Would you like to spend eternity knee-deep in a lake of puss, blood and boiling muck? Or held in the same contempt as forgers, dishonest lawyers, thieves, murderers and oppressors of the poor?
You will, according to early Christian writings, if you practice usury.
The first sentence describes the place in hell for usurers, according to the Revelation of Peter, a Christian book of the second century.
The contempt in the second sentence – from the Didascalia, or Teaching of the Apostles, compiled in the third century – is included in a list of types of sinners from whom the church refused to accept donations.
A bishop in A.D. 211 implied that it was inconsistent with being a prophet or other holy man to lend on usury, among other condemned practices.
Usury is the practice of charging interest on loans instead of being content with repayment of the principal, chiefly unjust and excessively high rates of interest, especially from borrowers without other access to credit.
There are many scriptural prohibitions on usury, including: Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 23:35, Deuteronomy 19:19, Ezekiel 18:8 and Ezekiel 22:12.
In Bible times, charging interest was heinous because any borrower was already poor, which meant his Jewish neighbor had a duty to help a brother Israelite instead of impoverishing him further.
Nehemiah 5 describes an example of God’s law being disobeyed. Ordinary Jews had to borrow at interest for the necessaries of life and taxes.
Eventually they were reduced to selling their children into slavery to pay their mortgages plus interest.
The importance of fraternity and help were uppermost in the mind of Clement of Alexandria, dean of the foremost Christian school in the A.D. 190s, who wrote in his “Stromata”: “The law prohibits a brother from taking usury: designating as a brother not only him who is born of the same parents, but also one of the same race and sentiments, and a participator in the same word; deeming it right not to take usury for money, but with open hands and heart to bestow on those who need.”
Clement continued, “For God, the author and dispenser of such grace, takes as suitable usury the most precious things to be found among men – mildness, gentleness, magnanimity, reputation, renown. … Those who have paid the penalty of protracted penury should not suffer a life-long punishment.”
Sometime between A.D. 222 and 247, the church father Origen described in his “Commentary on Psalm 4” the deleterious effect on usurers themselves.
“It is absurd to think that a holy man will be a money lender, opening banks in many nations, in town after town, distracted over payments and receipts, following a prohibited business,” he wrote.
Although not commenting specifically on usury, Jesus taught an anti-materialism inconsistent with it in Matthew 5:42 and Luke 6:34.
In “Against Marcion,” published in A.D. 213, Tertullian explained Christ’s sayings when discussing the compatibility of the Law of Moses with that of Christ. Tertullian explained why Christians are to abstain from usury.
“The first step was to eradicate the fruit of the money lent [usury], to more easily accustom a man to the loss, should it happen, of the money itself [principal], the interest of which he had learnt to lose. Now this, we affirm, was the function of the law as preparatory to the gospel,” he wrote.
Tertullian added, It was enlarged informing the faith of such as would lean, by gradual stages, for the perfect light of the Christian discipline, through the best precepts of which it was capable, inculcating a benevolence which as yet expressed itself but falteringly. … What else does he teach than that we should lend to those of whom we cannot receive again, inasmuch as he has imposed so great a loss on lending?”
In other words, foregoing interest is training for forgiving the entire debt.
Christ’s teaching to lend without thought of return of the capital (let alone interest) and to be unmotivated about acquisition of wealth (especially not at the expense of another person) are exercises in detaching oneself from materialism.
The common theme of the Jewish and Christian sentiments is this: Do not be greedy or consumed by making money, especially not on the backs of other people.
David W.T. Brattston is a retired jurist living in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada.