Jesus against Hillel on Usury

I would argue that the best summation of Christian ethics is found in the sermon on the plain in Luke 6:20–49. What I love about the sermon on the plain is just how radical it seems on the surface, it seems almost impossible; however, when you think about what it’s saying, and think about it deeply—it makes sense. Probably my favorite example of this is found in Luke 6:34–35 (NRSV):

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. 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.

At first glance this admonition looks crazy, how could you lend to someone and expect nothing in return? What does that even mean? Before we get into it let’s start with the assumption that Jesus is not merely making a provocation for the sake of provocation, but that he is actually making a point. What could that point be? The first thing to realize is that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew talking to Palestinian Jews, so the first context has to be second temple Judaism.

Looking at this admonition from that perspective one of the first things that ought to come to mind is the Torah regulations on lending and the taking of interest (Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:36–37, Deuteronomy 15:7­–8, Deuteronomy 23:19­–20). One of the most clear version of this legislation is found in Leviticus 23:36–37 (NRSV):

Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit.

So how was this legislation thought about and dealt with within the context of second temple Judaism? One source we can use to figure that out is the Mishnah, the recording of the Pharisaic rabbis’ arguments and rulings about the law. In the Baba Metzia portion of the Mishnah this legislation is discussed in detail. Chapter 5 of the Baba Metzia goes over various rulings and arguments dealing with lending and constitutes interest or profiteering—the common denominator in almost all of the rulings and arguments is that in any transaction involving lending, no increase should be gained by the lender.

This leads many of the rabbinic rulings to be very detailed, including calculations and taking into account inflation and price variations. The arguments are very economic in nature; involving all kinds of market activity and making sure measurements are done so as to avoid any individual gain. I think the general attitude can be summed up in Hillel’s saying found in the Baba Metzia 5.9:

A woman may not lend a loaf of bread to her neighbor unless she determines its value in money, lest wheat should rise in price and they be found partakers in usury.

Anthropologist Stephen Gudeman separates the economic world into two realms: the communal realm and the market realm. About the market realm he says:

The market realm revolves about short-term material relationships that are undertaken for the sake of achieving a project or securing a good.

About the communal realm he says:

In the communal realm, material goods are exchanged through relationships kept for their own sake.

In other words, market relationships exist for the sake of securing goods—a person contracts himself into a short-term relationship in order to achieve some sort of material benefit; whereas communal relationships exist for their own sake, and the material goods are produced and distributed for the sake of the relationship. In market relationships the goods are primary, whereas the relationships are secondary; in communal relationships the relationships are primary, whereas the goods are secondary.

Many people who talk about economics only recognize the market realm; Stephan Gudeman goes on to say:

neoclassical economics focuses on one value domain, the market, which is modeled as a separate sphere making up the whole of economy in which all goods are priced and available for exchange

With that distinction in mind, let’s look at Hillel’s attitude toward lending as opposed to Jesus’s. Hillel takes the commandment against usury and assumes market measurement, assumes that goods are measurable, that they are priced, and exchanged. So if a woman lends bread to her neighbor, this bread is already a priced commodity, and the bread may jump price and thus when a loaf of bread is returned she has actually profited from her neighbor. Notice that all the attention is put on the bread and its price, the relationship between the neighbors is almost incidental. So for Hillel, market pricing is assumed, and usury is avoided to making sure the goods returned are of the same market price.

What about Jesus’s admonition on the issue of debt. He first points out that even sinners lend to sinners and expect as much in return. I propose what Jesus is pointing out here is that in the market realm—where one has price and where relationships exist only for the attainment of goods—it does not matter who is lending to whom, a sinner could lend to a sinner, the relationship does not matter, what matters is that the lending is getting at least as much back as he lent. What matters is the measurement of the loan, the goods delivered, and the goods received. He then goes on to say that his listeners are to love their enemies, do good, and lend without expecting a return. For Jesus the relationship comes first, which is why lending is tied to loving. When Jesus says that one should not expect a return, what I propose he means is that one should not be concerned with a return, one should not measure what one is lending in order to make sure one gets and equal return. ἀπελπίζω the word translated “expect” in “expect nothing in return”, can also be rendered “despair” such as in Ephesians 4:19 where it is used literally as “despair themselves” but is translated as “become callous” or “lost all sensitivity”. From this we can think of “expecting” in “expecting return” as something like “being concerned with a return”.

So what would be the result of this? What is Jesus trying to promote? As opposed to Hillel’s understanding of usury, which is to make sure that no lending transaction leads to one person’s gain, I propose that Jesus interprets the usury law as preventing communal relationships from turning into calculated exploitative relationships. As soon as relationships involving things like lending become exploitative or hostile, calculation becomes necessary. If I trust and care about my neighbor, and he trusts and cares about me—there is no reason to calculate things we share or lend to one another, since the assumption is they would do the same for me and we care about the wellbeing of each other (communal realm). If, however, we do not trust and care about each other; but rather want to use each other for material gain (market realm)—each of us is going to calculate and measure what is being exchanged to make sure we are getting the best deal possible and we are not being exploited.

Jesus is saying, basically “don’t worry about trying to get back exactly what you got, don’t worry about who comes out on top, just share with one another without considering any return.” Further evidence of this is found later on in the sermon in verse 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.”

In other words—if you give, and give beyond measure, give gratuitously—you will also receive gratuitously and without measure. The term “pressed down, shaking together, running over” implies that the one making the “measure” isn’t trying to be exact, he isn’t trying to give the minimum amount allowable, rather he is being gratuitous, he’s giving as much as he can.

If one were to actually look at that transaction and measure who gave more it might be the case that one of the parties actually gained interest (who knows if one of the persons was able to press down more)—but it doesn’t matter, because according to Jesus Usury is about the type of relationship, not the measurement of goods.

So what kind of relationship is this promoting? Well if people are giving gratuitously without consideration of how much they are getting back, I would say the description would be “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In my book “All things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians” I write:

As soon as the debt starts to be calculated, the relationship moves over to exchange; and it then sheds any need for trust and mutual obligations. But this outcome was avoided when Jesus commanded that his followers should lend without expectation of return. The lending in this case does not turn into the grounds for an exchange or a hierarchal relationship. This was to be lending done without taking an account, lending freely—it was based on mutual obligation and trust; rather than lending which included the taking of accounts. Because it was lending, as opposed to a gift—which could imply or result in a hierarchical relationship—it implied, and would result in, a communist relationship based on trust and mutual obligations.

Jesus against Hillel on Usury

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