Usury, Scriptural Economics and Eschatological Time

Jim Fodor
Saint Bonaventure University

Ostensibly, this set of scriptural texts is about economics; but one quickly discovers that it is also about time. The texts in question are: Exodus 22:21-27; Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 15:1-18; 23:16-21; Matthew 6:9-15; 18:23-35; Luke 4:16-21; 16:1-13; and Qur’an 2:261-281; 30:33-39; 83:1-6. At certain junctures in these scriptures time appears to be ‘out of joint’ in some important way or ways. The challenge is to discern how and why the practice of exacting usury makes the reckoning of time ‘go wrong’. The following essay emerges from small-group interaction, discussion, probings, musings, patient listening and silences before the texts (and one another) with other scriptural-reasoners from the three Abrahamic traditions. The voice represented here—i.e., my voice—would be impossible without the voices of my Jewish and Muslim colleagues, even though it is finally offered out of my own distinctive Christian perspective.

What struck me on several occasions during these highly stimulating sessions over the course of several days were the ways in which, on certain occasions in these texts, time became ‘out of sorts’—bent, mis-shaped, distorted. The disfigurement of time seemed strongly correlated with certain forms of borrowing and lending. A distinctive temporal imagination, in other words, seemed strongly characteristic of practices of usury. The temporal outlook of the lender—but also the borrower in some derivative sense (because a function of a particular economic relation)—became ‘flattened’ and one-dimensional. In usurious relations time seemed to be transformed into a series of discrete, uniform, extrinsically related ‘moments’—each indistinct from every other. Because no qualitative differentiation was permitted between these moments, it was difficult, if not impossible, to know—let alone tell or name—’the right time’ as concerns those who were in debt and those to whom debts were owed. Social relations were thus severely harmed. What makes ‘usurious time’ so devastating socially and economically, it appears, is that it obscures and in some cases eclipses altogether any basis for discerning what is equitable, appropriate or just. How can there be justice without an appropriate sense of time? The regnant notion of time in usury relations is predominantly quantitative, the result of which tends to be to mute or exclude other senses of time, and thus the exercise of mercy and compassion. Being deprived of any temporal measure consonant with practical wisdom and charitable judgment, economic relations became malign and malicious.

All the scriptural passages we read and studied together presuppose some basic assumption about or orientation to time, which suggests that all human relations are never recounted without temporal inflection of one kind or another. Often these temporal orientations and basic assumptions are presented indirectly, implicit in the text; in some cases they are broached directly and overtly. Following the Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts in order, I will identify and analyze the various tenses and modalities of time discerned within them: cyclic time (agrarian or pastoral); cosmic time (creational or natural); salvation-historical time (redemptive or elective); parabolic time (narrative or fictive time); calendrical time (days, weeks, Sabbaths, Jubilees, etc.); social/working time (cultural time); ‘mechanistic’ time (time as simply an external measure of duration); universal time (a-temporal or eternal) and eschatological time (time of God’s rule/kingdom). [1] These various temporal modalities are intimately interconnected, with eschatological time—I would argue—being the final coordinating and organizing modality. This means that whenever eschatological time becomes supplanted or otherwise displaced and obscured, all the other time relations are adversely affected. I offer this analysis as one way of articulating the refusal or resistance—or at least the qualified acceptance in some cases—of usury within all three Abrahamic faiths.

The Jewish Scriptures

One of the first things that strikes the reader in Exodus 22:20-27 is the emphasis on simultaneity, the fact that there is an instantaneous, immediate, ‘at once’ response by God to economically and socially oppressive human action: “… I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me” (v. 22). There is no delay, no lapse or passing of time between the injury—oppression, ill-treatment, exploitation — and God’s intervention to punish the oppressor. Note that God’s response does not await the full linguistic articulation of that oppression by the oppressed, or even a reflective, self-conscious awareness on their part. The deep moans and cries of the heart alone suffice to move God’s hand to save. The temporal orientation is on the present. But additionally there is a strong, albeit indirect stress on how present actions are related to—or ought to be related to—past actions and conditions of life. As one of our group noted, all three Abrahamic traditions recognize that “to fall into debt is to be tied, positively and negatively, to the past.” This seems especially true in Torah where accounts of the giving of the law are invariably accompanied by narratives of God’s delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt. [2] It seems as if ‘Egypt’ serves not only as a defining historical benchmark but as a general trope for oppression, exploitation, wronging one another in ways that evoke God’s displeasure. [3]

