Saint Basil on Usury and Debt


Today consumer debt is 2.5 trillion dollars indicating how far we have moved from Gospel traditions.  In Scripture we are taught not to enslave others through usury, contracts and interest, but to give those in need without expectation of return.  On the other hand we are also not encouraged to seek loans to support a lifestyle of luxury beyond our current means to pay.  But, in today’s culture, we find the poor being charged exorbitant interest rates, and those with means seeking to satisfy unconstrained desires for material goods, taking on loans they often have difficulty repaying. This is a tragedy of our times.

Saint Basil the Great wrote about this some seventeen hundred years ago in his commentary on Psalm 14.
He writes:

The Lord has laid a clear command on us, saying: ‘And from him who would borrow of thee, do not turn away” (Matt 5:42)… the avaricious person… does not pity one who is suffering misfortune beyond his desert; he takes no account of his nature; he doe not yield to his supplications; but, rigid and harsh he stands, yielding to no entreaties, touched by no tears, preserving in his refusal… But when he who is seeking the loan makes mention of interest and names his securities, then, pulling down his eyebrows, he smiles and remembers somewhere or other a family friendship, and calling him associate and fried, he says, ‘We shall see if we have any money at all reserved.’.. he binds them with contracts.

As the poor in need of necessities seek to find means to relieve their immediate difficulty, they are faced with hard hearts, disdain, and numerous money sharks willing to extract high interest rates to capitalize on their plight, followed by unscrupoulous credit collectors when their payments falter.

Saint Basil writes:

If he had been able to make you richer, why would he have sought your doors?  Coming for assistance he found hostility… It was your duty to relieve the destitution of the man, but you, seeing to drain the desert dry, increased his need.  Just as is some physician, visiting sick, instead of restoring health to them would take away even their little remnant of bodily strength, so you also would make the misfortunes of the wretched an opportunity of revenue… Do you know that you are making an addition to your sin greater that the increase to your wealth, which you are planning from the interest? 

Christ tells us, “do good, and lend,  not hoping for any return” (Luke 6:35). When we follow this commandment we gain true interest, benefits in heaven.

Saint Basil writes:

Whenever you have the intention of providing for a poor man for the Lord’s sake, the same thing is both a gift and a loan, a gift because of the expectation of no repayment, but a loan because of the great gift of the Master who pay in his place, and who, receiving trifling things through a poor man, will give great things in return for them. “He that hath mercy on the poor length to God.” (Prov. 19:17)… Give the money,… without weighing it down with additional charges, and it will be good for both of you…. The Lord will pay the interest for the poor… The interest, which you take, is full of extreme inhumanity.  You make a profit from misfortune, you collect money from tears, you strangle the naked, you beat the famished; nowhere is there mercy, no thought of relationship with the sufferer…

We expected are to give freely with love and compassion to help those in need. The Lord has told us, “And from him who would borrow of thee, do not turn away” (Matt 5:42).
Saint Basil says,

…Do not give your money at interest, on order that, having been taught what is good from the Old and the New Testament, you may depart to the Lord with good hope, receiving there the interest from your good deeds, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power forever.

He also speaks to those who are not poor out of necessities but seek to gain more out of their greed or unchecked desires. Warns them about enslaving theme selves with debt.

He writes:

‘Drink water out of thy own cistern.’ (Prov. 5:15) that is, examine your own resources… Borrowing is the beginning of falsity; an opportunity for ingratitude, for senseless pride…  When you have borrowed you will not be rich, and you will be deprived of freedom. He who borrows is the slave of his creditor, a slave serving for pay…
He who owes is both poor and full of worries, sleepless by night, sleepless by day, anxious at all times; now he is putting a value on his own possessions, now on the costly houses, the fields of the rich, the clothing of chance comers, the table furnishing  of those entertaining….
How many men, after building castles in the air , have as their only benefit, a loss beyond measure?

We should not seek to borrow just to acquire the goods of those who are wealthier than we are as this only puts us under slavery to those whom we borrow from. This includes larger houses, fancy cars, entertainment system, stylish clothes and so forth.  Can’t we see the problem this causes in the current mortgage crisis with the many foreclosures, people losing their homes they bought that were beyond their means, fulfilling unrealistic dreams, hoping for a lifestyle of those who were much richer?  Is this not the sin of gluttony, of wanting more than what we need. Why jeopardize our future, why put such undue strains on our family fearing the payment of our many creditors?  This has become a common problem adding to the anxiety of modern life and separating us from God.

The clear teaching from Saint Basil the Great is simple.  Give to those in need without expectations of return out of your heartfelt compassion for their plight and you will gain interest and repayment in heaven.  Do not borrow from others to meet your earthly desires, but instead adjust your expectations to what you can afford and be satisfied with securing the necessities of life based on what you have saved, and not some fairytale ideal of what it means to have the “good life,” hoping that at sometime in the future you will be able to pay for it.  This lifestyle that has become common in this age only leads to a life biased on anxiety and ever  increasing desires.

Reference: Homily 12 on the Psalms, Saint Basil the Great