In this article, I want to offer my thoughts on the topic of usury. The reason this is such a pressing issue is because there’s no shortage of secular and liberal Christians who love to go around claiming that, because “the Church has changed its moral view on usury,” this therefore means that she can change her views on other moral issues such as homosexuality, contraception, and so on. Thus, in this article I’m going to attempt to explain what usury is, and how the Orthodox Church’s view of it has in fact never changed. So, let’s begin.
The first place we need to turn to when understanding what usury is, and what about it makes it a sin, is the Holy Bible. One of the clearest explanations of usury comes from the Law of Moses:
“If you lend money to my people that are poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” (Exodus 22:25)
Notice what Moses says, if you lend money at interest “to my people that are poor among you”, then this constitutes usury and is condemned. This definitely does not seem to be a condemnation of any and all lending at an interest, rather it seems to only forbid charging interest on lending to the poor, i.e. lending that should be done simply out of charity. However, is there more in Scripture that lends itself (pun intended) to this point? I’d say so. Much like the second commandment’s seeming prohibition on any and all graven images, the biblical condemnation of lending money seems to have some notable exceptions:
“Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed… When the Lord your God has blessed you, as he promised you, you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 6)
There are two significant things to note here. First, it doesn’t seem like borrowing and lending money between Israelites was absolutely forbidden, otherwise it wouldn’t really make sense for why there would be a “remission of debt” every seventh year for Israelites who are indebted to one another. This at the very least establishes that there were some cases where lending between Israelites was tolerated.
Second, not only does God allow the Israelites to lend money at an interest to Gentile nations, but He actually blesses this act, a point made even more explicit later on by Moses:
“If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth… The Lord will open for you his rich treasury, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings. You will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow.” (Deuteronomy 28:1, 12)
The Lord says that if Israel is obedient to His Law, then He will bless them by setting them “above all the nations of the earth,” and how does God do this? He does this by blessing the Israelites with treasure from heaven, which He then expects the Israelites to lend (at interest) to the Gentile nations, in order that they might assume financial dominion over them! If lending money at an interest was something that was absolutely immoral in any and all cases, it’s really hard to understand how it is that God can not only command the Israelites to do this, but indeed call this a reward for their obedience to Him. I mean, could we imagine God saying something like, “if you’re faithful to my Law, I’ll let you worship whatever gods you want!” Of course not, because idolatry is intrinsically immoral, and God would never reward His people for obeying His Law by blessing them to break the Law!
[Invoking some kind of divine command theory here, wherein something immoral can magically become moral by God’s command is simply bad philosophy, and completely unnecessary to understand the Old Testament, including things like the Flood, Conquest, etc., as I explain here.]
Thus, the only coherent way to understand the Old Testament’s condemnation of usury is that it applies primarily to charity-loans that one gives to the poor, but not to any and all situations wherein lending money at an interest is employed. This interpretation seems to be further confirmed by one other place we see usury condemned in the Old Testament:
“If one of your brethren becomes dependent on you, you shall support them… do not take interest or make a profit from them… [you shall not] provide food at a profit.” (Leviticus 25:35-37)
God says that if one Israelite becomes dependent on another (i.e. becomes poor), not only are you not allowed to take interest from them, but you’re not allowed to make any profit off of them whatsoever, not even from selling them things like food. Thus, because we know that buying and selling food is not something that God condemns unilaterally (Genesis 47:17, Hosea 3:2, 2 Samuel 24:24, 1 Corinthians 10:25, etc.), the implication is that charging interest is also not condemned as intrinsically immoral, but rather all of these condemnations are primarily directed towards our interaction with the poor among us.
Moreover, what is it that makes God’s allowance of lending to Gentile nations different from lending to the poor? Well, think about the language being used. When God prohibits the Israelites from lending at an interest to one another, he’s speaking to individual Israelites and telling them not to extract interest from other poor individual Israelites. When speaking about Israel’s lending to the Gentiles, however, the Lord is speaking to Israel as a corporate body (as a nation) lending to other corporate bodies (to other nations), so what are we to make of this?
