Read: Deuteronomy 23:19-20
You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess.
The Judeo-Christian tradition long opposed the lending out of money at interest because it was a breach of the responsibility that people are to have for one another. Is it right for the rich to benefit from the need for money for living expenses that the poor have? Deuteronomic law states that it is wrong to benefit from your neighbor in need. But the gospels seem to indicate that there may be a place for earning interest for money that is loaned.
What we know is that today’s financial world of capitalism is built on interest and rates of return. In spite of the church’s long history of opposing usury, that opposition has lately seemed silent, especially as credit markets came to dominate the world of commerce.
Financial companies represent more and more of the wealth that is created each year. The worldwide Great Recession of 2007-8 was exacerbated by complex transactions in which interest itself was bought and sold independently of the underlying loans. Such transactions are more and more frequent in a complex capitalist world. Remaining constraints on benefiting from the needs of the poor, such as the limiting of usurious rates of interest, were largely swept away within the last thirty years, although there have been a few recent instances of practices such as high-interest payday loans being outlawed.
In a world in which finance is a driver of the economy, Christians have begun to think more carefully about how they invest their money. Some groups now make small loans to residents in the developing world to help them market their goods and thus be able to support themselves financially. What practices might we explore that put people above profits, with grace as a fair return?
Look with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us. Help us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the laws and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer, p. 826)
Larry Benfield is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas.