Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:6
28 min read
28 min read
That no man oppress or defraud his brother in any matter: for the Lord is avenger of all such things, as we also have told you beforetime, and testified.1 Thessalonians 4:6
Let no man defraud his brother, neither by false weight, nor by false measure, nor by lying words. Let your measures and weights and words be true; let your gains be just and true that God may bless them. His blessing will make you rich, and whatever he blesses not will waste and consume and do you no good. Do for others as you would have them do for you. This is true and upright dealing.
If you speak more than what is true, if you take more than your goods are worth, your conscience knows it is not yours. God will destroy all the workers of iniquity. He who delights in sin hates his own soul. The mouth that is accustomed to lying kills the soul.
Do not defraud your brother; he is your brother, whether he is rich or poor: he is your brother and the son of God. Will you wrong your brother? Will you oppress the son of God, and that even in the sight of God? God is his Father; he will not leave you unpunished for it. If he is naïve and inexperienced, do not abuse his naivety. God is the God of righteousness. Deal justly so that your own conscience does not accuse you. Teach neither your sons nor your servants to deceive others and to gain by wickedness. After they have learned from you to deceive others, they will deceive you also. Job prayed daily for his children. You be careful also that your children and servants neither deceive nor hurt anyone. Their sins shall be laid to your charge. Why do you ask God to feed you and give you your daily bread and do not wait on his will but feed upon the bread of iniquity? This food will not nourish you; this wealth will not stand by you, for God will not prosper it. The wise man says, “The bread of deceit is sweet to a man: but afterward his mouth shall be filled with gravel” (Prov. 20:17). Ill-gotten goods have an ill end. God said by the prophet Haggai, “Ye have sown much, and bring in little … ye brought it home, I did blow upon it” (Hag. 1:6, 9). We have examples of this daily. We have seen great heaps of wealth suddenly blow away and consumed to nothing: great houses decayed and the hope of the wicked quite overthrown.
Here I will speak somewhat of the unhappy business of usury because here stands the most miserable and shameful deceiving of the brethren. I will not speak all that may be said, for it would be too long and overly wearisome. I will have regard for what will be agreeable and profitable and fitting for you to hear. So that you may better understand this subject and see the whole matter of usury, I will first show you what usury is. Then, where it springs from and what are the causes of usury. Third, what results from it, and what hurt it brings to the commonwealth; and I will give such reasons that would make any good man abhor it. Then I will declare what the holy fathers, the apostles, martyrs, and Christ, as well as God himself have thought and spoken about usury.
Many simple people do not know what usury is, nor have they ever heard of the term. The world would be happy if no one knew it, for evil things do less harm when they are mostly unknown. Pestilences and plagues are known only with great misery. But that you may learn to know it, and all the more to abhor it, this is it:
Usury is the lending of money, grain, oil, wine, or anything else, wherein we agree to get back the whole principal that we lent, and something more for the use and keeping of it; for instance, if I lend 100 pounds, and for it contract to receive 105 pounds or any other sum greater than was the sum which I loaned. This is that which we call usury, a kind of bargaining that no good or godly person has ever used. It is a kind of bargaining that all people who have ever feared
God’s judgment always abhorred and condemned. It is filthy gain, and a work of darkness. It is a monster in nature, the overthrow of mighty kingdoms, the destruction of flourishing states, the decay of wealthy cities, the plagues of the world, and the misery of the people. It is theft, it is the murder of our brethren, it is the curse of God and the curse of the people. This is usury. You may be able to tell it from these signs, for wherever it reigns, all these injuries occur. How and how many ways it can be produced, I will not declare. It would be horrible to hear, and my purpose here is to reprove usury, not teach it.
Let us see then what causes it, where it grows, and who is the mother, the nurse, or the breeder of usury. It grows not everywhere, nor among all people. Many hate it and detest it, and would rather die than live off of such spoil. It is not of God, for God soundly forbids it. Neither is it found among the children of God, for love seeks not her own profit, but to do good to her neighbor.
Where then does usury spring? It is soon shown. It springs in the same place as theft, murder, and adultery, the plagues and destruction of the people. All these are the works of the devil and the works of the flesh. Christ tells the Pharisees, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do” (John 8:44). Even so, may it truly be said to the usurer: You are of your father the devil and you will do the desires of your father, and therefore you have pleasure in his works. The devil entered into the heart of Judas, and put in him this greediness and covetousness of gain, for which he was content to sell his Master. Judas’ heart was the shop; the devil was the foreman to work in it. Saint Paul says, “They that will be rich, fall into tentation and snares, and into many foolish and noisome lusts, which drown men in perdition and destruction. For the desire of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:9–10). Saint John says, “He that commiteth sin, is of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Thus we see that the devil is the planter and the father of usury.
