One of the most fascinating passages in the Bible for me is the sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. This sermon is one of the most radical, and difficult sections of the New Testament when it comes to ethics. I specifically want to focus on verses 34 and 35. These 2 verses are within the section of the sermon that seems to make impossible demands, the 2 verses I’m looking at deal specifically with lending and borrowing. Very often these passages are read as just being about a condition of the heart or a general attitude. I think, however, that Jesus actually means what he says, I don’t think this is about a general condition of the heart or about an attitude. I think it’s about real social and economic relationships. Let’s take a look at the whole passage in question but focus in on verse 34 and 35.
27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
The first place we should look in order to get some historical background and context is the Mishnah, given that this would be the ethical teachings familiar to religious Jews in Palestine at the time. One place we can start is in Pirkei Avot Chapter 2:
He said to them: Go and see which is the worst trait, the one that a person should most distance himself from. Said Rabbi Eliezer: An evil eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: An evil friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: An evil neighbour. Said Rabbi Shimon: To borrow and not to repay; for one who borrows from man is as one who borrows from the Almighty, as is stated, “The wicked man borrows and does not repay; but the righteous one is benevolent and gives” (Psalms 37:21). Said Rabbi Elazar: An evil heart. Said He to them: I prefer the word of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of yours.
Rabbi Shimon presented the worst trait as being borrowing without repaying, which is included in Rabbi Eliezer’s concept of “an evil eye” (a concept which Jesus also talks about). How does this contrast with Jesus’ idea of debt? Jesus tells his listeners not to distance himself from those who may not repay, but rather to lend to them, expecting nothing in return. In otherwords Jesus advises the opposite.
In the Mishnah Bava Metzia Chapter 5 we find an explanation of the law against taking interest. It’s quite strict, making sure no profit is taken from lending; even the appearance of profit is prohibited. In Chapter 3 of the Bava Metzia we find instructions on repayment for goods entrusted to someone that end up in damage or end up missing. In these laws we see a seemingly reasonable assumption that when some sort of trade happens or lending happens it must be an equal exchange. If I borrow and don’t pay back, or pay back something damaged the lender is coming out of the deal worse, If I lend on interest and demand more back than when I leant then the borrower is coming out of the deal worse. Both of those outcomes are wrong according to Jewish law, given that the trade, or loan, is supposed to be an equal exchange, no winners or losers.
This kind of logic would dismantle capitalism as we know it today which is dependent on the acceptance of usury; it’s really an egalitarian logic that opposes the concept of profit. What then are we to make of Jesus’ teaching on lending? Clearly Jesus is not pro-Usury in the statement, it’s not that Jesus is saying that people should profit from one another, his admonition is even more radical than the anti-Usury sentiment in Pharisaic Judaism. I think it’s very interesting what it says in the last part of verse 34, I’ll quote it in the Greek:
καὶ ἁμαρτωλοὶ ἁμαρτωλοῖς δανίζουσιν ἵνα ἀπολάβωσιν τὰ ἴσα
Sinners (ἁμαρτωλοῖς) lend to other sinners so that they might receive equal, or the same in return. When it comes to the Mosaic Law lending and expecting the same back is absolutely just, if one is not lending on interest one is following the law. Yet for Jesus this still can leave you as a sinner. Even the sinner can lend expecting the same amount in return, Jesus demands more. Jesus is taking a mosaic law and expanding it, radicalizing it. For Jesus refraining from exploitation through Usury isn’t enough, more is needed.
Before I go into what I believe the implications of Jesus’ admonition on lending is, I want to go into what anthropologists, Specifically David Graeber has to say about debt, in his book “Debt the first 5000 years” Chapter 4 He describes a certain type of view of distribution as exemplified in an Inuit hunter society:
Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat. He thanked him profusely. The man objected indignantly: “Up in our country we are human! ” said the hunter. “And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.” The last line is something of an anthropological classic, and similar statements about the refusal to calculate credits and debits can be found through the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunting societies. Rather than seeing himself as human because he could make economic calculations, the hunter insisted that being truly human meant refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom, for the precise reason that doing so would inevitably create a world where we began “comparing power with power, measuring, calculating” and reducing each other to slaves or dogs through debt.
This kind of thinking would fit very well with the kind of lending Jesus is talking about. For Jesus lending was an intrinsic good, but lending without expecting anything back, notice, however, that this is still a loan, not a gift. How can a loan be a loan when nothing is expected in return? As the Inuit hunter realized, a gift can easily be considered as an act of domination “by gifts one makes slaves”. Gifts without a context of equality can be seen as establishing oneself as a patron in the ancient roman sense of the word, the giving of gifts demands that the receiver recognize the giver as superior, creating a hierarchical relationship. Lending entails that something is expected in return, that the person borrowing to is now in debt to the person lending and the one who is the creditor now has an outstanding loan with the borrower, it ties to 2 people together. What happens, however, when the loan is given with no expectation of a return, yet it is still considered a loan, not a gift? Then you may have something similar to what the Inuit relates, it’s not a gift, nor is it a calculated or even calculatable debt, it is a loan given with the knowledge that what I get today, you may get tomorrow and so on. In other words we help each other out.