If the Exodus passages underscore the importance of the past for present actions, the temporal outlook that circumscribes economic relations in Leviticus 25 appears to be future-oriented, looking forward to the time when the land will be fully occupied and settled: “… when you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord.” (v. 2). In Deut. 15:4, however, the temporal orientation is not exactly straightforward: the present and the future stand in fruitful tension. There appears to be a partial occupation and settlement of the land with a view to a future and full realization: “… since the LORD your God will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion.” Regardless of whether these legal prescriptions assume a predominantly present or future orientation, the one constant throughout is God’s elective purposes in calling and choosing Israel in Abraham. For even where there is no direct, explicit reference in these legal texts to God’s deliverance from oppression in Egypt, there are nonetheless indirect references to Abraham’s call and God’s promise to give Abraham and his descendents the land. The promise of the land, then, appears to serve as the broader temporal horizon of God’s deliverance and salvation, a horizon which because it is fundamentally eschatological in character informs and orders all economic relations. [4]

In addition to the temporal framework and orientation of salvation-history as they bear upon the economic practices of lending and borrowing, these scriptural texts also display temporal sensibilities that are natural or cosmological in tenor. Perhaps the most obvious is the reference (albeit indirect) to the creation cycle of days Genesis 1: “and there was evening, and there was morning, a second day,” and so on until the seventh day.” And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.” As in Gen. 1, where creational time is inseparable from social/cultural time, here too in the Exodus texts the mutual relations between these two temporal modalities are also articulated together. “If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets” (Exod. 22:25). “Before the sun sets” marks a recognizable part of the daily rhythm of a working day: morning, mid-day, evening and night. Implied in this legislation, it seems, is the idea that human actions/relations are only intelligible within—and hence ought to accord with—a creational framework exhibiting a distinctive (just?) temporal and spatial ordering.

The inextricable intertwining of ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ time is evident in Exodus 22 where, one might argue, the recurrent, predictable patterns of ‘natural’ time (the cycle of days and nights) are unintelligible apart from a distinctive set of temporal benchmarks that are essentially ‘social’ and communal in character—’night’ means the returning of neighbor’s garment given in pledge before the sun sets. Likewise in Leviticus 25, for example, the importance of ‘marking’ or ‘observing’ special (socially and religiously important) times seems to be, in some sense, integral to ‘natural’ time. The earth itself seems to have its own in-built time that regulates, in an important way, how humans and other living beings order their lives relative to it. In Lev. 25:3 ff., mention is made of ‘sowing,’ ‘pruning,’ ‘gathering,’ and reaping’—all of which accord with certain times of year, specific times of the crop growing cycle. The need for the land itself, and not simply the people who work the land, to experience appropriate periods of ‘rest’ and rejuvenation is underscored—not only ‘rest,’ but ‘ complete rest’ (vv. 4, 5). Time, then, is not linked simply to the movement of the sun relative to the earth, but to the agricultural seasons, which are in turn intimately bound up with human work in what appears to be a predominantly agrarian economy. “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the LORD” (v. 2). To be sure, a certain temporal constancy or regularity appears built into the structure of creation which has unavoidable repercussions for human-human and human-earth relations. But the ‘natural’ cycles of time are no more primordial than the qualitative differentiations of time that mark the social order, and vice versa.