Covetousness, desire of money, insatiable greediness, deceitfulness, unmercifulness, injury, oppression, extortion, contempt of God, hatred toward the brethren, and hatred of all people are the nurses and breeders of usury. It springs from Satan and grows and is watered, fed, and nourished by these cruel and damnable monsters.
Let us see further the fruits of usury. Perhaps it does some good, and you may think many are the better off because of it. These therefore are the fruits. It dissolves the knot and fellowship of humanity. It hardens the human heart. It makes people unnatural and bereft of charity and love toward their dearest friends.
It breeds misery and provokes the wrath of God from heaven. It consumes the rich. It eats up the poor. It makes people bankrupt and undoes many households. The poor occupiers are driven to flee; their wives are left alone; their children are helpless and are driven to beg their bread through the unmerciful dealing of the covetous usurer.
When David lays out the wickedness of the country where he was persecuted, he says of them, Non deficit usura et dolus in plateis eorum: “Usury and deceit do not depart from their streets” (Ps. 55:11). One seeks to spoil and eat up another. These are the commodities and fruits of usury. Such is usury in the midst of a city, and such good it works as fire does when it is set to the roof of a house or as the plague does when it is taken to the midst of the body and reaches the heart. We have heard where usury springs and what hurt it causes. Whoever considers this finds cause enough to loathe and forsake it. Someone asked of Cato what it was to commit usury. “What is it,” he answered, “to kill a man?” He who is a usurer is a murderer. The same Cato says, “Our fathers punished a thief with double payment of that which he had taken; but the usurer was always condemned to pay four times the value.” They were wise men. They thought that a usurer was much worse than a thief.
A thief is driven by extremity and need; the usurer is rich and has no need. The thief steals in corners and in places where he may be unknown; the usurer openly and boldly at all times and in any place. The thief steals to relieve his wife and children; the usurer steals to spoil his neighbor and to undo his wife and children. The thief steals from the rich who have enough; the usurer steals from the poor who have nothing. The thief flees and will be seen no more; the usurer stands by it, continues, and still steals: day and night, sleeping and waking, he always steals. The thief repents of his deed, he knows he has done wrong and is sorry for it; the usurer thinks it is his own, that it is well gotten, and never repents or sorrows but defends and maintains his sin impudently. The thief, if he escapes, many times becomes profitable to his country and applies himself painfully to some trade for livelihood; the usurer leaves his merchandise, forsakes his farming, and gives himself to nothing whereby his country may benefit. The thief is satisfied at length; the usurer never has enough. The belly of the wicked
will never be filled. As the sea is never filled with water, though all the streams of the world run into it, so the greediness of a usurer is never satisfied though he gain never so unreasonably. The sea is profitable; the usurer is hurtful and dangerous. By the sea we may pass and come safely to the haven, but no man passes by usury without loss or shipwreck.
Now hear what the godly and learned fathers of the church have thought of usury. No doubt they were godly men who wrote concerning this subject as God moved them and as others before them had done. Augustine says, Quid dicam de usuris, quas ipsae lege, and so forth: “What shall I say about usury, of which the laws and judges require that restitution be made? Is he more cruel who steals something away from the rich person, or he who kills a poor person with usury?” Note this: a usurer, says Augustine, is cruel. Why? Because he kills. Whom? The poor person, whom in charity he is bound to relieve.
Ambrose says about this, Usuras solvit, qui victu indigent: an quicquam gravis? and so forth: “He who lacks what is necessary to sustain his life pays you usury. What heavier case may there be? He seeks to be healed, and you poison him; he asks you for bread, and you give him a knife; he desires for you to set him free, and you bring him into further bondage.” Again: “You, usurer, grow wealthy by other people’s heaviness; you make gains from their tears and weeping; you are fed with their hunger; you make your money from the skins of those people whom you destroy; how can you think yourself to be rich, and yet beg alms from him who is poor?” The same father says further, Ab hoc usuram exige, quem non sit cirmen occidere: “Whomever it is lawful to kill, you may lend him your money to usury.” He who takes usury kills without a sword. These are holy fathers, and worthy of credit; they show us that usury is as bad as to kill and murder someone willfully.