Jesus said that if we do this kind of lending our reward will be great, we will be sons of God, because God is kind to the wicked and ungrateful, why wicked and ungrateful? This isn’t something we would expect from Jesus or frankly anyone from a Jewish background. One would think that God would be kind to those who are not wicked, who are instead good and who make sure that they give freely to others. If that was the case then lending without expectation would be fine because one would receive the kindness of God later. But this isn’t Jesus’ logic, his logic is that because God is good to the wicked and ungrateful, so should we be good to even those who we know will not pay us back. In other words we don’t share with others because we are secretly building up an account with God since that would make the sharing nothing more than a charade. God is not someone who we make deals with, who we enter into an exchange relationship with, rather we immitate his kindness. We are good to all, because God is good to all.
In chapter 5 of the same Book David Graeber describes 3 different types of relationships, communism, exchange and hierarchy, he defines Communism as:
I will define communism here a s any human relationship that operates on the principles of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”
And gives us a way to figure out if a relationship is communistic or not:
The surest way to know that one is in the presence of communistic relations is that not only are no accounts taken, but it would be considered offensive, or simply bizarre, to even consider doing so.
Whereas he defines exchange as:
Exchange is all about equivalence. It’s a back-and-forth process involving two sides in which each side gives as good as it gets. This is why one can speak of people exchanging words (if there’s an argument), blows, or even gunfire. In these examples, it’s not that there is ever an exact equivalence–even if there were some way to measure an exact equivalence–but more a constant process of interaction tending toward equivalence.
And also points out something specific about exchange that we need to have in mind:
What marks commercial exchange is that it’s “impersonal” : who it is that is selling something to us, or buying something from us, should in principle be entirely irrelevant. We are simply comparing the value or two objects.
Lending without expecting anything in return is explicitly saying that one should not keep an account. This would lead to a kind of communism, where lending and mutual aid is given freely without an account taken. However this kind of communism, at least as far as Jesus sees it, is tied in with love. Love of enemy. Strangely enough Jesus does something similar with “Love your enemy” as he does with “lend without expecting anything back,” the enemy remains an enemy and the loan remains a loan. Yet Jesus gives the command to love and lend to the enemy. This makes the relationship personal. This is not impersonal exchange nor is it merely tribal mutual aid, because it is to include our enemies. I take by enemies someone who may have an intention to harm you.
Exchange, especially exchange through money, brings in the question of “the enemy” since if we look historically market exchange and money tends to develop alongside violence, David Graeber writes:
If we look at Eurasian history over the course of the last five thousand years, what we see is a broad alternation between periods dominated by credit money and periods in which gold and silver come to dominate-that is, those during which at least a large share of transactions were conducted with pieces of valuable metal being passed from hand to hand. Why? The single most important factor would appear to be war. Bullion predominates, above all, in periods of generalized violence. There’s a very simple reason for that. Gold and silver coins are distinguished from credit arrangements by one spectacular feature: they can be stolen . A debt is, by definition, a record, as well as a relation of trust. Someone accepting gold or silver in exchange for merchandise, on the other hand, need trust nothing more than the accuracy of the scales, the quality of the metal, and the likelihood that someone else will be willing to accept it. In a world where war and the threat of violence are everywhere-and this appears to have been an equally accurate description of Warring States China, Iron Age Greece, and preMauryan India-there are obvious advantages to making one’s transactions simple. This is all the more true when dealing with soldiers. On the one hand, soldiers tend to have access to a great deal of loot, much of which consists of gold and silver, and will always seek a way to trade it for the better things in life. On the other, a heavily armed itinerant soldier is the very definition of a poor credit risk.
