About 2,000 years ago, a young rabbi walked around the fertile Galilee in the north of Israel, offering his takes on morality and human life. He reportedly had some odd thoughts about personal finances: “If you lend to people from whom you expect to receive, is that any kindness/grace (Greek χάρις; charis) of yours? …But do what is morally right, and lend without expectation of return” (Lk 6:34-35). Not exactly “sound financial advice”! And why would it be “morally right” (Greek ἀγαθός; agathos) – as opposed to just foolish – to lend money and not expect it to be paid back? So, when is a Loan Not a Loan?

Like most sayings of first-century Jewish teachers, these mad-sounding ideas can be traced back directly to the ancient Hebrew Torah. The arrangements described there were markedly different from today’s economic system. The main feature of the global financial system today is “credit” (i.e., debt). At the moment, for example, the United States government owes about 22 trillion dollars. Private citizens and businesses in the U.S. owe another 30 trillion or so. The government of Japan owes around 10 trillion dollars. Public and private debt in China is estimated – some say underestimated – at 34 trillion dollars. All this debt creates vast economic activity, huge profits for some lenders, and also massive dangers.

By contrast, the ancient Torah prescribed a locally oriented system that could never be based on cycles of debt. For a start, it was forbidden to charge a citizen interest (Exod 22:24/25; Lev 25:35-38; Deut 23:19-20/20-21). Moreover, every seven years all debts of citizens had to be cancelled (Deut 15:1-3)! This meant that lending money would usually bring financial loss, not profit. But what if someone truly needed to borrow money due to difficult circumstances? The Torah’s solution did not involve banks or other corporations. Rather, it relied on the willing assistance of individuals, given freely and directly to their “brothers.” Members of Israel were expected to “open their hands” and loan as much as genuinely needed to people in their own local communities who had fallen on hard times — even if it was right before the date when all debts would be cancelled (Deut 15:7-9).

A “loan” in this sense was very much like a gift, with no expectation of return. Creditors received no interest and might easily lose the entire principal as well. Yet to refuse to give such a “loan” was called “sin” (Hebrew חטא; chet’); even to be unhappy about “lending” in this way was regarded as “base” (Hebrew בליעל; beliya‘al, literally “destructive of benefit”). The Galilean rabbi was obviously reminding his listeners of this commandment. His statement continued by mentioning favor from God for those who gladly helped their fellows in this way (Lk 6:35) – in precise parallel with the text of Torah, which had specified divine blessing as the reward (Deut 15:10).

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  1. This week’s Torah reading, Exo 25:2, a verse that can mis-lead depending on translation to English. “Speak to the children of Yisra’el, that they take an offering for me. From everyone whose heart makes him willing you shall take my offering.” (HNV).
    Point, children were to “take”, not “give”. All, we children, have in our possession, in fact all that exists, is own by its Creator and loaned out to us. We do not own it, so we cannot give it. We can only “take” from what we are given. We follow this economic device, 1Co 2:12, Mat 10:8.

    • Thanks for commenting, Steve. It does sound like a related principle (as Jerry also suggested above), though the textual contexts are somewhat different. The passage in Luke is more clearly connected to the statements in the Hebrew Torah, in my opinion.

  2. Interesting analysis which shows the Torah as very Local and temporarily limited and absolutely not “adaptative” matter, and rather obsolete? Despite its general universal Values….!
    And Then?

  3. Thank you for this refreshing insight. It shows that those that have and have more, should give and give more. It teaches of value thy neighbor as thy self. By loving your self and God above all, you would be willing to help others.
    Now a days, I only see that rich become richer and the poor help each other.
    As nations we have distanced ourselves from the will of God.

  4. Nice. But: Why do you avoid the original of “loan” – I’m too lazy for looking into my Bibles… And: “charis” could be physically nice (“charites” in Greek mythology) and theologically grace (e.g. Hail Mary: “chaire, kecharitomene …”). “agathos” is simply good, in the broadest sense – nothing special “morally”.

    By the way: The seven-years.story: Have you any proof it ever existed and ever worked?
    A “loan” without expecting to get it back = alms. Look also at Mt 25,27 and Lukas too…

    • Thanks for the comments, Guenther! I don’t know what you mean about “avoiding the original” — the article mentions “lending” several times (starting with the title). Regarding specific terms: I attempt to give the best concise translation according to the Jewish-Greek usage of each term in context (and to include the original if I hit on something a bit unusual, so that people can check it). Usually the Jewish-Greek usage has overlap but not identity with the Koine (Common) Greek usage. Later Christian Greek interpretations are often quite different. Neither of your suggestions for χάρις seems to fit this particular Jewish-Greek context very well. As for ἀγαθός, it certainly can have the meaning “morally good,” among others (see the LSJ lexicon)….

    • [cont.] As for debt forgiveness every seven years, it is not a “story” but rather an instruction in the Torah. The degree to which Israel has implemented such instructions has varied throughout history. “Proof” is a strong term for anything having to do with ancient history! However, there is reason to believe that this system was in fact operative. E.g.: Hillel (fl. 1st c. BCE) issued a decree regarding carrying debts past the 7 years, justifying it on the basis that many people were violating the Biblical command in Deut. 15:9-10. This obviously implies that debts were actually being cancelled….

    • [cont.] Re your last two points (“alms”; Mt. 25:27) — these points are equally answerable. Much could be said, but I’ve already been not-lazy enough for this setting. 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment. In neither case (Deut or Luke) does the text make any mention of shared belief (in the modern sense). In the first instance, recipients are to include any poor members of the nation of Israel (presumably those located near the lender). In the second instance, the context strongly suggests that the recipients should include one’s “enemies,” as well as “ungrateful and evil people” (Lk 6:35). (And even if the texts were talking only about like-minded souls or members of one’s own group — how many would be willing to do this even then?)


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