Chrysostom likewise: In his sensibilibus pecuniis prohibuit ne quis usuram acciperet, and so forth: “God has forbidden anyone to take usury in this sensible or common money. Why? Because both of them are very much hindered. He who owes money is made poorer, and he who lends it by this kind of enriching himself increases the number of his sins.” Again he says, Sicut fermentum modicum, quod mittitur in multam farinam, totam conspersionem corrumpit, and so forth: “Just as a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough, so usury, when it comes into one’s house, draws all his substance, and changes it into debt.”
He who is a usurer wishes that all others would be in need and come borrow from him, that all others may lose so that he may have gain. Therefore our old forefathers so much abhorred this trade that they thought a usurer was unworthy to live in the company of Christians: they excommunicated him. They did not allow a usurer to serve as a witness in matters of law. They did not permit him to make a testament, and to bestow his goods by a will. When a usurer died, they would not allow him to be buried in places appointed for the burial of Christians, so highly did they dislike this unmerciful spoiling and deceiving of our brethren.
What speak I of the ancient fathers of the church? There was never any religion, nor sect, nor state, nor degree, nor profession of people that approved of it. Philosophers, Greeks, Latins, lawyers, divines, catholics, heretics, and all nations have always thought of a usurer as being just as dangerous as a thief. The very sense of nature proves it so. If the stones could speak, they would say as much.
Therefore our Savior says, “Do good, and lend, looking for nothing again” (Luke 6:35). He does not say, “Lend, and look not for your principal again,” but, “Look for no gain in it, look not to receive more than your own for the use and keeping of it.” Defraud not another: you would not want another to defraud you. Do not oppress him, have pity on his wife and children: you would not have your wife and children undone. In Leviticus, God says, “If thy brother be impoverished, and fallen in decay.… Thou shalt take no usury of him, nor vantage, but thou shalt fear thy God, that thy brother may live with thee” (Lev. 25:35–36). God says, “You shall take no usury,” and he has power and authority to command. In Exodus: “If thou lend money to my people, that is, to the poor with thee, thou shalt not be as an usurer unto him: ye shall not oppress him with usury” (Exod. 22:24–26). Show them mercy for my sake: they are my people. I can enrich him, I can impoverish you. I set up and throw down whom I will. When your neighbor needs your help, and seeks comfort at your hands, afflict him not as an enemy, oppress him not like a tyrant.
Ezekiel the prophet declares the wrath of God against usurers: He that “hath given forth upon usury, or hath taken increase, shall he live? [H]e shall not live,” says the Lord (Ezek. 18:13). He shall perish in his own sin; his blood shall be upon his head. Therefore when he reckons the offenses of Jerusalem, and declares the heavy plagues that are prepared against that wicked city, he says, “Thou hast taken usury and the increase, and thou hast defrauded thy neighbors by extortion, and hast forgotten me, saith the Lord God. Behold, therefore I have smitten mine hands upon thy covetousness, that thou hast used” (Ezek. 22:12–13). You have done injury to my people, so that you might make your own gain. Your wrongs and oppressions done by usury rise up into heaven; therefore, I will gather you, and blow the fire of my wrath upon you, says the Lord.
Thus has God spoken, indeed the Lord of heaven and earth, who can scatter your gold in the wind, and blow it to nothing. Thus he speaks to you who hear and read his word, who knows that his will is that you should not loan your money in usury. You oppress, says he. Whom? Your brother, for whom Christ condescended to shed his blood. What brother? Him who was poor, who came to you with a need, seeking your help. How? Wickedly, obstinately, falsely, craftily, deceitfully, like a hypocrite, under the pretense of doing good. With what? With your money, your gold and silver, which God has given to you with which to relieve the poor and needy.
God has said you shall not take usury; and who are you, who despises the voice of the Lord? Whose words will you hear, who will not hear the word of God? Remember the words: you cannot forget them. You shall not take usury from your brother; he is poor and fallen in decay; you shall not be a usurer to him; you shall not oppress him with usury. It is cruelty and abomination in the sight of God; therefore God will pour out his wrath, and consume the usurer; he shall not enter into the tabernacle of the Highest, he shall have no part in the kingdom of Christ and of God, but shall be cast into the outward darkness.