Equal exchange comes about when there is no relationship between those who are making the exchange. If person A has no relationship with person B and believes that person B might be an enemy and thus may harm him, he’s not going to lend to person B, if person B wants something from person A, he must give him something in exchange, so that person A can leave the transaction with no need to trust that person and no material interest in what he does after, or even what happens to him. But Jesus is not just talking about exchange, or even regular lending, in the sense of what he says the sinners do (lending and taking account and expecting an equal return), he’s talking of lending more along the lines of the Inuit hunter whom we talked about earlier. That is lending without calculating any return whatsoever. The kind of lending done amoung thouse considered neighbours. Lending among those whom you have a relationship with will take more of a communistic form rather than an exchange form. When you lend within a neighbourly context you don’t stop caring about the other person, your relationship, both emotional and material doesn’t end. But for this kind of relationship to be possible it’s necessary to banish any threat of violence. David Greaber talks about lending between neighbours using an example of a community in rural Nigeria:
Exchange allows us to cancel out our debts. It gives us a way to call it even: hence, to end the relationship . With vendors, one is usually only pretending to have a relationship at all. With neighbors, one might for this very reason prefer not to pay one’s debts. Laura Bohannan writes about arriving in a Tiv community in rural Nigeria; neighbors immediately began arriving bearing little gifts: “two ears corn, one vegetable marrow, one chicken, five tomatoes, one handful peanuts. “27 Having no idea what was expected of her, she thanked them and wrote down in a notebook their names and what they had brought. Eventually, two women adopted her and explained that all such gifts did have to be returned. It would be entirely inappropriate to simply accept three eggs from a neighbour and never bring anything back. One did not have to bring back eggs, but one should bring something back of approximately the same value. One could even bring money-there was nothing inappropriate in that-provided one did so at a discreet interval, and above all, that one did not bring the exact cost of the eggs. It had to be either a bit more or a bit less. To bring back nothing at all would be to cast oneself as an exploiter or a parasite. To bring back an exact equivalent would be to suggest that one no longer wishes to have anything to do with the neighbour. Tiv women, she learned, might spend a good part of the day walking for miles to distant homesteads to return a handful of okra or a tiny bit of change, “in an endless circle of gifts to which no one ever handed over the precise value of the object last received “-and in doing so, they were continually creating their society. There was certainly a trace of communism here–neighbours on good terms could also be trusted to help each other out in emergencies-but unlike communistic relations, which are assumed to be permanent, this sort of neighbourliness had to be constantly created and maintained, because any link can be broken off at any time.
So by lending constantly, and without expecting anything back, much less an exact amount, or a profit, a communistic relationship is being constantly remade. Is this something Jesus may have had in mind? This might also explain why the term “lend” is used rather than gift, a gift is something one can just talk away from, and when you give philanthropy to a homeless person, the relationships ends once he receives it. Lending continues the relationship, because some return is expected, but Jesus says don’t expect anything in return, I think this is on the side of the lender, the giver receiving the loan, will want to give something back, but it is not demanded, why? Because it is a relationship based on love, not on exchange or profit seeking. When you lend to someone you have a relationship with it is not appropriate to demand a return, as doing so would be questioning the nature of the relationship. Further on in the Sermon Jesus explains what the outcome will be in verse 38
38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
And in the Greek:
δίδοτε, καὶ δοθήσεται ὑμῖν· μέτρον καλὸν πεπιεσμένον σεσαλευμένον ὑπερεκχυννόμενον δώσουσιν εἰς τὸν κόλπον ὑμῶν· ᾧ γὰρ μέτρῳ μετρεῖτε ἀντιμετρηθήσεται ὑμῖν.
The word for measure here is μέτρον, it’s a term that would be used literally to measure things out for the market place, accurately, or like a standard, it’s where we get word “meter.”I find it interesting that Jesus uses a term which would be used to accurately measure something in the market, so that not too much nor too little would be given in exchange, and uses that in a point he’s making about being given way too much, pressed down, shaken together and running over. What’s the point here? I think it is that if you lend, and lend freely without expectation of a return, you go into a relationship with the borrower, but not one of exchange, nor one of philanthropy, but rather one of love, once that relationship is established the other would act in kind, if not more so. In exchange one is treating the other as a potential enemy, in a “communistic” relationship one is treating the other as a friend, thus taking an enemy and through love establishing a relationship of mutual aid.
So how does one “Love one’s enemy” in this context? By establishing relationship, both emotionally and materially based around love, mutual Aid, lending without expecting anything in return, even with those who may wish us harm, because it’s through establishing these kinds of relationships that reconciliation can happen.
This kind of relationship has existed in communities, be it small villages where neighborliness creates a kind of communism, be it religious communities, or even cooperative workplaces. The extreme and radical message of Jesus however is that this kind of relationship should not only be the way we deal with our neighbors economically (something which by itself would change the world), but also how we deal with our enemies. Taking relationships based on lack of trust, self-interest and autonomy, and turning them into communal relationships based on love.
Jesus lived in a world where the people he preached to had a lot of enemies, they had the Romans, they had the Samaritans, they had gentiles in general, they even had opposing sects. The Roman economic system was one based on violence, and through violence comes a breakdown of social bonds of trust and mutual dependence. In villages and among groups like the essences perhaps people could afford to create small economies based on communality and mutual aid, but for the most part, you had tributes, market exchange, usage of money, taxes, and trade. The average peasant needed to pay the tax to Rome, his economic situation was one of taking loans to pay the tax, and then very often ending up in debted permanently. This is perhaps one reason why Josephus records for us that as soon as the Sicarii could, they immediately destroyed the debt records. This was an economy that made slaves. Jewish law prevented excessive exploitation but Jesus had another vision, one based on love and mutual aid. Taking an economy where violence and the category of enemies transformed the society into one where mutual aid and love was impossible, and turning it into one where it was possible, which is one way of saying “Redemption.”
If this principle was applied only slightly in the social and economic systems of today the world would be a much different place.