1) Yesterday, as we were explaining Psalm 14, time did not permit us to reach the end of our discourse. Today, however, we come like good-natured debtors, ready to repay the remainder owing from yesterday’s discussion. The rest of the Psalm is so short, however, that upon learning it, one might think nothing of importance had been omitted; most of you have probably not even noticed that anything was left out. And yet recognizing that this brief verse concerns matters of great interest to us, it seemed best not to lose the profit of examining it. When the prophet wished to describe in words those who have attained perfection, those who are about to attain everlasting life, he reckoned among their noble works the following: “They do not lend at interest.” This sin is denounced in many places in Scripture. Ezekiel accounts the taking of interest and receiving back more than one gave as being among the greatest evils, and the Law specifically forbids this practice: “You shall not charge interest to your relative or your neighbor.” And again the Scripture says, “Guile upon guile, interest upon interest,” and a certain Psalm moreover says regarding a city that prospers amidst a multitude of evils, “Interest-taking and guile are never absent from its squares.” And now, the prophet identifies this very thing as the characteristic of human perfection, saying, “They do not lend money at interest.”
For in truth it is the height of inhumanity that those who do not have enough even for basic necessities should be compelled to seek a loan in order to survive, while others, not being satisfied with the return of the principal, should turn the misfortune of the poor to their own advantage and reap a bountiful harvest. Thus, the Lord explicitly commanded us, saying, “Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” But the lover of money, when he sees someone prostrate at his feet, pleading—a person in this predicament will say anything, will stoop to any abasement—shows no mercy to the one who acts in such an undignified manner. He does not consider human nature, gives in to no entreaty, but stands cruel and unwavering, not yielding to pleas, not moved by tears, steadfast in his denial. He swears up and down, even calling down curses upon himself, that he is at a complete loss for funds, and that he too is searching for someone from whom to procure a loan. He confirms the falsehood with an oath, thus acquiring perjury as an evil fringe benefit of misanthropy. When, however, the one seeking the loan mentions rates of interest and names collateral, then he winks and smiles, suddenly recalling some old family acquaintance, and calls him “friend” and “neighbor.” He says, “Let me see if I can find some money set aside somewhere. I have here a deposit entrusted to me by a friend for trading, but he set heavy terms of interest on it. For you, however, I will reduce the rate somewhat and lend it to you at a lower interest.” And with this subterfuge, cozying up to the wretch and baiting the hook with his words, he binds him fast with contracts and departs, depriving him of freedom even more than the poverty that already oppressed him. The one who has made himself liable for rates of interest he cannot pay has incurred self-inflicted slavery for life.
Tell me, do you really seek riches and financial gain from the destitute? If this person had the resources to make you even wealthier, why did he come begging to your door? He came seeking an ally, but found an enemy. He came seeking medicine, and stumbled onto poison. Though you have an obligation to remedy the poverty of someone like this, instead you increase the need, seeking a harvest from the desert. It is as if a doctor were to go to the diseased, and instead of restoring them to health, were rather to rob them of the last remnant of their strength. Thus, you make the hardships of the miserable an occasion for profit. And just as farmers hope for rain so as to multiply their crops, so you eagerly seek out deprivation and want, so that your money might produce a better return. Do you not know that you are taking in an even greater yield of sins than the increase of wealth you hope to receive through interest? The one who seeks the loan is caught in a predicament. When he looks to his poverty, he despairs of ever making repayment, but when he looks to his present condition of need, he makes bold to seek the loan. In the end, the borrower is defeated, bowed into submission by want, while the lender departs victorious, having secured his position with contracts and pledges.
2) After receiving the money, on the first day he is joyful and festive, decked out in borrowed splendor, the change in his circumstances in clear evidence. There is a richly laden table and lavish clothing. Even the servants have brightened in their appearance. He is surrounded by multitudes of flatterers and drinking companions, hovering around the house like swarms of drones. But as the money begins to dwindle, the interest ever increasing as time passes, the nights do not bring rest to him, nor does the coming of the day bring joy, nor does the sunrise seem beautiful. Rather, he despises his own life and loathes the days as they hasten onwards towards the appointed day of repayment, and hates the months as producers of interest. If he lies down, in his sleep he sees the lender as a nightmare floating over his head. If he wakes up, the interest consumes his thoughts and is a constant source of worry. “When lender and debtor meet one another, the Lord visits them both.” The one rushes like a hound to the hunt, while the other quails like quarry to the pursuit. Poverty robs him of his courage. Both have the sums at their fingertips, since the one rejoices at the increasing interest, while the other groans at the additional misfortune.