Some will say, “All kinds of usury are not forbidden. There may be cases where usury may agree with reason and equity.” Here out of ingenious contrivance they say so much in order to paint a foul and ugly idol, and to conceal themselves while being manifestly and openly wicked. Whatever God said, yet this or that kind of usury, they say, which is done in this or that sort, is not forbidden. It profits the commonwealth; it relieves great numbers. The poor would otherwise perish; no man would lend them.
For the same reason there are some who defend theft and murder. They say there may be some case where it is lawful to kill or to steal; for God willed the Hebrews to rob the Egyptians, and Abraham to kill his own son Isaac. In these cases, their robbery and the killing of his son were lawful. So say they. Even so for the same reason do some of our countrymen maintain concubines, courtesans, and brothels, and stand in defense of open prostitutes. They are, they say, for the benefit of the country; they keep men from more dangerous inconvenience; take them away, it will be worse. Although God says, “There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a whore keeper of the sons of Israel,” (Deut. 23:17) yet these men say all kinds of whoredom are not forbidden. In certain cases, it is not wrong to allow it.
God said to Saul, “Go, and smite Amalek, and destroy ye all that pertaineth unto them, and have no compassion on them, but slay both man and woman, both infant and suckling, both ox, and sheep, both camel, and ass” (1 Sam. 15:3). So exact and precise was God’s commandment. Saul marched forth, pursued his enemies; God assisted him, and gave him the victory. When he took Agag prisoner, and saw him to be a handsome tall gentleman, he had pity on him and spared his life. He did not destroy the best and most beautiful of the sheep, and oxen, and other cattle, although he knew well that God had commanded him to kill man and beast, every one without exception. Then came Samuel to him, and said, “O why have you not done as you were commanded” (cf. 1 Sam. 15:19)? Here let us note the wicked answer given by Saul in defense of his willful disobedience: “It would have been a great pity to have slain Agag, who was so handsome and tall a gentleman. I have taken him and kept him prisoner. And, if I should have destroyed this fine cattle, they would have come to nothing. It was better to save them for the feeding of my soldiers; and the best of them could be offered in sacrifice.” So he broke the commandment of God under pretense of doing honor to God.
Samuel said, “Hath the Lord as great pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as when the voice of the Lord is obeyed? [B]ehold, to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22). To disobey his holy will is to renounce and forsake him.
So we may say to the usurer: You have devised cases and colors to hide your shame, but what regard does God have for your cases? What does he care for your reasons? The Lord would have more pleasure, if, when you hear his voice, you would obey him. For what is your device against the counsel and ordinance of God? What bold presumption is it for a mortal man to control the commandments of the immortal God and to weigh his heavenly wisdom in the balance of human foolishness? When God says you shall not take usury, what creature of God are you that you can take usury? When God makes it unlawful, who are you, O man, who say it is lawful? This is a token of a desperate mind. It is found true in you what Paul said: “The desire of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). You are so given over to the wicked mammon that you do not care to do the will of God.
Willfulness and presumption are signs that such men are impudent and past shame. He who offends out of ignorance may find mercy. They who out of pride and boldness go against the known truth and do that thing that they know is wrong and devise shifts to disguise that which all reason and learning of God and men, and nature itself have condemned, they have fallen into temptation and snares and into foolish desires that drown them in destruction.
God is the Lord. We are but servants; he has made us, and not we ourselves; we are but as clay in his hands; we cannot repeal the law that God has established; we must obey it. We may not do the things that seem good in our own eyes; they may deceive us; but we must do whatsoever God bids us to do and forsake to do those things that he forbids.
So much for understanding those who can bring so good reasons for so ill a matter.
Many defend their usury by that liberty which they think they have to use their goods in such a way as seems best for themselves and is most to their advantage. May I not, say they, do with my own goods what I want? They would not say this, if they were of him who has said by his holy apostle, “Let every man as he hath received the gift, minister the same one to another, as good disposers of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). It is the law of nature that no one abuse the things that are his to the hurt and hindrance of another. May a man take his own dagger, and therewith commit murder? Or may a man take of his own fire, and uses it to burn his neighbor’s house? He who said, “You shall not kill,” also said, “You shall not steal; you shall not commit usury; you shall not defraud your brother in bargaining.” He is not unrighteous, in that he would judge the murderer and would not condemn the usurer. In that day the usurer will know whose money it was with which he defrauded his brother. His money will not help him; he will have no means to deliver himself from the wrath of God; he and his money will perish together.