As Seraphim Hamilton has shown at length, the fundamental principle behind this is that God, as it were, gives a loan to the nation of Israel (the “treasures of heaven”), which Israel then loans out to the nations, helping them to grow their economies in accordance with the divine plan, thereby indebting these nations to Israel (hence, “you shall rule over the nations”), who then receives a handsome return on investment through the payment of interest. And this is ultimately an image of God’s relationship with the human family: God lends us the raw material of creation, and we are to cultivate and glorify that which has been given to us, and then give it back to God as something more valuable than was initially given (as we shall see, this exact point is made by Jesus in His Parable of Talents). Thus, the principle that seems to justify lending money at an interest is when it’s done for the creation of new wealth that honors God, and when it is through this new wealth that the recipient is able to repay the initial loan with interest. In other words, lending money at an interest is only morally justifiable when it is being used for productive purposes.
But does this line up with the teachings of Jesus Christ? When most people think of Jesus’ teaching on lending money at interest, they think of His quote from the Sermon on the Mount:
“If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (Luke 6:34-35)
Many take this statement by our Lord to be an absolute ban on any and all forms of lending money, however is that really what’s going on here? I don’t think so. It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to figure out that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus employed a teaching method known as “hyperbole” in order to get His point across. This is why other teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, if taken completely at face value, would mean that we can never swear oaths, never call anyone “father” except God, literally pluck out our eye or cut off our arm if they cause us to sin, and so on. However, as virtually everyone recognizes, this literal application of the Lord’s teaching is not what He intended, as is evident by the fact that Jesus Himself swore oaths, and His apostles called people besides God “father,” and so on.
Thus, when we situate Jesus’ seeming condemnation of any and all lending in its hyperbolic context, we see that this is a repetition of the Lord’s Law from Exodus and Leviticus, namely that you are not to oppress the poor via exacting interest from them, but rather you are to give them money, food, clothes, etc. freely. That this isn’t a blanket condemnation of any and all lending at an interest is further bolstered by the Lord Jesus Himself who said the following in His famous Parable of the Talents:
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.” (Matthew 25:14-15, 19-27)
In this parable, Jesus describes Himself as “the master” who lends out gold to His servants, who then go and invest what was given to them, and then repay (at interest) the one who gave them the wealth. The servants who are able to pay their master back with interest are called “good and faithful” and they are given a place of honor in the master’s house. The servant who did not pay back his loan with interest, however, is called wicked and is cast out into the outer darkness. If lending money at an interest was absolutely immoral in any and all circumstances, it would be very strange why Jesus would describe Himself as committing a sin. If, however, what was written above is correct, namely that lending money at an interest is permissible if that money is invested in the production of new wealth (which is then used to pay back that loan), then our Lord describing Himself as the divine creditor makes perfect sense, and in fact confirms Hamilton’s thesis about the biblical theme of lending money being an image of God and Israel’s relationship with the world.
[If you’re going to reply to this by saying that theft is intrinsically immoral, yet Jesus elsewhere describes Himself as a thief in Mark 3, I would say this: the kind of “theft” spoken of by the Lord in that parable was actually holy theft, because the “strong man” who is being stolen from is one to whom the house does not belong. In context, we know it’s a reference to the fact that the Lord will bind Satan, and then plunder his house, because Satan was the one who stole the house (which is the nations of the world) in the first place, and the Lord being a “thief” is simply taking back that which lawfully belongs to Him. This is similar to how the Israelites were always to “plunder” the lands given to them by God: because it belonged to them via God’s promise. So no, Jesus does not describe Himself as doing something immoral in His parable about being a “thief,” and thus my logic regarding the Lord as an interest-receiver still stands: He cannot be describing Himself as doing something intrinsically immoral.]
So we’ve seen that both the Old and New Testaments have a consistent teaching about the lending of money at an interest: it is absolutely forbidden as usurious when done to the poor and oppressed, however there are circumstances wherein it can be allowed, such as when the money lent is being used for productive purposes.
