Imagine a man who repents of lying, stealing, and gluttony. He confesses his sins, and goes to great efforts to stop practicing these sins.
Meanwhile, he commits adultery repeatedly. But he never bothers to repent, because it never occurs to him that adultery is a sin.
On the day of Judgment, what excuse will this man have before the Lord? Will such a person escape condemnation?
Indeed, the most dangerous sin is the one we fail to recognize as a sin. Not only do we need to repent of the sins we know we commit, we also need to pray for the Lord to open our eyes to the sins we commit in ignorance.
We find it easy to condemn greed, personified in popular images such as the “Scrooge” of Christmas story fame. But such extreme examples of avarice can be dangerous, for the sake of comparisons. As long as we are less greedy than Scrooge, we convince ourselves that we are not greedy at all. But you can be a greedy person, without looking like Ebenezer Scrooge. Indeed, avarice has become so ingrained in American culture–so socially acceptable–that virtually no one recognizes it as a sin anymore.
One example of avarice–one example of sinful greed–is to charge interest on a loan.
Holy Scripture is clear on this point. Interest-bearing loans are prohibited. And historically, the Church has been remarkably unanimous on this point as well. It is only in recent years that the word “usury” has been redefined.
Historically, the word “usury” has been synonymous with “interest”. But in recent years, it has been redefined to mean “excessive interest”. At first glance, this may appear to be a minor change. But in truth, it is an extremely significant redefinition. It would be similar to redefining the prohibition against “adultery”. Instead of prohibiting all sex outside marriage, we would just ask people to avoid excessive sexual relations outside marriage. Through redefinition, we would call adulterers “chaste”, and thieves “generous”.
This sort of redefinition brings to mind the prophet Isaiah’s warning:
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness;
Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!
Indeed, sex outside marriage is adultery, even if you commit it with only one person. Similarly, charging interest on a loan is greed, even if you charge only one percent interest.
Lending to the Rich vs. Lending to the Poor
Scripture makes a distinction between lending to the rich at interest, and lending to the poor at interest. Both are prohibited, but for different reasons.
Some people borrow money because they would be reduced to poverty without it. They need to borrow money today, in order to eat, work, or live. Thus, for practical purposes, “lending to the poor” covers instances of:
- Lending money so someone can buy food
- Lending money so someone can purchase necessary clothing
- Lending money so someone can pay for a place to live
In short, “lending to the poor” is when we lend someone money for the necessities of life.
Of course, the poor are not the only ones who borrow money. The rich borrow money as well. But they do it for a different reason. A wealthy person, by definition, already has enough money available to pay for food, clothing, and housing.
A wealthy person may want to borrow money for luxuries. This includes rich food, jewelry, name-brand clothing, vacation homes, and anything else outside the “necessity” category. By going into debt to purchase such things, they bring about one of two results:
- In the future, their income is higher than needed to cover the basic necessities. But instead of being able to donate the excess as alms, their abundance is eaten up in debt payments.
- Or, in the future, their income is too low to cover both their necessities and their debt payments. As a result, they default on the loans, failing to pay back the money as promised. In some cases, they become paupers themselves, becoming a burden on others.
Either way, these debts of luxury demonstrate a lack of love for one’s neighbor. Borrowing money to pay for luxuries is just another way of saying, “I don’t care about showing mercy on the poor. I would rather go into debt so I can indulge myself.”
A wealthy person may borrow money, so as to lend it again at higher interest. This is an illicit multi-billion dollar industry, run by the wealthy people who own banks and credit unions. They want to profit from loans to the poor, but they don’t have enough money to service that many loans. So they borrow money from others–at a much lower interest rate–so they can make double or triple their profit by re-lending the same money to the poor. The bank pays you 2% interest on a certificate of deposit, so they can afford to lend the same money to someone else at a rate of 6%.
Usury according to Scripture
The first mention of usury is in the book of Exodus:
If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him; you shall not charge him interest. (Exodus 22:25)
We find the same teaching in Leviticus:
‘If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. Take no usury or interest from him; but fear your God, that your brother may live with you. You shall not lend him your money for usury, nor lend him your food at a profit. (Leviticus 25:35-37)
God says to “take no usury or interest”.
He does not say it is okay to take “some usury” or “some interest”.
God says not to lend “money for usury”, nor to lend “food at a profit”.
He does not say it is okay to lend money or food for “some profit”.
Any interest on a loan–any profit at all–is expressly prohibited.
Usury according to St. Ambrose
St. Ambrose of Milan expressly taught that money must be lent without charging interest:
Why, the very law of the Lord teaches us that this rule must be observed, so that we may never deprive another of anything for the sake of our own advantage. For it says: Remove not the bounds which your fathers have set (Proverbs 22:28). It bids a neighbour’s ox to be brought back if found wandering (Exodus 23:4). It orders a thief to be put to death (Exodus 22:2). It forbids the labourer to be deprived of his hire (Leviticus 19:13). and orders money to be returned without usury (Deuteronomy 23:19 ).
It is a mark of kindly feeling to help him who has nothing, but it is a sign of a hard nature to extort more than one has given. If a man has need of your assistance because he has not enough of his own wherewith to repay a debt, is it not a wicked thing to demand under the guise of kindly feeling a larger sum from him who has not the means to pay off a less amount? Thou dost but free him from debt to another, to bring him under your own hand; and you call that human kindliness which is but a further wickedness.
It is in this very matter that we stand before all other living creatures, for they do not understand how to do good. Wild beasts snatch away, men share with others. Wherefore the Psalmist says: “The righteous shows mercy and gives.” There are some, however, to whom the wild beasts do good. They feed their young with what they get, and the birds satisfy their brood with food; but to men alone has it been given to feed all as though they were their own. That is so in accordance with the claims of nature.
And if it is not lawful to refuse to give, how is it lawful to deprive another? And do not our very laws teach us the same? They order those things which have been taken from others with injury to their persons or property to be restored with additional recompense; so as to check the thief from stealing by the penalty, and by the fine to recall him from his ways.
Suppose, however, that some one did not fear the penalty, or laughed at the fine, would that make it a worthy thing to deprive another of his own? That would be a mean vice and suited only to the lowest of the low. So contrary to nature is it, that while want might seem to drive one to it, yet nature could never urge it. And yet we find secret theft among slaves, open robbery among the rich.
But what so contrary to nature as to injure another for our own benefit? The natural feelings of our own hearts urge us to keep on the watch for all, to undergo trouble, to do work for all. It is considered also a glorious thing for each one at risk to himself to seek the quiet of all, and to think it far more thankworthy to have saved his country from destruction than to have kept danger from himself. We must think it a far more noble thing to labour for our country than to pass a quiet life at ease in the full enjoyment of leisure.
 Cf. Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35-37, Deuteronomy 23:19, Psalm 15:5, Ezekiel 18:8, Luke 6:30, Proverbs 28:8, Ezekiel 18:13, Ezekiel 22:12, Nehemiah 5:6-11
 St. Ambrose of Milan, On the Duties of the Clergy (Oxford: Benediction Classics, 2010).
Written by Fr. Joseph Gleasen
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