The usurer will say, “The poor man came to me; I was not in haste to seek him. He moaned his case to me. I took pity on him and lent him money. Since then he and all his have been better.” Here you will see the great kindness and pitiful heart of this rich usurer. He opens his purse, gives of his goods, and helps the poor; and the poor is much eased by him. But, alas! What help is this? Just as much as giving someone a cup of cold water while suffering a fit of fever. No doubt he is refreshed and cooled, and for that present time much better. After a while, when his heaves resume, the heat increases; his heart pants, his pulse beats, his mouth is dry, his tongue burns; he is more terribly tormented than ever before. So well it fares with him who borrows money upon usury. He looks in his hand, and sees something; it is not his own; yet he is refreshed with it, and very much eased. The year passes, the day of payment arrives, the creditor demands money; but then, the heats, fits, and agonies begin to grow. Then must pot and pan trudge to redeem his body. Then he feels more cruel torments than ever before.
Thus does the gentle usurer help to relieve the poor in time of his necessity; as if a man would cure a sore finger by cutting off the arm; or as if he would cure the blemish of the eye-sight by pulling out the eyes; or as if he would quench thirst by giving poison to drink; or as if, to save one from drowning in a violent tempest, he would cast him out of the boat into the sea.
The scorpion embraces a man sweetly with his legs, but in the meantime strikes him deadly with his tail. His face looks amiable; his tail poisons. So a usurer appears attractive, and speaks good words, but at the end he destroys. He who is bitten by a viper feels no hurt, but rather a gentle beating of his veins with some delight over which he rejoices. After this, he falls asleep; then the poison works, overcomes him, and kills him. Even so, he who borrows upon usury finds himself wonderfully helped, and rejoices; but he is stung, and has a deadly stroke. The poison will grow over him; he will die in sleep, and be undone before he is aware. A usurer is as necessary to relieve the poor and needy as rust is to help iron, and as the moth is to help a garment: it eats him through from one side to another. Therefore says Ambrose, Talia sunt vestra, divites, beneficia. Minus datis, et plus exigitis. Talis humanitas, ut spolietis etiam dum subvenitis: “Such are the benefits that you rich men bestow; you give out little and require much in return. Such is your kindness that you undo them whom you help.”
Thus is the ease that the poor find from borrowing money upon usury. They are bitten and stung and eaten up and devoured by it. Most people confess that this kind of usury is forbidden, because it does not relieve but spoils and consumes. May God take the liking of it out of all people’s hearts! Then they will be better able to discern the other kinds of usury, which they still think allowable.
What if one rich man loans money to another? What if a merchant takes money to usury of another merchant, and both are the better, and both are gainers? Here there is no sting or biting. What shall we think of this? What if a thief or a pirate takes usury of another pirate or thief, and both are partakers of the gain, and both of them are helped? Let no one dislike the comparison. For, as I said before, a pirate or a thief is not so guilty like a usurer. Here, you say, he who lends is a gainer, and he who borrows is a gainer. It does good for both. If both are gainers, who is the loser? For usury never passes without working loss.
Take this as a rule: there is never usury without loss.
Here I pray you to give me your attention, and consider what I say. A merchant takes from his neighbor 100 pounds, and must repay 110 pounds. He spends it all on grain, and buys for his 100 pounds 100 quarters of grain. He sends it to the market; the people need it and buy it. If he sold it for eight silver pennies a bushel, he might make up his 100 pounds and be a gainer, but unless he makes up 110 pounds to discharge his usury, he must be a loser and undone. Undone he will not be. He will rather undo many others. Therefore, he sets price at three shillings a bushel, and so makes his money, and pays the usurer, and saves himself, and is no loser. Who then pays the ten pounds? Who is the loser? Anyone can see. The poor people who buy the grain. They find it and feel it in every morsel they eat. Thus, if the merchant borrower is not hindered by the usurer, the people who buy his wares are plagued. Thus it is no hard matter to find that, no matter how usury is used, it is always dangerous and deceives the people, and is therefore the destruction and overthrow of the commonwealth.
Nevertheless, he says, why should I not make money yield returns to me, as well as my wares? I loan my shop for a year, or two, or three, so many pieces of velvet, satin, taffeta, grograine, camelot, hollands, and so forth. For the use he will pay me by the year forty pounds, and in the end restore me my shop, so many pieces of velvet, and so forth, so long, so broad, of the same making, so good, so fine, as were the other. This, he says, is lawful; therefore, the other is lawful.
