toto

      Islamic banks work on what we would call a profit sharing agreement. This guarantees that the load is for a productive purpose and not consumption.

  • Ah, but according to the New Testament, God is the Supreme Banker:

    Matthew 25:26-30

    26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

    • It is one of the intriguing things in the Jesus tradition that the parables regularly feature behavior which would be viewed as unethical in Jesus’ context, and have a figure who is typically thought to represent God as the key perpetrator. I have long wanted to do a study focused on this!

      • Paul H

        I would be very interested to know more about that! In lieu of an original study, could you do a blog post about what others have already written about it? I’m not in a position to search the religious studies literature, so anything more you could say on that subject would be helpful.

        • I’m replying to one comment but hopefully it will be seen by the several previous commenters on this thread.

          There has been a tendency in some recent scholarship to view these parables as not about God, but as descriptions of unjust realities in everyday life. But given the overall agreement of the Gospels that these were parables, I suspect that there is a symbolic level to them. The interesting question is what it might have meant for Jesus to say “Compare God and God’s Kingdom to those you hate most – the unjust judge, the absentee landlord, the person who engages in trading to make a profit, the weeds in your garden.” Or is the analogy between the stories and the Kingdom of God something other than that God is like those figures in some way?

          I wonder whether there is any connection between this element in the teaching of Jesus and the fact that he was embraced by many Gnostics, who of course take a negative view of the God who is the creator of the world.

          I don’t think that the early church invented all the parables along these lines, without any basis in the teaching of the historical Jesus.

          I would welcome further discussion of this!

      • JenellYB

        I have found this an interesting point to look at more closely, too. What I have found is that often, if you will carefully read and consider surrounding text in such instances, as well as read the questionable test itself with ‘new eyes’ for how it actually does read, having set aside what you have been taught to think it reads as, not only the perpetrator, but often other characters in the narrative, are other than what had been thought. Most involve confusion in correctly identifying subject and object, and relating pronouns to the correct identified person. Most can be unraveled using one or several good English translations, but I’ve found some very interesting occasions of apparent confusion that occurred during translation processes from the Greek, especially involving incorrect attribution of pronouns, confusion of subject and object, but some other interesting irregularities as well, such as confusions arising out of incorrectly handling translations of verb conjugations and noun declensions in the Greek, that do not directly translate well into English, that ‘smooth out’ what the passage of text is actually about. I have only freshman level kione/biblical Greek, just enough to know what a very complicated and difficult language it is to learn or to translate accurately, even for more learned scholars. But just the basics of kione/biblical Greek study can give you an good idea why and how such factors of grammatical form and syntax in Greek created many opportunities for translational errors.

      • This particular parable is in the context of similar parables in Matthew 25: the master who returns to find his slave beating other slaves, then treats him in kind; the bridegroom who won’t open the door for the late bridesmaids.

        They seem to be in the context of the return of the Son of Man, the King, The Lord who will separate the sheep from the goats. To the goats He says “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”

        So it seems to me that the context IS Jesus, and what he plans to do when he returns.

        Do you think such verses trace back to the historical Jesus? Or are they inventions of later Christians, meant to scare the flock onto the straight and narrow?

    • Rube

      I always heard that that was a metaphor for evangelism, and the ‘lazy slaves’ are the ones who didn’t win enough souls or keep the commadments or something. To see it as an endorsement of predatory banking practices would be doing some violence to the passage. It’s not meant to be taken literally and we’re supposed to be the slaves in this context, not the Master. Fred Clark had an interesting interpretation up on his blog a few years ago, where he saw it as a parable about how not to act, and disagreed that the Master is meant to be god. Can’t find it, sadly, it’s somewhere in the archives.

  • Brett Burrowes

    The medieval church forbade usury; I wonder when this rule was set aside, and what justification was offered for changing it? You are right, however; the American church conveniently leaves this rule out while insisting on following the Bible.

  • Straw Man

    A BLANKET prohibition on interest reflects economic ignorance–I’m forced to decide between believing that (a) God was ignorant of economics, (b) this law is human rather than divine, or (c) the law applied to a specific situation. I generally pick (c) and assume the law refers to loans for needy Israelites to pay for necessities. I.e., that the law doesn’t apply to prosperous Israelites raising capital to expand their sheep farms.

    Interest is just rent on money, like rent on land. Without the prospect of earning interest, there is no incentive whatsoever to lend money: I lose access to the money, along with a risk of non repayment and gain nothing. I could instead invest it in all sorts of productive ways, like buying land or oxen and renting them out, or I could enjoy it myself. A ban on ALL interest would lock them into a crippled economy, AND contradict the principle that service deserves compensation. (And yes, I’m aware of deeply flawed economic theories in which wages for WORK are legitimate, while rents of every description are not.)

    • arcseconds

      I’m not exactly an uncritical fan of modern financial arrangements, and I’m inclined to think there must be better ways to do things than the current practices of debt and interest.

      Having said that, I think it’s hard to argue with what you say, and I was thinking of writing a similar post myself.

      One thing that you didn’t discuss, is that in an inflationary economy, a set amount of money is worth less in the future, so if you only get back the capital you don’t just lose out on opportunity cost and risk, but also the amount you get back is actually worth less than the amount you gave out.