“Drink water at your own cistern”; that is, look to your own means. Do not turn to other springs, but draw forth from your own springs the comfort of life. Do you have utensils of bronze, clothing, a beast of burden, vessels for all your needs? Sell them all; choose to give up everything rather than your freedom. “But,” says the borrower, “I am ashamed to put them up for public sale.” What will you do, when in just a little while someone else brings your possessions forward and auctions them off, disposing of them at bargain prices before your very eyes? Do not turn to other doorways. Truly, “the stranger’s well is narrow.” It is better to take care of your needs little by little with your own devices, than to be raised up all at once by outside means, only to be completely stripped of everything you have. If, then, you have anything to sell, why do you not alleviate your need with these resources? And if, on the other hand, you have nothing with which to make repayment, then you are remedying evil with more evil. Do not allow the moneylenders to lay siege to you. Do not allow yourself to be tracked and hunted down like some kind of prey.
Borrowing is the origin of falsehood, the source of ingratitude, unkindness, perjury. A person says one thing when seeking to borrow and another when the loan is demanded back. “Would that I never met you! By now I would have found some other means of relieving my need. Did you not thrust the money into my hands against my will? Your gold was alloyed with copper, and your coins were counterfeit.” If the lender is your friend, do not ruin the friendship. If the lender is an enemy, do not allow yourself to fall into the hands of your foe. For a short time you will rejoice in what does not belong to you, but afterwards you will lose the family inheritance. Now you are poor, but free. By borrowing, however, you will not become rich, and you will surrender your freedom. The borrower is a slave to the lender, a slave rendering involuntary service for the profit of another. Dogs become tame if you feed them, but when the creditor receives back what was borrowed, he becomes even more enraged. He does not stop his howling, but on the contrary, demands even more. Although you swear you will pay, he does not believe you. He pries into your private affairs, and inquires about your transactions. If you emerge from your home, he seizes you and drags you away; if you hide yourself within, he stands outside and pounds at the door. He shames you before your spouse, treats you disgracefully in front of your friends, seizes you by the throat in public places. Even a chance meeting at a festival is a disaster; he makes life unbearable.
“But the need is great,” says the borrower, “and there are no other financial resources available.” Your poverty will catch up to you like a speedy runner, and the same lack will be with you again, and more. The loan is not complete deliverance; it merely provides a short respite from your helpless situation. Let us suffer today the difficulties of want, and not deter them until tomorrow. If you do not borrow, then your poverty will be the same tomorrow as it was today. But if you borrow, you will make your troubles even worse, exacerbating poverty with rates of interest. Now, no one blames you for being poor, since this misfortune came upon you involuntarily. But if you make yourself liable for loans at interest, then everyone will fault you for your lack of good judgement.
3) Let us therefore not drag along behind us, together with the evils that befall us involuntarily, the burden of an evil freely chosen through our own foolishness. It is the sign of an infantile mind not to care for oneself with the resources that are available, but rather to partake of something clearly and undeniably harmful while trusting in unseen hopes. Consider, now, how you will repay the debt. From the sum you received? But it is not sufficient for both your needs and repayment. And if you take into account the rate of interest, how will the funds be multiplied to such an extent that one portion takes care of your needs, while another serves to repay the principal, not to mention the interest that is accruing? So we agree that you will not repay the loan from the amount you received. How else, then? Let us wait for these hoped-for solutions to materialize, and not come like fish to the bait. For just as a fish swallows the hook together with the bait, so also we are perceived with interest rates for the sake of money. There is no shame in poverty. Why then do we bring the disgrace of indebtedness upon onto ourselves? No one can heal wounds with more wounds, nor remedy evil with more evil, nor alleviate poverty with loans at interest. Are you rich? Do not borrow. Are you poor? Do not borrow. If you are well off, you have no need of the loan; if you have nothing, you will not be able to repay it. Do not give your life over to bitter regret, lest you count the days before you took the loan as the happiest of your life.