No, no, this is not lawful. It is not lawful for you to use your shop in this manner: it is usury; it is forbidden. He who takes the shop shall be a gainer: who shall be the loser then? They who buy the wares must also buy it at the more expensive price. We may not allow one ill thing by the allowance of another.
He should rather say: Usury taken upon wares is not lawful; therefore, usury for bare money is less lawful. Jerome commenting on Ezekiel says, Putant quidam usuram tantum esse in pecunia: quod praevidens scriptura divina omni rei aufert superabundantiam, ut plus non accipias quam dedisti: “Some think there is no usury but in money. This the holy scriptures foresaw, and therefore takes away the increase or gains in any manner of thing, and requires that you receive no more than you gave.”
When an occupier becomes old, his occupying is done. He has in stock 200 pounds; he comes to a young man, wise, of good credit, and of honest dealing, and says, “I give you this money freely; it will be yours forever, upon this condition, that you give me twenty marks a year during life.” This may be done; it is not usury. How? It is a plain gift with a condition. The principal is gone from me forever; I have no right to it; it is not mine. If I die tomorrow before I receive any penny, my executors cannot claim anything. In usury it is otherwise: the usurer requires his whole sum again, and even more for the use and occupying. Therefore this is a gift, and not usury.
Again, I loan my neighbor twenty pounds for a day. He has it freely and friendly without any usury. Yet I say to him, “Neighbor, you must repay tomorrow; for the next day after I must discharge an obligation; I stand bound for a payment. I have no more except this which you borrow. If I miss this payment, I forfeit five pounds. I ask you to be mindful of this.” The day comes, my neighbor does not come. I lack my money, and, because I lack it, I lose five pounds. He comes afterward and offers me my own money. Then I say, “Neighbor, I have lost five pounds because of your negligence and slackness; I hope you will not allow me to be a loser for my kindness.” This is interest; it is not usury.
Here, by the way, you may learn why it is called “interest,” because he may say, Interfuit mea habuisse: “It was required of me; it stood upon me to have it,” and now because of your default, I sustain loss. It is good to know the one from the other. This kind of dealing is interest, and not usury. In usury, I seek to be a gainer; in interest, I seek only not to be a loser: I seek neither gain nor profit. Here I may lawfully seek to be answered; it stands with equity, conscience, and good reason. This is interest, and not usury, that a man who requires no gain should seek to save himself from harm. Bear patiently with me if I go too long. My desire is that you would understand this whole matter and be able to know one thing from another, so that no one may excuse his usury with the name of interest, nor others be offended, thinking that all those who loan their money or in any way dispose of their stock are usurers.
A poor orphan left in his cradle has 100 pounds worth of stock. This stock may be put out to usury, and the usury is allowed. This is a deed of charity; it is not usury, as will be made clear. For, if the 100 pounds should lie still without increase, and be bestowed from year to year to the use of the child, the whole stock would be spent before the child should come of age. If the stock be put to work into an honest man’s hands, something will grow to the relief of the orphan, and yet his stock remains whole. It is charity to relieve the infant who cannot relieve himself. The same is the case with regard to using the stock of a man who does not have his wits and is unable to dispose of his goods. Or if a merchant, because of sickness, handicap, or any other hindrance, is not able to follow his business, he desires another to oversee it, and to do with his stock as it were his own, only to maintain him with the increase from it. This is not usury. Why? Because he who takes the stock of the orphan, or of the madman, or of the diseased merchant, is not bound to answer all adventures and casualties that happen. As if to similar use, I invest in cattle, and they die without my fault, or stock in money or wares, and the wares are burned by fire, or the money is stolen without my fault, I am not bound to answer for the principal; therefore it is not usury.
Yet, they say further to defend usury. It is allowed in other countries such as France, Spain, Italy, Rome, and elsewhere, the laws permit it. What law permits it? I know it is not the law of God, for that law plainly forbids it. What speak I of the law of God? The civil law condemns usury, the canon law condemns it, the temporal law condemns it, and the law of nature condemns it. How is that allowable by any law that by so many laws is condemned? Or how is he worthy to live among men that despise the authority of so many laws? Or what will you judge of that man who will be tempered and ordered by no law, neither by civil, nor by canon, nor by temporal, nor by law of nature, nor by law of men, nor by law of God? I say not, how can we think him to be a man of God? Can we think such a person is a man? It is the part and duty of a man to be ruled by law and reason.
