Sermon - Ordinary 23 (Pentecost 16) Year A - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

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:

The proper of authority of governments

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

It was about our duty to others. We should have a good conscience about fulfilling our social and public obligations. He saw the law as being summed up in a general commandment to love one another, which Jesus had taught: That did not mean that you were excused from specific obligations, but that love was the means of fulfilling the law: Fulfilling ones public duties and social obligations has the same general purpose, for the good of all in our society, for our neighbours in general.  The new law of Jesus and the old law of Moses had the same intention in this respect.

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 difference was that while the old law was about how they should treat their own people (any of your people) Jesus taught people to regard even foreigners as their neighbours [eg. the parable of the good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37] Paul obviously had this wider meaning of neighbour in mind.  Accepting that was the kind of obligation, duty or debt led to the fulfilling of the law of God, even in a pagan society where the law of Moses might not be known. That kind of duty or debt is owed to one another by people of all nations and races, regardless of whether they are Jews or Christians or whatever, and regardless of the dominant culture of their society.  Belonging to a different society with different rules does not excuse humanity from this general obligation of mutual care. That is why I think respect for national sovereignty or cultural differences, which is normally a good thing, must not in extreme circumstances be allowed to stand in the way of universal human rights. All human beings owe each other a duty of care no matter what the local rules might prescribe, and usually governments acts to punish those who do not accept a duty of care towards others, which is best summed up in the new commandment to "love one another". That is the sense in which we should Owe no one anything, -- except to love one another. [Romans 13:8.]

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:

This, however, had nothing to do with the payment of interest.

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:

I suppose we still observe this principle in relation to our families, looking after them when necessary. We might also make an interest free loan to a son or daughter, for example, if we can afford it, to help them buy a house. An extension of this idea of kinship obligations among the Israelites led to an important provision in their law which allowed them charge interest to foreigners. This was how it became possible for the Jews to become the money lenders of Christendom. You will see however that the distinction between relatives and foreigners was not one that Jesus maintained.  The question, "Who is my neighbour?" stands in the way of that distinction. If charging interest was exploitative and unfair it would be unfair whoever the borrower might be, and that would still apply to us.

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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