Theology 101

Usury in the Gospels

LinkedIn Email Print

The New Testament does not address the issue of “usury” in the same way that was evident in the examination of key Old Testament texts (see Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Psalms and Ezekial, and Nehemiah), such as not charging interest on personal loans made to impoverished brothers who are fellow members of the covenant community. 

That is not to say that there is no concern for the poor in the New Testament, but the issue is addressed differently. The matter of earning “interest” does come up in the New Testament twice, both times in the parables of Jesus. Because this blog series concerns interest and usury, we will briefly consider these two texts. 

Usury in Matthew 

In the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30), Jesus introduces the idea of earning interest on an investment. That is not the primary purpose of the parable, but it does come in as a secondary concern. 

The story is well known. A rich man goes on a journey and leaves his liquid capital in the stewardship of his slaves. D.A. Carson concludes that they are likely considered at some level as partners in his affairs and would probably have received some share in whatever profits were made, an incentive for them to “invest” wisely.

One was given five “talents” (Greek, talanton), one was given two, and the third received one. In the Word Biblical Commentary for Matthew 14-28, Donald Hagner notes that the talent was a monetary unit of exchange in silver that probably equaled 6,000 denarii. The denarius was the common wage for a day worker hired to work in the fields, so a talent was a considerable sum of money. 

Each steward was instructed to make investments; the reckoning would happen upon the master’s return (Matt. 25:14-15). The first two servants invested in some unspecified venture, but the steward who received the one talent merely hid his money in the ground and invested nothing at all (Matt. 25:16-18, 25). 

The master returned “after a long time” (Matt. 25:19) and called his servants for reckoning. The first two servants were rewarded for their wise trading and were subsequently put “in charge of many things,” (Matt. 25:21, 23), a reward for their accomplishments. The third servant, however, had his talent removed and he himself was cast into outer darkness, since he merely hid his talent in the ground, a fairly common way of “banking” in the Ancient Near East (common people buried their money in the ground to hide it from others), and made no investment or return on investment at all (Matt. 25:24-30). 

Usury in Luke

In Luke 19:12-27, Jesus tells a similar parable, this time about a nobleman who went to a distant country to receive a kingdom for himself. Before he left, he placed ten of his slaves in charge of his business affairs. The results were nearly identical to the Matthew 25 parable. 

Both parables address the issue of what Darrell Bock calls “life in the interim between Jesus’ resurrection and his return,” and both feature servants who were given the task of making investments from their master’s wealth in the interim period. Even though many of the details are similar, Craig L. Blomberg in Interpreting the Parables notes that they are separate parables. 

In the parable in Luke, the faithful servants who earn a return on their master’s property receive lordship over cities, rather than some other kind of reward (Lk. 19:16-19). Otherwise, the issues in the Luke parable are the same as in the Matthew parable.

What Jesus Said About Investments & Interest

Matthew 25 and Luke 19 feature several teachings that deal with eschatological issues, the return of Christ, and final judgment. The lesson of the parables is about the kingdom of God, the long delay of the coming king, and blessings or curses to be administered at the time of his return. But Jesus couches the lesson in the context of investments and the earning of interest. 

So is Jesus turning his back on the clear and powerful Old Testament teachings about interest and usury? At one level it is difficult to know for certain, explains Carson, since “Jesus’ parables are so flexible that he sometimes uses examples of evil to make a point about good (e.g., Lk. 16:1-19; 18:1-8).” 

However, the discussion does not have to be left there, as if no one can ever know whether earning interest on investments might be right or wrong. The main point here is that the situation in Jesus’ parables is not analogous to the law given to Moses or to the situation in the time of David, Ezekiel, or Nehemiah. In all of those passages, loans were made to people who were poor or even destitute, people who had no ability to repay interest, even if they might one day repay the principal. Here in this parable are persons who were commercial investors, making a profit from the fact that they had large amounts of capital that others borrowed in order to make a profit themselves. 

Theologian Walter Kaiser is helpful here: “The fact that interest was approved for ventures that did not try to circumvent one’s obligation to the poor is reinforced by Jesus’ allusion and apparent approval of taking interest on commercial loans in Luke 19:23 and Matthew 25:27.” The word “approval” might be too strong in light of Carson’s caveat, but the next sentence in Kaiser’s treatment is worth citing: “Thus, the use of money for commercial or international ventures, and the security of a reasonable rate of interest, was a different matter from the requirement of aiding one’s destitute brother.” Kaiser is correct. There is no blanket prohibition in Scripture that makes the earning of interest on investments or the paying of interest on loans a sin.

In the next blog, we will further discuss what the New Testament authors have to say about usury, investments, and interest, especially in relation to the poor.

Editor’s Note: This series is adapted from the IFWE research paper, Usury in Scripture, by Dr. Chad Brand. Read the full paper here.

Does research like this interest you? Subscribe to get all our publications!

Further readings on Theology 101

  • At Work
  • Theology 101

My first official workplace—the kind that rendered a pay stub—was in eleventh grade after school at Woolworth’s Department Store. Each…

  • Theology 101
Sell Your Possessions & Give to the Poor?

By: Dr. Jonathan Pennington

5 minute read

Today’s reader of these strong commandments of Jesus, especially in the global West, cannot help but react in some way:…

Does research like this interest you? Subscribe to get all our publications!