It is everywhere, and therefore it is to be allowed. Too true, that it is common everywhere. Would God it were false! It undoes all the world. So the devil is everywhere, and allowed; so are the prostitutes allowed in France, Spain, Italy, Lombardy, Naples, Venice, and in Rome. Rome is called the holy city; the most holy one has his seat there, and yet he allows the prostitutes in Rome. So were the Canaanites among the people of God, and allowed. They were as goads in their sides and as thorns in their eyes. As these were allowed and as the prostitutes are permitted and as the devil is allowed, so also are usurers. Usurers do just as good, and no worse, than they. For they are the children of the devil; their houses are the shops wherein the devil works his mischief. They are Canaanites and enemies of God’s people. They are goads in our sides and sharp thorns and prickles in our eyes. God grant that the law may discover them and the people abhor them, and that they may repent and loathe their wickedness!
Some others are bold to take authority for usury from Christ himself. He says, “The kingdom of heaven is as a man who, going into a strange country, called his servants, and entrusted his goods to them. He gave five talents to one, two to another, and one to another; and he said to them, ‘Put it to use until I come back’” (cf. Matt. 25:14–15; Luke 19:12–13 ).11 The first did so; the second accordingly. They increased his stock, and are commended for their usury. The third wrapped his talent in a napkin and kept it together. His master returned and reprimanded him, and said, “Wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have required it with vantage?” (Luke 19:23). Therefore usury is allowed by the mouth of Christ. The first two are commended, not for anything else but for the gain they made by usury. The third is appraised and rebuked, not for theft or adultery, but because he did not invest his stock for usury.
What? And is usury allowed? And allowed by the witness of Christ? How can that be? For Christ, as we heard before, plainly forbids it. How is it then? What is the meaning of this parable? This is it. When Christ delivered his gospel to his disciples, he gave them charge to be diligent, and to multiply and increase the number of those who should believe. To this purpose he said,
Be as careful in this business for the glory of God and the salvation of your brethren, as worldly-wise men show themselves in seeking wicked mammon. Behold the usurers: they occupy their stock, and make it grow, and so out of five pounds they make ten, and out of ten they make twenty pounds, and so they become rich. So in the same way you are to deal with the gifts and knowledge that God has bestowed on you: give them to the exchangers, and put them out to usury, increase the Lord’s stock. If they be diligent and faithful in the things of this world, how much more ought you to be so in heavenly things!
This therefore is the meaning: Covetous men and the children of this world are wise in their generation; you are the children of light, you, too, be wise, and do so likewise in your office and service as you see them do. So he says, “Behold the fowls of the heaven.… Learn how the Lilies of the field do grow” (Matt. 6:26, 28). What of this? The lilies are but grass: the fowls of the air are but birds. The mercy of God in his providence and care, wherein he gives us all things necessary, is made plain by the example of these, and thereby our distrust and excessive worry is reproved. So Christ speaks this parable concerning the usurer, that, as he is diligent in doing ill, so we should be careful and ready to do well.
Should usury therefore be lawful because Christ draws a comparison or makes an example of a usurer? If it were so, we should do many things otherwise as well. In the scriptures we are often required to take example of those things that are ill. In the sixteenth chapter of Luke, Christ bids his disciples to follow the example of the unfaithful steward, being provident and careful as he was. Does he therefore commend the falsehood of the steward? Or shall falsehood therefore be lawful? Saint Paul says, “The day of the Lord shall come, even as a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). Is theft therefore lawful? Saint James says, “The devils also believe … and tremble” (James 2:19). Take example of the devils. They believe, but their bare, vain, and dead faith, in which they can do no good, cannot serve them. Even so shall not your faith, if it is dead and void of all good works, save you. God himself, to reprove the ingratitude and forgetfulness of his people who did so often forsake him and followed Baal and Astaroth, said in this manner to them, “Hath any nation changed their gods …?” (Jer. 2:11). Does he in this speech affirm that the idols of the heathen are gods? Because God takes an example of idolatry, shall idolatry therefore be lawful? He urges his servants to be as faithful and willing and ready to serve him, the God of heaven and earth, as the Gentiles were in service of their idols, the works of their own hands. As God did will the Israelites to take example of the idolaters, and as Christ bids his disciples to note the example of the false steward, and as James of the devils, is this parable an example of that which is commendable, that is, the diligence of the servants? Usury is no more allowed by this than idolatry, falsehood, and the devil is by the other. Some will say I have no trade for a livelihood: I must give my money to usury, or else I must beg. This is what I spoke about; this shows that despair and mistrust in the providence of God is the mother of usury. If this were cause why he should be a usurer, if this rightly serves as defense of his wickedness, why may not the thief, or the procurer, or the enchanter, by similar answer excuse themselves, and stand and defend their doings? Augustine therefore said, Audent etiam foeneratores dicere, Non habeo aliud unde vivam, and so forth:
The usurers are bold to say that they have no other trade whereby to live. So the thief will tell me, when I confront him with his theft. So will he say that breaks into other people’s houses. So will the procurer say that buys young maidens to use them for filthiness. So will the wicked enchanter who sells his sin. If we reprove any of all these, they will answer that this is their maintenance, and that they do not have any other way to live.Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 128
Therefore Augustine said, Quasi non hoc ipsum in illis maxime puniendum est, quia artem nequitiae delegerunt unde viverent, et inde se volunt pascere, unde offendant eum a quo omnes pascuntur: “As if they were not therefore most worthy to be punished, because they have chosen a trade of wickedness to live by, and will maintain themselves by that thing with which they displease him by whom all are maintained.” How much better would it be with them, if they did serve God truly in such place and calling wherein they might most set forth his glory, and do such things as should be profitable for themselves and others!