There is one thing in which we poor differ from the rich: freedom from care. We laugh them to scorn when they lie awake at night while we sleep, and when they are constantly tense and worrying we are relaxed and at ease. But the debtor is both poor and full of cares, awake by night, still awake when the day comes, fretting all the time. At one moment he calculates the value of his own property, at another that of luxurious houses, the fields of the wealthy, the clothing of those he happens to meet, the furnishings of those who host entertainments. “If these things were mine,” he says, “I would have sold so much, and paid off both the loan and the interest.” Such ideas are fixed in his heart by night, and overwhelm his thoughts by day. If you knock at his door, the debtor is underneath the bed in a flash. His heart pounds if someone enters the room suddenly. If a dog barks, he breaks out in a sweat, seized with terror, and looks for someplace to hide. As the appointed day of repayment draws near, he weighs in his mind what deceit would be best, with what fabricated excuse to elude the debtor. Do not only imagine yourself receiving the loan, but also paying it back.
To what manner of quickly reproducing beast are you yoking yourself? It is said that rabbits give birth and breed again while still nursing their young. And for those who set rates of interest, their money is loaned out and still bears interest and produces even more. You did not even have the money in your hands, and already the lender was demanding the interest payment for the current month. And when this was loaned to you as well, it brought forth more evil, and still more, evil without end. It is from the tendency to multiply that this kind of greed derives its name. For it seems to me that loans are said to “bear” interest on account of the great fecundity of evil. How else? Or perhaps it is said to “bear” on account of the pains and travails which it naturally produces in the souls of those who borrow. The appointed day of repayment is ever present in the minds of those who are indebted, like labor pains to those who give birth. Interest upon interest—wicked children of wicked parents. The offspring of interest one might call even call a “brood of vipers.” It is said that vipers are born by eating their way through their mother’s womb, and loans bear interest by devouring the houses of those who owe. Seeds take time to grow, and animals take take to fully mature, but interest is born today, and today begins to bear. Those animals that begin bearing at an early age also cease bearing early. But money immediately begins to multiply, and possesses limitless ability to reproduce. And every animal, once it reaches its proper size, stops growing. But the silver of the greedy never stops growing as time passes. And animals, once they have raised their young to maturity, cease bearing. But when it comes to borrowed silver, the newborn gives birth, and the elderly continues to bear. You should have nothing to do with this monstrous creature.
4) You behold the sun as a free person. Why do you begrudge the liberty you now enjoy? No boxer avoids the blows of an opponent as a borrower avoids chance encounters with the creditor, hiding his face among the shadows of buildings and alleyways. “But how will I support myself?” such a person asks. You have hands, you have skills—hire yourself as a laborer or a servant. Life has many possibilities and opportunities. Are you unable to work? Then beg from those who have means. Do you think it shameful to beg? You will be put to even greater shame if you default on a loan. In any case, I do not make these recommendations as if laying down a law, but rather to emphasize that anything is preferable to borrowing. The ant is able, without begging or borrowing, to feed itself, while the bee gives what remains of its own food to the queen, which nature has given neither hands nor any skills. And you, a human being, the inventive animal, can you not find even one contrivance out of so many that are available for the preservation of life?