In both its mundane and special senses, time is thus construed as an important measure. People are to “count off” time or “keep” time—not in the sense of enumerating with a view to retaining or possessing, but in the sense of “keeping track of” or being aware of the amount of time that has passed or elapsed (Lev. 25:8, 9, 10). Awareness of where one is relative to these times and spaces is apparently fundamental to one’s orientation to God, the world and one another. The idea of counting (quantifying by set measures or lengths: day, week, month, year, term, etc.) is clearly outlined. [5] But these measures are not all abstract in the sense of a series of uniform segments of time; several are concrete, pragmatic measures—for example, ‘seasons’ or agricultural ‘crop years’ or ‘number of harvests’ (vv. 15, 16. 20, 21, 22). There is also a sense of the indefiniteness or immeasurability of time vis-?-vis calendars or nature cycles or seasons. This is conveyed, for example, by expressions like “throughout the ages” (v. 30) or “forever” (v. 32) or “for all time” (vv. 34, 46).

The Christian Scriptures

The New Testament passages similarly describe, mark and measure time in a whole host of ways. In Matt. 6:11 the time measurements of ‘day’ and ‘daily’ appear as the frequency with which prayers are to be made. There is also a subtle and complex ‘fictive’ sense of time displayed in the parables. For instance, in Luke 16 , where the parable of the rich man and the steward who mis-managed his master’s assets is recounted, one can observe a complex temporal movement of past to present to future and back to present through a more proximate past. The parable then concludes with a generalized teaching which, though seemingly applicable to all times and places, is nonetheless not without its irreducible temporal markers—specifically, a movement from the future to the present into the past and then back to the present from that re-evaluated past, all with a view to guiding one’s present actions toward an anticipated future. The hearer of the parable, in other words, is expected to be able to follow these temporal shifts so as to be reminded—i.e., receive a renewed understanding and appreciation—of the absolute centrality of eschatological time: “… ‘What is this that I hear about you?'” (v. 2; retrospective view of the past up to and including the present); “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?” (v. 3; anticipated future in light of an urgent present); “I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed …” (v. 4; present decision in light of past and with a view to a fairly certain set of future events); vv. 9,10, 11: “… make friends for yourselves … so that when it is gone…” (future perspective informs present judgment); “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much …” (present reality bears upon future; i.e., a prediction of future in light of present patterns); “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (past reality as it impinges on future and present). “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (present reality as established over time is a predicator of—but also in some sense a causal link to—future behavioral patterns). [6]

Luke 4:16-21 , the episode of Jesus reading in the synagogue on the sabbath from the Isaiah scroll, also contains important quantitative and qualitative time markers: “as was his custom” (v. 16) suggests regularly repeated activity, a more or less predictable, typical pattern. But within this recurrent order something altogether qualitatively different (perhaps even novel) takes place: namely, the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor” happens now: ” Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21, emphasis). Here emerges strongly an eschatological sense of time. In short, the qualitative differences come into sharp focus within a regular pattern exhibited by calendrical time. Or, perhaps better, without an appreciation of the qualitative dimensions of time as seen within an eschatological horizon, the regular measures or cycles of time devolve into simply ‘one damn thing after another.’

The Muslim Scriptures

The overall temporal viewpoint of the Qur’anic passages is seemingly a-temporal—i.e., references to time (overt and covert) are offered from a ‘universal,’ timeless perspective. This is due to both literary and theological features. Literarily, these scripture passages exhibit a strong proverbial character—which is to say, these particular declarations are in the form of maxims or wisdom sayings (metaphors, similes, analogies and other comparisons). Qur’an 2.263 and Qur’an 2:261 are but two examples: “A kind word with forgiveness is better than almsgiving followed by injury.” “The likeness of those who spend their wealth in Allah’s way is as the likeness of a grain which groweth seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains.” Additionally, the timeless quality of these scriptures also seems due to their straightforward didactic character: instruction, advice, warning, etc. are given with much of the social context unspecified and implicit.

