Posted: May 22nd, 2015

The Sin We Stopped Feeling Sorry For

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema
Shakespeare spoke Scripturally when he wrote, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."

The sermon below, first preached on March 22, 2015 as a Lenten meditation, elicited many requests for it to be reprinted in the Lamplighter.  I offer the bulk of the text here.


It is a curious thing, that sometimes the clearest commandments of God are the ones we ignore the most.  By the end of this sermon, I can only believe that you will come to one of only two possible conclusions: either that you and I are sinners—indeed, very great sinners; or that you must renounce your Christian faith, and indeed, faith in any religion.


Today we will start with Psalm 15, which asks the question, “How does someone live when God is truly in his life?”


O Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent?
    Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?

He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right,
    and speaks truth from his heart;
who does not slander with his tongue,
    and does no evil to his friend,
    nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
in whose eyes a reprobate is despised,
    but who honors those who fear the Lord;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
who does not put out his money at interest,
    and does not take a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things shall never be moved.


Today’s lesson focuses on the line about usury—lending money at interest.  The godly man lends but does not charge interest.  He lends, and he receives the amount loaned back again, without demanding any extra payment.


Not only in Psalm 15:5 is this teaching found.  It is a fundamental principle throughout the Word of God. In Exodus (22:25), Leviticus (25:37), and Deuteronomy (23:19) the charging of interest on loans is forbidden.  Prophets like Ezekiel (18:13, 22:12) thundered against usury. Charging interest is clearly and strictly forbidden by God. 


In modern life we have changed the meaning of the word “usury” to mean “charging an excessive rate of interest,” without defining “excessive.”  Excessive usually means what the other guy wants to charge me, not what I want to charge him.  In ancient times, though, usury meant charging any interest, period.  Even 1% interest was usury, and usury was forbidden.


In the New Testament we do not find the question of usury addressed.  We find it transcended.  Jesus says that we are not even to lend our money to our neighbor; rather, if he has need and we have surplus, we are to give him what we can, seeking nothing in return (Luke 6:35, Matthew 5:42).  Not only can you not charge interest, you cannot even ask your neighbor for the principal back.  And who counts as your neighbor?  If you have heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan, you know the answer to that.


The Christian Church has an unbroken Tradition of forbidding usury that stretches back to the Apostles.  The Church Fathers also spoke against charging interest on loans.  We find it sternly condemned in the writings of Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Saints Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, among others.  They considered it a violation of the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”  To ask for more money than what you had in the first place, to take more than you gave, is quite obviously a form of stealing.  Interest is theft. Usury is robbery. 


Several Church Councils issued canons, or regulations, against usury.   The First Ecumenical Council in Nicea in the year 325 AD prohibited clergy from giving out loans on interest, on pain of being defrocked.  Later councils reiterated that laymen are likewise expected not to be usurers, on pain of excommunication.  These prohibitions were in force in the Church throughout the world.  Even after the Great Schism, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church upheld their bans on usury.  For St. Thomas Aquinas, the master theologian of the Catholic Church, usury was a sin because it was contrary to nature.  Money is merely a medium of exchange, and not a useful commodity in and of itself. Charging money for money amounts to creating new money out of thin air, which devalues the medium of exchange.


The ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, thought similarly.  Gold and silver, they said, are sterile, barren, incapable of reproducing like sheep or cattle or seed plants.  For money to beget new money goes against the natural order of things.  The poet Dante, in his Divine Comedy, took the same point of view, which is why he cast the usurers down in the seventh circle of hell, alongside the sodomites, because usury is likewise contrary to nature. 


This is not to say that in the history of Christendom, there have not been those who tried to find loopholes, excuses, clever rationalizations for charging interest on loans.  As with any moral precept, there have been those who look for ways to get around it.  But it is undeniable that in the main, the entire Judeo-Christian system of thought has been opposed to usury, opposed to lending out money at interest. 


Who then was the person who turned things around, who made interest and moneylending so acceptable in the modern world?  Probably your favorite theocratic despot and mine, John Calvin.  That old fox—wiser in his own eyes than all of Christianity before him—twisted logic to make usury not only acceptable, but even virtuous.  Because of the Calvinists, banking as we now know it developed in Western Europe, and from there to the rest of the world. 


Let me quickly add here: in case you are a fan of usury and are right now thinking of ditching Christianity for another religion, you should know that usury—in the original sense of charging interest, any interest at all, on a loan—is considered a sin in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and in Judaism (in most cases).  Every major religion, and most minor ones, condemn usury.


Well, you might say: “Very interesting, never heard a sermon on usury before, so points to you, Father, for originality.  But what does this have to do with me?” you might ask.  “I am not a banker.  I am not a financier.  I am not a venture capitalist.”


Ah! But you are!  Do you have an interest-bearing account at a bank?  You are loaning the bank money at interest.  You are a usurer. Do you have a retirement account, a 401K, a 403B?  You might hold mostly stocks, but I bet the part of your portfolio is in bonds as well.  Interest-bearing, usurious bonds and Treasury bills. 


