There was a reason why tax collectors were so hated in Jesus’ time and why the loan sharks of today are viewed as disreputable. Usury, or the charging of interest on a loan, was once considered a grave sin but has somehow become somewhat legally and socially acceptable by today’s standards.
In this article, we’ll present a brief history of usury and why it was considered a sin centuries ago. We’ll also take a look to see:
- How its changed in modern times, and
- Question why its immorality has slackened.
Usury in the Eyes of Religion
Thousands of years before the birth of Christ, Moses was given ten commandments for mankind to follow to live in accord with the will of God. The eighth of these commandments instructs against the act of stealing which can be interpreted in several ways – including charging interest on a loan.
Usury was considered immoral because the lender turned a profit from the misfortune of his neighbor by asking for a return of payment beyond the original amount loaned. Judaism was not the only religion to consider usury a sin though.
In this excellent Wikipedia entry, there are various religious references to usury.
Both Islam and the early Christian church through the various ecumenical councils like the Council of Nicaea condemned usury as a sin. Those councils believed that usury would prevent a wholesome relationship with God. We should be inclined to share and give to those who don’t have.
Throughout the centuries, notable Christian figures such as St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledge the immorality of usury as the sin of theft. Even modern-day Catholic organizations such as the Congregation of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary still hold by the sinful nature of charging interest on a loan.
Usury and Legality
Several countries including Japan, Canada, and the United States have legal precedence against excessive usury so that charging interest above and beyond the law can carry legal consequences.
In the United States, the maximum allowable interest on a loan is determined by state law, but there is also a federal law that was mandated under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act which makes it a federal felony to charge more than double a state’s set interest rate.
Despite these laws, both man-made and God-given, loan sharking is still a booming illegal business that takes advantage of those in desperate situations unfortunately making them victims of even more debt.
The Immorality of Usury
Usury is not a new practice and despite its denunciation by major religious laws and biblical study, was still prominent even during Jesus’ time. There was a reason why everyone was so appalled that He would dine with tax collectors. Often, they would charge more from taxpayers and skim off the top for their own profit.
Jesus driving out the usurers from the Temple.
In Exodus, we are instructed to have compassion and help our neighbors in their time of need and not expect to reap any monetary reward for doing so. In other books of the Bible, we are instructed to be the head and not the tail. This is a decree to be a lender, a fair lender, and not a borrower.
Paul expands on this notion in his epistles to the members of the early church by condemning those who seek to profit from the misfortune of others. Rather we should show mercy and compassion, lending to our neighbor when he is in need for the rewards we gain in Heaven.
Why the Change of Thought?
Nowadays, usury is not seen as a big deal. Sure, there is legal precedence. And, it is kind of slimy to be that guy charging a ridiculous amount of interest on a loan, but what’s the big deal?
Unfortunately, as with most sins, in our worldly-centric, secular society, usury is just not a big deal. Morality itself has been dimmed as we continue to cut God out of every detail of our lives. Jesus never claimed it would be easy to follow in His footsteps. In fact, being Christian is the hardest thing Christians will ever do.
The best we can do is cling to Him who tells us right from wrong even if the whole world is shouting otherwise.
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