A second, and no less important feature that gives these scriptures a ‘timeless’ quality—the sense is that these are truths applicable everywhere, at all times, to all people—is their theology of God. Allah is characterized as the One who superintends and exercises providential control over everything. “Allah giveth increase manifold to whom He will. Allah is All-Embracing, All-Knowing” (Qur’an 2.261). “Allah is Absolute, Clement” (Qur’an 2.263). “Allah is Seer of what ye do” (Qur’an 2.265). “Allah is Absolute, Owner of Praise” (Qur’an 2.267). “Allah is All-Embracing, All-knowing” (Qur’an 2.268). “Allah is informed of what ye do” (Qur’an 2.271). “Allah guideth whom He will” (Qur’an 2.272). “Allah knoweth it”(Qur’an 2.270, 273). “Allah enlargeth the provision for whom He will, and straiteneth (it for whom He will)” ( Qur’an 30.37 ). Given this pervasive and unequivocal reference to the absoluteness of Allah, it follows that all measuring and weighing and apportioning and calculation of time also fall within His jurisdiction and thus gain validity in accordance with it.

Yet these same Qur’anic passages are not without terrestrial and ‘time-full’ resonances as well—sometimes tacit, sometimes overt, both quantitative and qualitative. For example, Qur’an 2.274: “Those who spend their wealth by night and day, by stealth and openly, verily their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve.” The temporal reference “day and night” indicates a creation rhythm, a natural cycle of time, linked presumably with patterns of wakefulness and sleep, work and respite, light and darkness, productivity and rest. Similarly, Qur’an 2.261: “The likeness of those who spend their wealth in Allah’s way is as the likeness of a grain which groweth seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains. Allah giveth increase manifold to those He will.” Here reference to time is according to agricultural seasons—with particular stress placed upon the massive contrast between the minuteness of the one planted seed and the abundant bounty of harvested grain issuing from it. Once more the measurement of time is very intimately linked to the earth’s fecundity, its seasons, its cycles of rest and dormancy, its regular patterns of new life, growth and harvest. Even the contrast between those who spend their wealth wisely and those who spend it foolishly—variably expressed as “those who spend their wealth in Allah’s way” or “for the cause of Allah” or “in search of Allah’s pleasure” or “in search of Allah’s Countenance” (Qur’an 2.261, 262, 265, 272 and 30.38-39) versus the one “who spendeth his wealth only to be seen of men” and hence who “believeth not in Allah” (Qur’an 2.264), is made in terms of agricultural imagery and hence, implicitly, in terms of the temporal divisions of seasonal cycles and ecological rhythms. The wise are compared to “a garden on a height” (Qur’an 2.265) or “a garden of palm-trees and vines, with rivers flowing underneath it, with all kinds of fruit” (Qur’an 2.266). Agricultural tropes once more dominate, with a tacit allusion to the way Muslim calculations of time—like their Jewish and Christian counterparts—are intimately linked to agriculture and an economy of the land.

Islamic temporal sensibilities—like the Christian and Jewish sensibilities—are not simply naturalistic or agrarian in character, however. That is, they are not simply attuned to the earth but more importantly to the ways of Allah as manifested in the earth’s fruitfulness or lack thereof. For indeed there is also an important differentiation of time according to its quantitative and qualitative dimensions/characteristics. Time is by no means uniform or subject to ‘objective’ calculation and manipulation. Of particular note is the unmistakable eschatological sense of time in these Qur’anic passages. This comes through negatively and indirectly in the injunctions against those who deal unjustly, wickedly and deceitfully. “Do such (men) not consider that they will be raised again Unto an Awful Day, The day when (all) mankind stand before the Lord of the Worlds?” (Qur’an 83.4-6). Similarly, mention of “the Last Day” (Qur’an 2.264) clearly signals an ultimate time of reckoning—the horizon of God’s judgment—which ought to give pause and warning against wrong-doers and potential wrong-doers (“Allah maketh plain His revelations to you, in order that you may give thought” Qur’an 2.266) but also guide current practices of ‘true believers’ (Qur’an 2.278; 30.37) and inform all penultimate times of reckoning. Like the readings from the Tanakh and the New Testament, the Qur’an too draws a strong, unseverable connection between the ways of Allah/God and the ways of humans with fellow humans. The appropriate rewards that accord with certain human actions are again underscored. “… those who believe and do good works and establish worship and pay the poor-due, their reward is with their Lord” (Qur’an 2.277)