The servant of God knows there is no lack for those who fear him. He knows the Lord cares for him, and therefore casts his cares upon the Lord. He says as the prophet, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Ps. 23:1). “The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1). “I trusted in thee, O Lord: I said, Thou art my God. My times are in thine hand” (Ps. 31:14–15).
Thus far I thought it helpful to speak about the loathsome and foul trade of usury. I do not know what fruit will grow from it, and what it will work in your hearts. If it pleases God, it may do that good which I wish. I have done my duty; I call God for a record of my soul; I have not deceived you. I have spoken to you the truth. If I am deceived in this matter, O God, you have deceived me. Your word is plain. You say, “You shall take no usury.” You say, “He who takes increase shall not live.” What am I that I should hide the words of my God, or keep them from the hearing of his people? The learned old fathers have taught us it is no more lawful to take usury from our brother than it is to kill our brother. They who are of God hear this, and consider it, and have concern that they do not displease him. The wicked, who are in no way moved and do not care what God says but cast his word behind them; who have eyes, and see not, and ears, yet hear not, because they are filthy, they want to continue being filthy. Their greedy desire will increase to their confusion. As their money increases, so will they increase the heaps of their sins. Pardon me if I have been long or vehement. To those who are usurers, I ask no pardon.
I hear that there are certain people in this city who wallow wretchedly in this filthiness without repentance. I give them warning in the hearing of you all, and in the presence of God, that they forsake that cruel and detestable sin. If otherwise they continue therein, I will open their shame and denounce excommunication against them and abhor them as the plagues and monsters of the world in order that, if they are past all fear of God, they may yet repent and amend for worldly shame.
Tell me, you wretched imps of the world, you unkind creatures, who are past all sense and feeling of God, who knows the will of God, and does the contrary, how dare you come into the church? It is the church of that God who said, “You shall take no usury,” and you know he has said this. How dare you read or hear the word of God? It is the word of that God that condemns usury; and you know he does condemn it: How dare you come into the company of your brethren?
Usury is the plague, destruction, and undoing of your brethren; and this you know; how dare you look upon your children? You cause the wrath of God to fall down from heaven upon them; your iniquity shall be punished in them to the third and fourth generation; you know this; how dare you look up into heaven? You have no dwelling there; you shall have no place in the tabernacle of the Highest; this you know. Because you rob the poor, deceive the simple, and eat up the widows’ houses; therefore, your children will be naked and beg their bread; therefore, you and your riches will perish together.
Christ says, “The hour shall come, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear it shall live” (John 5:25). Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and was rich when he received Jesus as a guest in his house: “And Zacchaeus stood forth, and said unto the Lord, Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor: and if I have taken from any man by forged cavillation, I restore him fourfold. Then Jesus said to him, This day is salvation come unto this house” (Luke 19:8–9). May God thus make his word work in the hearts of usurers, that they may also receive Jesus, and forsake usury, and restore fourfold if they have deceived any, and therefore also receive salvation. Let us increase in that usury that is to the glory of God. He has given us knowledge and many excellent graces. Let us apply them; let us use that talent that he has left us. He will return: The day of his coming is at hand. He will require his talents; we must answer for them. Let us restore them with increase that our service may be approved, and we received into his tabernacle.