It is inescapable.  To be part of modern middle-class life in America is to be involved in usury.  And even if you somehow have avoided every opportunity to charge interest to someone else, you are almost surely still guilty of paying interest in some way: on a mortgage, on a car loan, on a credit card.  In willingly agreeing to pay interest, you are giving your creditor an occasion to sin.  You are tempting someone else to do that which displeases the Lord, according to Psalm 15 and all of the Bible. 


Usury is a sin, regardless of the fact that we stopped feeling sorry for it.  I am guilty of it.  You, almost certainly, are guilty of it.  And in this Lenten season of repentance, it is worth considering this sin.  Thou shalt not steal.  Nor shalt thou encourage others to steal, even from yourself.  To charge interest, or to commit to paying interest, is to violate the law of God.  It is a sin.  We are sinners.  And very prolific sinners indeed.


Some will argue, of course, that usury is a good thing. Money-lending makes venture capital available, which makes free enterprise available, which makes invention and production and exploration available, which makes capitalism and modern wealth and technology and progress available. Make no mistake: without usury, without modern banking, the world would be a much different place today.  The world would be centuries behind in “progress” as we currently define it. 


In a sense this is true.  But in another sense, because of usury, because of the modern ways that money is created out of thin air, we have progress … but we also have regress.  None of us is in a position to see truly how the scales of justice are tipping on this particular matter.  Modern usury has truly created the First World prosperity that we Americans enjoy; but it has arguably also created the Third World poverty that other countries endure.  We blame it on their culture, their government, their history.  But the truth is that colonial debt-slavery, caused by unpayable rates of interest, has made much of this Third-World misery come into being. 


Right now I don’t sound like a very good capitalist.  That is because capitalism as we know it could not exist without usury, without charging interest on loans.  With the lure of lucrative interest, most of the loans would not have been made that financed the Industrial Revolution. 


But my business before you is not to persuade you of the truth of capitalism. My work is to persuade you of the truth of Christianity.  And Christianity, it cannot be doubted, has from the earliest times opposed lending money at interest. The Bible never says that economic progress or technological advancement pleases God.  The Bible makes it abundantly clear that usury displeases God.  To believe otherwise requires such intellectual contortions, so much twisting of logic, so much bending over backwards, that one can no longer look at oneself in a mirror.


Call me impractical if you must; but if the choice is between capitalism and Christianity, I choose Christianity.  I hope you will do the same.  But as I said at the beginning, you might decide that you want to renounce your faith rather than confess your sinfulness. 


But if you want to acknowledge your complicity in usury, what then shall we do, you and I?  How shall we repent?


This is not so easy to sort out.  I cannot tell you that I am going to walk away from my mortgage tomorrow.  My family needs a roof over its head, and right now that mortgaged one in Meridian Township is the best, and maybe the only one, I can provide.  I cannot tell you to close out your savings accounts and cash out your retirement plans.  That would be irresponsible. Just as it can be fatal to cut off a drug addict cold turkey, it might be catastrophic to pull out of this web of usury in one fell swoop. I cannot even tell you to cut up your credit cards, for to command that would be to force you into the isolation of an Amish farm community. 


In the Divine Liturgy we pray for the forgiveness of sins voluntary and involuntary.  For almost all of us, our involvement in usury is an involuntary sin: in this society, there is no way to exist without being involved somehow in the charging of interest.  May God forgive us and give us light to see how we can free ourselves from this curse.


Even so, there are some things that we can do, we who are committed to living in a way that pleases God, and not just to go with the flow like dead fish. 


We can resolve to rid ourselves of current debt, and to not encumber ourselves with further debt, as much as possible. This means living within our means.  This means saving up ahead of time to make purchases rather than buying on credit.  We are penalized, of course, for being savers.  With inflation as a constant of modern life, money sitting unused is money losing value, slowing depreciating.  But buying on credit brings its own financial penalties.  In particular, I would challenge us as a parish to continue to strive to pay off that large and burdensome debt that ties our hands so tightly.  We give to the bank monthly interest payments that might better have been used for ministries: for bringing ourselves and other closer to God.


Secondly, in our personal financial decisions, we can resolve never to loan out money at interest to any friend or family member.  But rather to give freely as we are able, or at worst, to lend and ask no more than the original loan to be paid back in a reasonable time. 


Thirdly, we must begin to open our eyes to the ways that the sin of usury pervades all of our society in negative ways.  Our whole American financial system is built on usury.  It is for this reason that our nation falls deeper and deeper and deeper into debt each year, with no plan for reversing this evil trend.  As voters we can use our ballots to speak against this ruinous policy.


All of our national wealth is a façade.  Give a man twenty credit cards, and he can quickly acquire for himself the illusion of wealth.  And the illusion persists … until the bills come due. 


So it is for us in America.  Like a house built on sand, our personal wealth is built on the shaky foundation of longstanding debt.  Each of us as a citizen of our municipalities and counties of our state, and of this nation, has a share in the enormous debt that our governments have run up at all levels.  We are in truth a nation of debt-slaves, living on a very nice, very comfortable First-World plantation.  But slaves and peons we are, and we are only the worse off for being ignorant of our true servitude. 


Saint Paul told the Romans (13:8), “Owe no man anything but to love one another.”  In that love for one another and for God, we must seek to avoid charging, and to avoid paying, the evil interest of usury.  The Scriptures tell us that this is clearly what pleases the Lord, and this is clearly what blesses His people.   


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