Scriptural Economics and Eschatological Time

In all three Abrahamic traditions the eschaton (day of deliverance, reckoning, judgment) provides the ultimate temporal horizon for thinking about a scriptural economics. For most hearers of these texts today, I dare say that the economic exchanges that comprise their ordinary, everyday life tend to unfold with little conscious awareness of an eschatological horizon. The result is that these hearers’ economic modes of relation are apt to be characterized more by ‘forgetfulness’ than by ‘remembrance’. (‘Forgetfulness’ is another way of speaking of the short-term outlook that dominates everyday exchanges—a feature, it is worth pointing out, that is not restricted to modernity but characterizes the pre-modern world as well.) ‘Forgetfulness’ has to do less with the ‘how long’ of time—i.e., its quantitative, extrinsic measure of duration—and more with the idea of losing sight of, failing to attend to, time’s qualitative features. Indeed, discernment of the latter can only be had within the eschatological horizon of an earthly life. Without periodic, regular eschatological ‘interruptions’—of Sabbath, and Jubilee, etc.—hearers of these texts gradually lose the imaginative capacity that would re-orient, re-direct and re-shape everyday economic habits and practices according to this ultimate horizon. Some—but clearly not all—of these appeals to eschatological re-orientation come in the form of warnings—e.g., the somber admonitions of the Qur’an or the parabolic teachings of Jesus—and serve to interrupt everyday patterns of economic exchange in order to help bring the hearers back to first principles of their faith.

Why, then, is the practice of usury so repugnant and loathsome? What in particular is there about its temporal sensibilities that make usury so suspect in all three Abrahamic traditions? Scripturally conceived, what seems especially odious about usurious arrangements—and there is a complex set of judgments about them in the scriptures discussed above, not all of which can be easily reconciled into a single, self-consistent picture—is the way this type of economic contract ‘twists time,’ renders it ‘out of joint’ in some important respects. Usury arrangements—and hence the social relations that obtain as a consequence—negatively reconfigure time in ways that obscure, if not entirely eclipse, the ultimate eschatological horizon. That is why, for a scriptural economics, the act of eschatological remembering has a salutary effect, a kind of repair or correction to relationships that would, if left unchecked, continue to be corrupted or deformed by such practices.

Usury is a particular type of contractual agreement that concerns future payment on a loan—its principal but also something ‘more’ on top of it. As such, it relates to time primarily, perhaps exclusively, in its future rather than its eschatological dimension. Practices of exacting usury—irrespective of what is given on loan (e.g., money or wine or grain or oil)—tend to transform time reductively into only one of its tenses (the future) which, concomitantly, promotes a singular (quantitative) mode of evaluation. Moreover, many (but not all) of the scriptures we considered have in view as the borrowing subject (the one to whom a loan is made) a person who is desperately poor, one who is “in straits.” [7] To be sure, conditions of borrowers and lenders vary broadly and not all are represented in these particular texts. [8] Nevertheless, quite apart from these important differences regarding the station or lot of borrowers and lenders, all usury relations are entered into with a sense of expectation of one sort or another. Lending, one might say, is never entered into without hope, and hope—insofar as it is genuine—always entails an eschatological horizon. But an orientation to the future is not yet hope. ‘To hope for’ suggests “the self-interested hope of all economic actors engaged in a transaction that involved time , in other words, that stipulated a remunerated wait in return for profit (or loss) or for interest, be it lawful or unlawful.” [9] What differentiates a self-interested, strictly future-oriented expectation from a genuine eschatological hope is perhaps best captured (according to Christian commentators at least) in the words of Jesus in Luke—”lend without expecting to be repaid in full.” Such is the disposition of a true lender precisely because such an attitude refuses any reduction of time, the temptation to flatten out time’s complex texture and density. Rather, it holds time ‘up’ or ‘out’ or ‘open,’ in an important sense, to God. The usurer, by contrast, tries to hold on to, or control time by counting or measuring it futuristically in a linear, immanent, one-dimensional manner. By so doing, the usurer diminishes and degrades time to an extrinsic measure of duration. Not surprisingly, the relations obtaining between lender and borrower also tend to exhibit a similar kind of diminution, compression and distortion.

