A Question of Usury

About a month ago, I was having lunch with a neighbor who asked me an interesting question that popped up in the philosophy department he teaches with.

He asked me why in Jesus’ parable of the talents does he reward a person who directly disobeys the Old Testament command of “usury.”  Not your everyday, lunch-time conversation, but an interesting question.

To be honest, I had no idea what “usury” was, but through our discussion I found out it referred to the charging of an exorbitant interest.  (I always love those moments where the non-pastor teaches the pastor about The Bible.  Keeps us honest!)

My initial reaction was that Jesus uses whatever he wants for a teaching, and sometimes purposely defiles the Old Testament traditions to make a point.  But I told him I would check into it through some study, and later on sent the following e-mail.

Lend any other thoughts you may have, as this was the first time I came across such a question.

Hey _________:

I looked further into your question about Matthew 25:14-30.

I have always simply seen this as a standard parable where Jesus creates an analogous teaching to basically state, “You have one life time to take what I give you and use it for my glory and service before the coming, final kingdom.”

However, you are right, there is more to this teaching (as is always the case with Jesus’ teachings).  At first glance, Jesus’ parable does seem to counter the Jewish prohibition of “usury” (Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35-37, Deuteronomy 23:19)…which to be honest was one of those laws that I never really paid any attention to.

With further research in Leviticus and Exodus I discovered that Israel seemed to run counter to their current culture in totally prohibiting interest payment on loans to the poor (there were ancient laws restricting how much interest, but never fully prohibiting like with Israel).  The loans were to be looked as a charitable.  (NOTE:  This isn’t the case with foreigners though, as they are to be charged interest according to Deuteronomy 23:21.)

After some further research I discovered is was frequently broken (Nehemiah 5:10-12) and by New Testament times Jewish scholars already distinguished between “lending at interest” and “usury” (according to Roman law at that time the maximum rate of interest was 12%.)  Either way, the OT law is the OT law…and it seems like his teaching counters it.

So…a few possibilities in my opinion:

  • We can assume the money was lent to non-Jews thereby not being an infraction.
  • We can assume that Jesus is making a subtle, sidebar teaching that he is supreme and “Lord over the Law”  (he did this frequently, breaking Jewish traditions to make a similar point).
  • We can assume Jesus isn’t supporting or setting aside Old Testament Law, as his point is more about our obligation to recognize our lives and talents as gifts to be used for his mission of restoration to the world.

I guess from my experience in teaching Jesus’ parables, I lean more towards the third point as they are fairly flexible, analogous teaching methods, wherein the characters and story are more tools for a larger, spiritual principle.

There are a few other instances where Jesus uses parables that have rather evil characters (i.e. Luke 16:1-9 and 18:1-8), which in my mind is a nice relief in showing there is nothing is too “evil” that he can’t take and use for good.

Not sure this helps or not, but hopefully sheds some light on the question…and a very interesting one at that!



~ by Dave Smith on May 23, 2009.

One Response to “A Question of Usury”

  1. Read this a while back and meant to comment later…

    Luther has some brilliant reflections on Usury. I don’t recall if he hits the passage in question or not.

    However, if you’ve never read this treatise, it’s at least entertaining…


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