Interest is Theft

Thou-shalt-not-stealIn yesterday’s article, we looked at Psalm 15, and the testimonies of St. Ambrose, St. Leo the Great, and St. Basil the Great, all agreeing that godly people do not charge interest on loans. But suppose a person ignores this teaching, and lends at interest anyway. Specifically what sin is being committed?

St. Gregory of Nyssa says that such a person is guilty of theft.

In St. Gregory’s Homilies on Ecclesiastes, he goes into some very helpful detail:

If therefore something brings no benefit to those who pursue it, whether in terms of beauty or of physical well-being or of the relief of pains, for what reason is it pursued? And what is the affection of those who have set their heart on the stuff, when they come to be aware of such a possession? Do they congratulate themselves because they have gained something? If someone were to ask them whether they would welcome the chance to have their nature changed into it, and themselves to become what is honored among them with such affection, would they choose the change? [Would they choose to be] transformed from humanity into gold and be proved no longer rational, intelligent or able to use the sense organs for living, but yellow and heavy and speechless, lifeless and senseless, as gold is? I do not think that even those who set their desire passionately on the stuff would choose this.

If, therefore, for right-thinking people it would be a kind of curse to acquire the properties of this inanimate stuff, what is the mindless frenzy over the acquisition of things whose goal is futility, so that for this reason those who are driven mad with the desire for riches even commit murders and robbery? And not only these things, but also the pernicious idea of interest which one might call another kind of robbery or bloodshed without being far from the truth.

What is the difference between getting someone else’s property by seizing it through covert housebreaking or taking possession of the goods of a passer-by by murdering him and acquiring what is not one’s own by exacting interest?… If someone takes someone else’s money by force or steals it secretly, he is called a violent criminal or a burglar or something like that. But the one who advertises his felony in financial agreements, and who provides evidence of his own cruelty, and who enforces his crime by contracts, is called a philanthropist and a benefactor and a savior and all the worthiest of names. And the profit from thieving is called loot, but the person who strips his debtor naked by this kind of compulsion gives his harshness the euphemism “philanthropy”. This is what they call the damage done to those in distress.

“I gathered for me both silver and gold.” Yes, but the reason why the one who trains humankind wisely includes this also in the lists of things confessed is that human beings may learn, from one who has formed the judgment from experience, that this is one of the things condemned as wrong, and may guard before the experience against the onslaught of evil.

~ St. Gregory of Nyssa

Not only does St. Gregory identify interest as being a form of theft, he also contradicts the old canard that profit-based moneylending is a form of “philanthropy”, existing for the “good” of the poor.

Today, as at all times in history, unjust people have argued that interest-accruing loans are “helpful” to poor people, making funds available to them that they would not otherwise be able to access. But the Fathers of the Church have argued otherwise.

In his commentary on Psalm 15, St. Basil says,

We advise the poor … to persevere in their terrible situations rather than to accept the misfortunes that come from the payment of interest.

~ St. Basil the Great – Homilies on the Psalms

St. Gregory noted that–even in his day–the spin doctors were quick to call a moneylender “a philanthropist and a benefactor and a savior and all the worthiest of names.” Meanwhile, in truth, such loans constitute “damage done to those in distress”.

While the initial loan may provide some temporary relief to the poor, the end result is to drown them in even deeper debt.  If they cannot afford necessities today, how will they afford their necessities plus debt payments and interest payments tomorrow?
Interest-accruing loans hurt the poor. They do not help them.

According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, lending money at interest is not philanthropy.

It is theft.

About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
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6 Responses to Interest is Theft

  1. Nik says:

    I finally added you to my must-read blog list of Orthodox Ecclesiology and the World at I have been reading your marvelous blog for years but somehow forgot to add you.

  2. tpkatsa says:

    The fathers were clearly wise but thiese don’t les show that they were not infallible.

    First, interest on a loan between two consenting parties is not the moral equivalent of murder. This utterly absurd comparison cheapens human life and trivializes whatever point they are trying to make.

    Second, if you can’t pay back the loan you shouldn’t take the loan out to begin with. So if you’re poor or don’t think you can pay the loan back, then you shouldn’t take it out.

    Third, this wholesale condemnation of interest overlooks the fact, as I pointed out in my earlier response, that interest is simply the price of money. When I pay the 4% interest on my house payment, I am paying for the ability to use money over time, simply because I don’t happen to have $150,000 lying around somewhere. By banning interest you are in effect saying, you have to give me free money. Do I also have to give you free food? Free clothes? How about car? Why do you rail about the price of these things but when it comes to the price of money you have a different standard?

    Fourth, if you condemn the lender you have to condemn the borrower for participating in the same scheme. It takes two to tango. But we are unwilling to condemn the borrower because he is poor. Sorry, that runs directly contrary to Leviticus 19:15. If it’s a sin to lend it’s a sin to borrow.

    Fifth, while the lender’s moral obligation to verify that the borrower can pay back the loan is debatable, the borrower is ultimately responsible to make sure he can pay back the loan.

    I could go on here, but I think you get the idea. I find this condemnation of lending by the fathers to be hyperbolic. Now I would agree that practices such as loan sharking or lying about terms and conditions or changing the tetms and conditions of the loan without the buyer’s knowledge etc, these are morally very problematic. But lending someone money to buy a home, a car, etc. is not morally problematic. The fathers are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. Fr. Cassian Sibley says:

    Thank you for your excellent post on this often neglected aspect of Christian teaching. Would that more clergy might heed it.

  4. Pingback: The Banker’s Witching Hour | The Orthodox Life

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