[All of the quotes from the Fathers below are from Albertus Mahoney’s “The Teaching of the Fathers on Usury,” as well as Laruen Ward’s “A Few Thoughts on Usury.”]
With all of that said, what do the Fathers of the Church have to say about this matter? Well there’s an excellent article from Lauren Ward on this topic, which I highly recommend reading, and I’ll highlight a few aspects. St. John Chrysostom speaks of usury in the following way:
Nothing, nothing is baser than the usury of this world, nothing more cruel. Why, other persons’ calamities are such a man’s traffic; he makes himself gain of the distress of another, and demands wages for kindness, as though he were afraid to seem merciful, and under the cloak of kindness he digs the pitfall deeper, by the act of help galling a man’s poverty, and in the act of stretching out the hand thrusting him down, and when receiving him as in harbour, involving him in shipwreck, as on a rock, or shoal, or reef.
Notice the reason why St. John says that usury is wrong: it’s because one “demands wages for kindness.” In other words, usury is wrong because, rather than simply giving to someone in poverty out of charity, you are instead aiming to profit off of that person’s poverty by loaning them money and expecting an interest payment. This reasoning behind usury’s condemnation is also repeated and further elaborated by St. Gregory of Nyssa who wrote:
Money lending has no value and is rapacious. It is unfamiliar with such trades as agriculture and commerce; like a beast, usury dwells in one place and delights in banquets. Money lending wants everything to be wild and begets whatever has been untilled… . Usury’s home is a threshing-floor upon which the fortunes of the oppressed are winnowed and where it considers everything as its own. It prays for afflictions and misfortunes in order to destroy such persons… [Usury] is vexed by gold hidden in a person’s home because it remains idle and unprofitable. Usury imitates farmers who immediately plant crops; it takes and gives money without gain while transferring it from one hand to another.
Like Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nyssa condemns usury because it is a system whereby the rich, rather than seeing the poor as a chance to be charitable and generous, instead see them as an opportunity to make more money. This is why they “pray for afflictions and misfortunes” as St. Gregory says, because the more people fall into poverty, the more money usurers can make. However notice that St. Gregory also adds another reason for why usury is wrong: because the money being made off of it remains idle and unprofitable. In other words, not only does usury wreak havoc on the lives of the poor, but it is also a net-loss for society because that money being gained is not in any way contributing to the creation of wealth, but instead it’s just putting one person in massive amounts of debt, while another simply stuffs the money in his pockets (this is also why St. Gregory condemns excessive “wealth accumulation,” i.e. saving too much). It is largely for this reason that St. Basil the Great wrote the following:
Are you rich? Do not borrow. Are you poor? Do not borrow. If you are prospering, you have no need of a loan; if you have nothing, you will not repay the loan. Do not give your life over to regret… Let us, the poor, surpass the rich in this one thing, freedom from care.
The rich are not supposed to borrow money because they already have the means to sustain themselves, and the poor are not to borrow because it will only send them into massive amounts of debt. In both cases, usury is heavily tied to either funding unnecessarily lavish lifestyles, or needlessly plunging oneself into a never ending cycle of poverty, both of which constitute net-losses for society.
With all of that understood, the patristic teaching against usury doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the biblical idea of loaning money at an interest for productive purposes, a point that Ward concurs with by stating:
“[The Church Fathers] insisted that wealth should be intrinsically tied to work, [and so] a distinction has to be made between two different kinds of loans. It is not necessarily usurious, for example, to contribute a loan to an industrial firm, to a small business, to a farm or to some other productive project which can be reasonably expected to pay back over time, and do so by making, raising or providing things which are useful to human flourishing. What the Eastern Fathers are condemning here in their treatment of usury, are loans which maldistribute wealth by making the acquisition of money the aim of its own lending. Using loans to prey upon the basic living and consumption needs of the debtor—food, clothing, shelter, education.”