To be sure, later commentators—especially in the medieval Christian tradition —frequently argued that usury was intrinsically evil exactly because it was against natural law. That is to say, the usurer presumes to sell what is God’s, namely time. But selling time is ‘against nature’ since time is God’s gift and common to all. For centuries, natural law arguments became a standard objection to the practice of usury within the Christian tradition. [10]

Pragmatic arguments about the socially deleterious consequences of usury were also invoked by virtually all medieval Christian commentators. Here, again, temporal considerations played a significant role. According to Giles of Lessines, usury is a sin not only because it violates natural law (an attempt to sell what is common to all and thus not the possession of anyone), but because it seeks to gain unjustly from the labor of the borrower. Giles’ objection is that the profit of the lender comes without any labor of his own: “he gains from sleeping as working, on feast-days as on feriae.” [11] To be sure, late medieval reflection on the evils of usury establishes in a more sustained and systematic manner the intimate relation of usury and vice—especially the vice of idleness or sloth. [12] What is revealing, however, is that irrespective of the bases of these various arguments—whether it be the argument about natural law, or the argument that usury promotes sloth, or the argument that usury is fundamentally uncharitable because it brings grief to others, produces evil social effects and is hence a violation of the Golden Rule—time remains at the center of them all. In particular what is crucial is the loss of time’s eschatological horizon.

To the extent that the usurer allows himself to become enamored of the idea that lending is somehow a means of ‘making money work’ (i.e., a means of accumulating external goods) without the usurer himself having to expend any effort, the usurer fails to notice how a strictly futuristic, temporal orientation has come to displace the eschatological horizon. According to the usurer’s forward-looking calculations, all time (including Sabbaths, festival days, Jubilees, etc.) is the same; time itself is homogenized. Time is reduced to nothing but a neutral, extrinsic measure of duration. Or so it seems. But in truth the perverse deformation of time that results whenever an eschatological horizon is lost works its evil both on the borrower and on the lender, albeit in different respects.

Gregory of Nyssa (330—c. 395) offers a rhetorically powerful account of this social pathology by playing on the Greek word tokos , which can mean both childbirth and interest (usury). The expectation on the part of the usurer resides, Gregory tells us, in the presumed fecundity of whatever is loaned, the hope that it will ‘give birth,’ generate more of the same. Ironically, however, this kind of tokos [parturition], because of the fecundity of evil, produces only anguish and distress in the souls of the borrowers. From the borrower’s point of view, the lender only succeeds in exacerbating the borrower’s misery under a feigned expression of charity. “Whoever takes money from the practice of usury secures a pledge of poverty and brings harm upon his home through a superficial good deed. A person burning with fever has an unquenchable thirst and earnestly begs wine. Although the cup given him out of charity satisfies for a while, the raging fever soon returns with a ten-fold vengeance. Thus whoever lends money to a destitute person intensifies his misery instead of relieving distress.” [13]

If the lender heaps affliction and distress on the head of the borrower, the same act generates—recursively—impatience and restless anxiety within the lender. As Gregory asks rhetorically, “Why do you harm yourself by calculating days, months, the sum of money, dreaming of profit, and fearing the appointed day whose fruitful harvest brings hail? The moneylender is inquisitive with regard to the activities of the person in his debt as well as his personal travels, activities, movements, and livelihood. If he hears a bad report about anyone who has fallen among thieves or whose good fortune has changed to destitution, the moneylender sits with folded hands, groans continuously, weeps much, rolls up the written bond, laments the gold it represents, and makes a contract which cuts off his son as though he were a garment. Such an impatient disposition results in obsession.” [14]