We may observe, moreover, that it is not those who are truly deprived who come to procure a loan, since the creditors have no confidence in their ability to repay; most borrowers are rather people who devote themselves to unconstrained expenditures and useless luxuries, those who serve the passionate desires of women. “I shall have fine clothing embroidered with gold,” she says, “and it is only fitting that the children should have beautiful outfits as well. There shall be bright and colorful dress for all the slaves, and plenty of food for the table.” The one who thus caters to the desires of a woman goes to the banker, and before using up the money received, exchanges one tyrant for another by constantly switching creditors, avoiding the accusation of poverty by extension of the evil. Just as those who suffer from edema give the impression of being overweight, so also such a person only appears to possess means, ever receiving and ever giving back, paying off the prior loan with the subsequent, and preserving good credit for future borrowing by extending the evil. Those who suffer from cholera constantly disgorge what they have eaten, and before their system is properly cleansed, they fill themselves up with a second portion, vomiting this up too with terrible, racking pains — thus also are those who exchange interest for interest, taking out a second loan before discharging the first obligation. They are conceited for a time with things that do not belong to them, but afterwords mourn the loss of their own things. How many are destroyed by good things that are not their own? How many who became rich in a dream have gone down to utter ruin in reality? “But many,” some will say, “have become rich by taking out loans.” Many more, I think, have ended by fastening the noose for themselves. You see those who have become rich, but you are not counting those who committed suicide, who could not bear to be publicly shamed before the creditors, who preferred death by handing to a life of disgrace.
I have beheld a terrible spectacle: children of free birth being dragged to the auction block on account of the debts of their parents. Do you have no money to leave behind for your children? Do not take away their free birth as well! Preserve but one thing for them: the possession of their freedom, the same inheritance you received from your own parents. Children are not brought to court for the penury of their parent, but the debt of a parent leads straight to prison. So not leave behind a ledger that will go down as a parental curse upon your children and grandchildren.
5) Listen you rich, to the counsel I am giving to the poor on account of your inhumanity: to remain in dreadful circumstances, rather than accepting the assistance offered by loans at interest. But if you took the Lord at his word, would there be any reason for such words? What is the counsel of the Master? “Lend to those from whom you do not expect to receive again.” “But what kind of loan is this,” some will say, “that is not linked to a hope of return?” Only consider the meaning of these words, and you will wonder at the kindness of the Lawgiver. When you are about to give to a poor person on the Lord’s account, that same gift is also a loan: it is a gift because you do not hope to receive it back again, but a loan because the Master in his great beneficence undertakes to make repayment for the poor person. He receives a little in the guise of the poor, but gives much back on their behalf. “The one who has mercy on the poor lends to God.” Would you not like to have the Master of all as your guarantor for full repayment? If one of the rich people of the town were to make an agreement with you to pay off some others’ loans, would you not take that person’s pledge? And yet you do not allow God, the supreme repayer of debts, to do so. Give away that portion of your silver that is lying idle, do not burden it with interest rates, and it shall be well for you both: you will have the certainty that your money is well guarded, while the one who receives it will have the profit from its use. If you must seek a return on you investment, be satisfied with what comes from the Lord; he himself will pay the additional amount on behalf of the poor. You should expect the characteristics of philanthropy from the true Philanthropist. As it is, the interest you receive back shows every characteristic of extreme misanthropy. You profit from misery, you extract gain from tears, you oppress the naked, you beat down the starving. Mercy is nowhere to be found; there is no kinship with those who suffer. And yet you call such gains the benefits of philanthropy! “Woe to those who call the bitter sweet and the sweet bitter,” and to those who call misanthropy by the name of philanthropy. The riddles which Samson posed to his drinking companions were not like this: “Out of the eater came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet,” and out of the misanthropic person came philanthropy. “Grapes are not gathered from thorns, nor figs from thistles,” nor philanthropy from interest rates. “Every bad tree bears bad fruit.”
Some lenders are called “hundred-percenters,” some “ten-percenters” — these are dreadful names to hear. They are monthly demanders, like demons that cause seizures, afflicting the poor according to the cycles of the moon. Theirs is an evil act of giving, both for the giver and the receiver: the latter is ruined in terms of capital, the formal in terms of the soul. The farmer who harvests the grain no longer searches for the seed that was sown and took root. But you have the harvest, and still do not give up on the original amount. You plant without soil; you harvest without seed. It is unknown, however, for whose benefit you are collecting it. The one who weeps in despair at the rate of interest is plainly before us, but in the future of the one who is about to enjoy the wealth received from them is uncertain. It is unclear whether you will not rather leave this joy behind for others, while storing up an evil treasure of injustice for yourself. “Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you,” and “do not lend your money at interest”; these commandments from the Old and New Testaments were given so that you might learn what is for your benefit, and thus depart to the Lord with a good hope, receiving there the interest upon your good works, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.