In some ways, Martin Luther lived in a time not unlike our own. Economic tensions in early 16th-century Germany were tremendous. Business failures were common, and many people lost homes and lands due to foreclosures when crop failures caused them to be unable to pay money they owed. Interest rates on consumer loans (generally from pawnbrokers) were often as high as 40 percent. Loans were frequently configured so there were massive charges for late repayment, something familiar to those of us with credit-card debt. And Luther had a great deal to say about this situation.
A few things can make Luther's writing about loans difficult to follow. Today the word "usury" means taking excessive interest on a loan. People sometimes fail to realize that for Luther, and Christian thinkers before him, usury meant taking any money at all for the use of money over time. His summary was, "Whoever lends and takes anything for it is a usurer." As far as Luther was concerned, usury belonged in the same category as theft or robbery. Business partnerships were all right, even if some partners only put up money, as long as all the partners shared the risk of loss.
As in other areas, Luther emphasized biblical arguments against taking interest, though he also quoted church fathers, classical writers and even local proverbs in making his case. One of his favorite Scriptures about the use of money by Christians was Luke 6:30-35, which he suggested gave three good considerations for what Christians could do with their money.
The first was to peacefully allow it to be taken from them, the second to give it away and the third to lend it at no interest, knowing that it was possible you might never get it back. He pointed out that if more Christians actually did these things there should be a lot fewer poor people in the world and that the poor would have less need to go into debt at high rates of interest.
Luther didn't think it was spiritual to be poor—in fact, he was quite clear that your first duty with your money was to take care of your family. At the same time, he thought it was possible to have more money than your family needed—and that such money would be well spent by giving or lending it to the poor.
Luther was also quite ruthless in seeing through legal trappings to analyze the core issues. The rules against usury had become a minor inconvenience, which there were many ways to work around. They only applied to the kind of contract called "loans." Luther saw clearly that many contracts that weren't called loans were loans in essence, and he had no patience with the kind of legalism that seeks to make something acceptable by giving it a new name. He argued that just because an action or a contract might be legal, that didn't necessarily make it right.
Today we may not be quite as sure as Luther was that all interest, even at very low rates, is a bad thing. Most of us believe in the time value of money—that other things being equal, money we have in hand today is worth more than money in the future—so for a trade to feel fair, you will have to offer me more money in the future to compensate me for giving you a certain amount of money today. Still, Luther's willingness to consider economic questions in the light of the gospel can be an example worth considering in today's difficult times.
This week's front page features:
Mixing it up: (right) Roman Catholics find love, community with—gasp!—Lutherans.
The gospel according to ...: The Puppet Posse.
Fibs & lies, oh my!: Spin these situations into teaching moments.
‘Genuine' good food: Academic couple turns to farming.
Also: Cuts before classes.
Also: Vegetarian views.
Discuss Lutheran-Catholic marriages
How are social media networks/texting/e-newsletters changing your congregation's ministry? We need your stories for a February 2010 cover story. We'd like to know:
Send any of the above by Oct. 26 to: email@example.com
This week on our blog
Sonia Solomonson (right) blogs about forgiveness.
Julie Sevig blogs about fighting hunger.
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