The personal psycho-pathologies that afflict lender and borrower alike are well attested in Christian commentaries, both patristic and medieval. For example, St. Antoninus, the Archbishop of Florence (at his time—1440—the banking capital of Europe) remarks how usury was a mortal sin of an especially odious kind. Other mortal sins, he observes, only last for a certain time: the sinner does not remain continually in the act of adultery or murder, for instance. But “usury ever breaks and consumes the bones of the poor, day and night, on feasts and feriae, sleeping or waking it works and never ceases.” Similarly, the Tabula exemplorum , a thirteenth-century manuscript in the Biblioth?que nationale of Paris, attests: “Every man stops working on holidays, but the oxen of usury (boves usurarii) work unceasingly and thus offend God and all the saints; and since usury is an endless sin, it should in like manner be endlessly punished.” [15] What is of interest, however, is not so much St. Antoninus’ claim that the one who lends usuriously, whether he adverts explicitly to his loan or not, is in a perpetual state of sin. Nor is the observation interesting—true as it may be—that the vice of usury, unlike many other sins, tends to last into old age and entangles the sinner up to the hour of his death principally because usury is a peculiarly difficult sin to repent; for its forgiveness demands restitution of the profits, an act which seems too hard to a prosperous usurer. Rather, what is of note is (1) how the strained relations between lender and borrower invariably spill over and negatively affect a wider set of social relations and (2) how the temporal imagination of the prosperous usurer—but also derivatively the oppressed and harried borrower—becomes truncated by virtue of having lost their indispensable eschatological horizon. Measurement and calculation become vicious because devoid of a telos that transcends a strictly futuristic orientation.

A Brief Philosophical Coda

What may be gathered philosophically from this set of reflections on usury, scriptural economics and eschatological time? In particular what are some of its fruits for the practice of scriptural reasoning? Perhaps the most striking observation arises from the sheer number of temporal modalities displayed in these scriptures—brief and selective as they are. Although I have not even begun to trace out in detail how these modalities interrelate—which would be a complex and monumental task!—it is clear that all these modes and tenses of time do not simply lie alongside one another on one plane, but rather appear to be arranged in some sort of hierarchy, coordinated by an overarching eschatological horizon. Add to that the fact that these scriptures are generically diverse (legislative texts, prophecies, maxims, parables, etc.) and embedded within a broad range of social, political, economic and historical contexts, and it quickly becomes apparent that whatever philosophical reflection on the character of time that might present itself is never pursued in the abstract. Speculation on the nature of time as such is eschewed. When philosophical reflection on time is presented scripturally, it never proceeds independently of or in isolation from—but always mediated through—other concepts, practices and relations: in this instance, the practice of lending and borrowing with reference to usury as this practice bears upon the concepts of justice, mercy and charity within communities exhibiting differential power relations among various classes of people.

[1] This is of course neither an exhaustive list nor a full analysis. One could consider the time of the texts themselves—i.e., the time it takes to read or perform (recite, chant, sing, pray, etc.) them, or to discuss and study them together. One could also analyze the temporal orientations of the characters within the texts, particularly the parable texts. Some of this is offered below.

[2] See Exod. 22:20: “… You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Or Lev. 25:37-38, 42, 55: “Do not lend him [your kinsman in straits] your money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest. I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land Egypt, … .” “For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; …” “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants; they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I am the LORD your God.” Deut. 15:14-15: “Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the LORD your God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you; …”

[3] Although Egypt is not identified explicitly in any of the following texts, it is clear from the context that the period of Israelite bondage in Egypt is in view. So, for example, Exod. 22:22: “If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me”—a clear allusion to Exod. 22:20; similarly Lev. 25: 14, 17, 36, 46, 53: “… you shall not wrong one another” and “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God…” and “… fear your God” and “no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other” and “he shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight.” Deut. 15: 4, 7, 9: “There shall be no needy among you…,” “… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman,” “Beware lest you harbor the base thought … so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing.” Deut. 23:17: “… you must not ill-treat him.”

[4] See Deut. 23:21: “Do not deduct interest from loans to your countrymen, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess.” Similarly, see Lev. 25:2, 23, 38: “… When you enter the land that I assign to you, …” and “…but the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” and “I the LORD am your God, who brought you out … to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.”

[5] Several measures are indicated: years (v. 3, 4, 5, 8, 10, 11, 13, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22, 27, 28, 29, 30, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54), months (v. 8, 9), weeks (v. 8) days (v. 9), term (v. 50).