This is a point that many recent Orthodox clergy and hierarchs agree with. For example, when responding to the liberal heresies of Aristotle Papanikolaou, Fr. John Whiteford describes that, when the Fathers were writing against usury, it was in the context of the rich exploiting and oppressing the poor who were just trying to obtain the basic necessities of life. In our modern society, however, where the value of money will depreciate over time without a minimal accumulation of interest, and where corporate bonds and such are actually extremely beneficial to society, this principle doesn’t seem to apply. If you’re interested in an economic evaluation of the different types of usury, see this excerpt from Hilaire Belloc’s Economics for Helen: A Brief Outline of Real Economy.
With that said, however, how are we as Orthodox Christians to take this principle into our own lives? We live in a society where it seems our entire financial system is founded on usury, i.e. people making careers out of lending money for unproductive purposes, simply exploiting the poor. This isn’t just true of obvious examples like loan-sharking and payday loans, but also things such as credit card debt, student loans, and even mortgages are oftentimes predicated upon taking advantage of the poor, who themselves are often guilty of going into massive amounts of debt to fund unnecessarily lavish lives that eventually come crashing down (the market crash of 2008 is a perfect example of usury gone wild, as well as our current student-debt crisis). This is why a recent draft statement from the Russian Orthodox Church said the following of modern economic life:
Whole countries and nations are plunged into debt, and generations that are not yet born are doomed to pay the bills of their ancestors. Business expectations in lending, often ghostly, becomes more profitable than the production of tangible goods. In this regard, it must be remembered about the moral ambiguity of the situation, when money “makes” new money without the application of human labor. Declaring the credit sphere to be the main engine of the economy, its predominance over the real economic sector comes into conflict with the moral principles, revealed by God condemning usury. (Economy in the Context of Globalization)
Because so many modern lending practices are unproductive and harmful to society, they do indeed constitute usury, and we should be trying to find a way to change that aspect of modern life. Does this mean, however, that Orthodox Christians can never participate in modern society’s financial system? I wouldn’t say so. As we’ve shown above, there are legitimate and illegitimated forms of usury, however sometimes the line between these two can become blurred. If you are taking money at an interest for the sake of being a productive member of society, then, under the direction of a spiritual father, it’s most likely acceptable to take loans to pay for houses, cars, and school, as this is sometimes the only way that you can actually be a valuable member of the Church in our modern economy. This is confirmed by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos who wrote on this topic that, “in certain cases like acquiring a house, one can say that loans are beneficial… If this is put into effect in a legal and fair manner, then it can function along the principle of brotherly love. However, when lending is linked to hedonism, easy living, bliss, the quest for wealth etc., then it cannot be acceptable.” Notice that, while Metropolitan Vlachos recognizes that there may be a legitimate place for lending with interest that is not sinful, such as when one needs to buy a house, if people are abusing this system it can very easily become sinful, as it so often does today.
At the end of the day, it seems that in order to avoid moral culpability for usury, us Orthodox Christians need to only accept loans that are absolutely necessary for the productiveness and wellbeing of ourselves and our families, while at the same time working to change society however we can, such that it isn’t so steeped in usurious sin. This is perhaps why even great saints like Emperor Justinian the Great allowed for certain kinds of usury in the Byzantine Empire and why, as Philip Schaff documents, many of our Fathers were merciful towards usurious sins: “St. Gregory of Nyssa says that usury, unlike theft, the desecration of tombs, and sacrilege, is allowed to pass unpunished… St. Sidonius Apollinaris, relating an experience of his friend Maximus, appears to imply that no blame attached to lending money at the legal rate of interest… [and] St. Gregory the Great seems to shew that he did not regard the payment of interest for money advanced by one layman to another as unlawful.” Given the gray areas of modern society, the issue of usury is one where we can legitimately allow for ekonomia, under the direction of the proper ecclesial authorities, however it’s also one that we need to put a lot more thought and prayer into than is often supposed.
If you’re looking for more information about usury from an Orthodox perspective, check out my discussion with Craig Truglia on this topic on his YouTube channel.