Owe no one anything?
When Paul advised the Christians at Rome to owe no one anything, he was telling them to be good responsible citizens. It is important to see texts like this in context. Taken alone these words, owe no one anything, might be understood to be a general law against borrowing. That was not the intention, although it does raise a question about lending and borrowing which has been very important in previous centuries in the Christian Church and in other religions. I will take up that question, essentially the question of usury, later; but first let us see the bigger picture in the context of this advice.
Paul had just been dealing with the rights and powers of government, saying that people should obey legitimate authority, in which one who rules is called "God's servant for your good." Then, immediately before saying "owe no one anything", Paul wrote:
So we should respect proper authority and accept our civic duties so that no one has a claim against us. We note in passing that the question of whether rebellion against authority can ever be justified was also a real question for the early Christians, and opposition to the power of the Roman Empire lay behind much of the dramatic symbolism of the book of Revelation where references to the evil power of "Babylon" are code for the power of Rome; but those writings belong to a later period when the Church was being persecuted, and after Paul himself had been killed by the Roman authorities. Here he appears to talking about the normal state of affairs in which the authorities maintain order for the good of the people. Governments do not have to be perfect to be better than no legitimate authority.
In recent years we have seen in a number countries around the world the terrible consequences of a breakdown of civil order. Millions of people in Africa, for example, have died from violence, disease and starvation when governments have lost control and anarchy has developed. Paul is right in general. Governments have legitimate authority from God to maintain order for the good of the people. There are times when such authority is abused; and that is a betrayal of trust which undermines the authority that governments ought to have. There might then be a case for rebellion or conquest; but that is not the normal state of affairs. Even when we disagree with some of what a government does we should still, normally, keep the peace and pay our taxes. That was the context in which Paul advised the Christian citizens of Rome to pay taxes, and to give respect and honour to those to whom respect and honour are due. He then went on to say
Who is my neighbour?
Indeed, even the phase that Jesus appears to have used on a number occasions "Love your neighbour as yourself", comes from the old Jewish law:
The historical prohibition of usury
What then can we say about lending and borrowing? Especially important has been the question of requiring interest to be paid on loans. For many centuries the church forbad the collection of interest, sometimes absolutely, sometimes only in excess. Sometimes in the past the sin of usury was understood in a narrow way to refer to lending money for interest at any level, and sometimes usury was thought only to be the imposition of excessive rates of interest. The general prohibition on usury in the narrow sense for Christians in the middle ages led to foreigners and Jews becoming money lenders in the Christians states of Europe: hence the prejudice directed against characters like Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Given the importance of that character in our collective memories, it is significant that it was at about the time of Shakespeare that modern commercial arrangements began to be made for trade to be to encouraged by the advancement of credit at interest. In recent times the great moral dilemma, that the rich might be robbing the poor by charging interest on loans, seems to have been forgotten very largely in the West. Although governments might still limit the rates of interest in some circumstances, the general commercial attitude seems to be that in the finance industry as elsewhere lenders are justified in charging what the market will bear. As one financial commentator said in the Melbourne newspaper The Age, in opposition to a policy submission from the churches, "Banks are not in the welfare business." So what has happened to the Christian concern with usury?
We should acknowledge that it has not only been a Christian concern. The Moslems still today prohibit lending money on interest. In strict Moslem countries financial institutions like banks cannot profit from charging (or paying) interest. They must develop alternative ways of linking investors with people who need finance. That is done by making arrangements in which the risk of investment is shared through an equity arrangement. Funds are set up so that the investors receive a return or make a profit only if the enterprise receiving the funds is successful. There does seem to be an element of fairness in this that is missing in arrangements often made for loans in our system.
Take the example of a farmer who borrows money to put in a crop. In the way things work in our financial system, if the crop fails the investor who has made a loan still expects to get his money back with the agreed amount of interest and will take a mortgage on the farm as security. By contrast in an equity investment the investor will have a share in the crop and will profit if it succeeds but have no claim on the farmer if it fails. In this sense the risk is shared with equity investments. Not that other investments are entirely without risk. There is some risk to the lender when finance is raised by loans, as people sometimes discovered to their horror when seemingly secure financial institutions collapse in careless and greedy times, but usually the risk is borne by the borrower. Is that a fair arrangement? There has been a good deal of discussion in some of our country parishes in Victoria about the morality of lending and borrowing when risks are high as they are often in the rural sector, and it is being argued that much more use should be made of equity finance.
Of course there is another side to it: from the point of view of the investor, if the risk is shared, as when one buys shares in a company, there should be a higher rate of return on the investment in the long term than there would be for highly secure investments. Most people understand that you should expect lower returns for more secure investments; and if you have a significant investment portfolio, you will probably have spread your risks over different types of investments. The question I raise is whether more thought should not be given to the morality of different types of investment and whether risks should not be shared more equitably. I think that is the principle behind the old Christian abhorrence of usury as it is still in traditional Moslem teaching.
The Biblical basis for lending
Is there any Biblical foundation for Christian teaching on this subject? There is a general foundation in the principle of "owing no one anything except love". Not that it is a prohibition against lending and borrowing in the narrow sense of usury, but in the broader principle of owing a duty of care to others and even being prepared to share their plight with them when things go wrong. If we look more specifically for direct teaching on lending and borrowing, the Bible as a whole is difficult to interpret with direct application to our situation although there are some clear principles in the Jewish law.
It is clear that Jesus himself did not regard the making a profit from an investment as morally reprehensible in itself. In his parables, Jesus used examples of people investing money -- for example in the parable of talents [Matthew 25:14-30; and see Luke 19:23] which included the alternative of simply putting money on deposit for interest as a less desirable form of stewardship than the more risky and profitable investments of the more enterprising stewards. That parable was not really about the morality of different types of investment, but rather concerned our responsibility as stewards for whatever God has put in our hands, but he raised no objection to the common practices of his time which he used to illustrate his teaching.
Lending was also directly encouraged by Jesus:
The Jewish law
It is in the Old Testament that we find specific prohibitions, at least on charging interest in certain circumstances. The ability of the borrower to pay and whether people were your kin and dependent upon you were things to be taken into account. For example:
So, while, the saying Owe no one anything was not intended by Paul to prohibit lending and borrowing, the full moral picture does raise for us questions about fairness in our modern financial system. I am not suggesting that we should give up investing in interest bearing deposits or receiving a little interest on a bank savings account, but we need to think about it. There is a strong tradition pointing to the need for caution. It may be that some new types of investment should be developed that are morally more defensible. We might share some ideas on that on another occasion. Meanwhile, let us acknowledge the duty of care we owe through love of one another as the way of fulfilling the law of God.
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