Readings for 30th Sunday in ordinary time: EX 22: 20-26; PS 18: 2-4, 47, 51, I THES 1:5C-10; MT 22: 36-40. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/102614.cfm
Today’s readings raise the question of usury – a word we don’t often hear today, though its reality is part of the air we breathe.
Wikipedia defines usury as: “. . . the practice of making unethical or immoral monetary loans intended to unfairly enrich the lender. A loan may be considered usurious because of excessive or abusive interest rates or other factors, but according to some dictionaries, simply charging any interest at all can be considered usury.”
In the light of that definition, consider the following:
• Last Sunday’s New York Times editorial addressed President Obama’s proposal that interest rates on loans to veterans be capped at 36 percent. The editorial began by saying that “poor and working-class people across the country are being driven into poverty and default by deceptively packaged, usuriously priced loans.” The NYT editorial board argued that the 36 percent interest cap should be extended to all U.S. citizens. Thirty-six percent!
• The same editors reported a case where “. . . (A) South Carolina lender gave a service member a $1,615 title loan on a 13-year-old car and charged $15,613 in interest — an annual rate of 400 percent — without violating federal law.”
• Despite such surprises, Wednesday’s NYT edition ran another story headed “States Ease Interest Rate Laws that Protected Poor Borrowers.” It reported that lenders such as Citigroup, One Main, Springleaf, and the American Financial Services Association claim a need to increase interest rates on their poorest customers in order to keep their rates in line with their own increased business expenses for rent, electricity, and gasoline.
• Meanwhile the prime interest rate for bankers and corporate high rollers is 3.25 percent.
• Last June U.S. Senate Republicans shot down Elizabeth Warren’s Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act. The bill would have allowed people with federal and private debt to refinance their loans at 3.86 percent. That would have given relief to more than 25 million borrowers owing $1.2 trillion in student loans. The GOP objected partly because the Refinancing Act would have created a new tax on millionaires to offset the lower interest rates.
The practices just described raise the question: how much interest can be charged before the rate becomes usurious? Today’s liturgy of the word suggests an answer.
Begin with a consideration of today’s gospel.
There Jesus is asked a question consistently addressed to rabbis and to wise persons in all traditions. “Which is the greatest of God’s commandments?”
The question is reminiscent of the familiar cartoon where the bedraggled seeker climbs up that mountain, confronts the guru sitting in front of his cave and asks him, “What’s the purpose of life?” That’s really the gist of the question presented to Jesus. What is life’s purpose?
Jesus’ response is not humorous as we’re always led to expect from those cartoons. His answer is not even surprising. Instead, it’s the standard one usually given by rabbis and wise people: “Look within,” he advises. “Find Ultimate Reality and devote yourself entirely to it. And then love that Reality’s every manifestation beginning with the people closest to you and finishing with the trees, soil, rocks, and cockroaches.”
That’s the meaning of Jesus’ response in today’s gospel. It mirrored perfectly the answer, for instance, of Rabbi Hillel, one of Jesus’ near contemporaries. Both of them said, “Love God with all your heart, mind, and spirit – and your neighbor as yourself. That’s the greatest commandment,” they agreed. “That’s the purpose of life. That summarizes all the content of humanity’s Holy Books. All the rest is commentary.”
We get a snippet of that commentary in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus, which supplies practical content to the general answer about life’s purpose invariably given by the wise. (And it’s here that the business of interest enters the picture.) Today’s 16 line excerpt from Exodus focuses on two issues: (1) treatment of the most vulnerable in the community, and (2) prohibition of taking interest on loans. The two matters are intimately connected in a world where the poorest among us suffer from crushing debt as earlier described.
The reading says that loving God and neighbor means taking care of society’s most vulnerable – beginning with immigrants and including single mothers and street children. Reality decrees that mistreatment of people like that will bring karmic consequences and death by an invading enemy.
The reading goes on. When dealing with immigrants, remember you were once in their position. So treat them the way you would have liked your great-grandmother to have been treated when she arrived at Ellis Island from the Old Sod.
The second part of the Exodus reading addresses the most common instrument oppressors employ for mistreating society’s vulnerable. You guess it: it’s usury and debt.
You might have been surprised to read that God’s Covenantal Law as recorded in the Bible prohibits the taking of interest at all. The Law indicates that God considers usury (or any interest) sinful! It’s a form of “extortion,” Exodus says – meaning, as the dictionary explains, the “criminal offense of obtaining money, property, or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion.” The definition goes on to say that extortion is commonly practiced by organized crime.
For more than a millennium, moral theologians within the Church that developed following Jesus’ death agreed with our dictionary. Under pain of sin (as they put it), no interest could be charged on loans.
But then modern economists discovered the wonders of compound interest. That changed everything. Suddenly, charging interest became not only moral, but virtuous – including for Christians! Even the Vatican owns a bank whose underlying foundation is interest!
So times have indeed changed. Currently, moralists explain that the modern science of economics now understands what was not grasped in the ancient world of Exodus. So, morality had to change to keep up with the times and the advances of science. It’s a new world. (Hmm . . . . Does that same reasoning apply to matters such as homosexuality in relation to the insights of the modern science of psychology? And what about abortion and what modern medicine has disclosed about the beginnings of specifically personal life? After all, the Bible has this clear and strong teaching about prohibiting interest and says nothing at all about abortion.)
The suggestion here is that if we kept The Commandments as explained by Jesus and all the world’s great spiritual teachers:
• We’d prioritize concern for the welfare of immigrant children on our border, single moms in run-down neighborhoods, and street children everywhere. Their welfare, Jesus says, is identical with our own.
• We’d realize that the ability of immigrants, widows, and orphans to meet their transportation, rent and electricity bills is in God’s eyes more important than similar abilities on the part of Citigroup, One Main, Springleaf, or the American Financial Services Association.
• We probably wouldn’t support interest of any amount. (Certainly an interest rate of 36 percent would be out of the question, not to mention 400 percent.)
• At the very least, we’d demand that student loans would be refinanced at the prime rate.
• We probably wouldn’t support “capitalism” as we know it.
• We’d make usury as important a “Christian issue” as some make abortion.
• We’d hear about that from the pulpit, at least occasionally.
• We’d vote accordingly.
After all, an unmistakable critique of usury is actually found in the Bible. That’s not the case with abortion.