[6] In a similar but temporally less complex manner, the parable in Matt. 18 of the servant who owed his master 10,000 talents (from whose debt he was released by the king) but who was unwilling to forgive his fellow-servant a meager 100 denarii, is related. Here the promise of repayment by the unforgiving servant to the king is made with the (indefinite) future in view—”I will pay you everything” (v. 26; emphasis). A promise of repayment by his fellow-servant exhibits a similar future orientation: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you” (v. 29; emphasis). In addition to prospective considerations, retrospective views are also countenanced in the judgment of the lord/king: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (v. 33; emphasis).

[7] We are not always told whether this ‘desperate condition’ is merely temporary or chronic, which may also affect the way in which the usurious relation is entered from the side of the lender.

[8] But presumably the legislative texts of the Torah intend to cover most if not all of these contingent relations. Later commentators in the tradition were careful in their casuistry to differentiate between various types of lending/borrowing arrangements. According to the Franciscan, St. Bernardine of Siena (1380—1444), five classes of borrowers obtained: (1) the really needy poor; (2) gamblers or men of ill character seeking money for vice; (3) avaricious tradesmen and merchants, who seek “to accumulate riches” and borrow usuriously, particularly from widows; (4) usurers, who borrow to lend at higher rates; (5) those who need money for a short time, because of a temporary emergency. See John T. Noonan, Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), pp. 73-74.

[9] Jacques Le Goff, Your Money or Your Life: Economy and Religion in the Middle Ages (New York: Zone Books, 1988), p. 23.

[10] Giles of Lessines (a Dominican disciple of St. Thomas teaching theology at the University of Paris around 1278) argued that the usurer’s unjust gain is premised on the false assumption that the usurer has the prerogative to sell time. “But time is common, nor is it the proper possession of anyone, but is given by God equally.” Similarly, William of Auxerre (1160-1229): “He [the usurer] also acts against the universal natural law, because he sells time, which is common to all creatures. Augustine says… each creature is compelled to give himself; the sun is compelled to give itself to illuminate; similarly the earth is compelled to give whatever it can, and similarly the water. Nothing, however, so naturally gives itself as time: willy-nilly things have time. Because, therefore, the usurer sells what necessarily belongs to all creatures generally he injures all creatures, even the stones; whence if men were silent against the usurers, the stones would cry out, if they could; and this is one reason why the Church so pursues the usurers. Whence especially against them God says, ‘When I shall take up the time, that is, when time will be so in My hand that a usurer cannot sell it, then I will judge justly.'” Cited in John T. Noonan, Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), pp. 43-44.

[11] See John T. Noonan, Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 63.

[12] See Diana Wood, “‘Lesyng of Tyme’: Perceptions of Idleness and Usury in Late Medieval England,” in The Use and Abuse of Time in Christian History, Papers Read at the 1999 Summer Meeting and the 2000 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society , edited by R. N. Swanson (The Boydell Press, 2002), pp. 107-116. In the spiritual and didactic literature of late medieval England, physical laziness or idleness are directly linked to ‘lesying’ or misspending time, of which the most detested idlers were the usurers, or money-lenders.

[13] Casimir McCambley, “Against Those Who Practice Usury by Gregory of Nyssa,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review , Vol. 36 no. 3-4 (1991), pp. 287-302; p. 295.

[14] Casimir McCambley, “Against Those Who Practice Usury by Gregory of Nyssa,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review , Vol. 36 no. 3-4 (1991), pp. 287-302; p. 297. Similarly, in his fourth sermon on the Lord’s Prayer—in commenting on Matthew 6:10-11, “Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread”—Gregory observes: “Only the present each one of us can call his own; the hope of the future is uncertain, for we know not what the day to come may bring forth . Why then do we make ourselves miserable worrying about the future? He says, Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof, evil here meaning the enduring of evil. Why are we disturbed about the morrow? By the very fact that He gives you the commandment for today, He forbids you to be solicitous for the morrow.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord’s Prayer and The Beatitudes , trans. by Hilda C. Graef (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1954), p. 68.

[15] Cited in Jacques Le Goff, Your Money or Your Life: Economy and Religion in the Middle Ages (New York: Zone Books, 1988), p. 30.