Getting Rich on Human Suffering

UKLoansYears ago there was a guy I knew who owned and operated a small finance company. He loaned money to individuals, generally people who couldn’t get a loan from a bank because of various reasons—inconsistent employment, insufficient annual income, bad credit history, etc.

Of course, he charged them a higher interest rate than the banks, but the people he loaned to were a greater risk, and that’s what happens—since there was a higher overall default rate among his clients, he had to charge everyone higher interest in order to be profitable. That’s accepted practice.

One day I went into his office to talk about something else, but I was curious about the business and asked him some questions. At one point he told me, “The key with these people is to keep them right at the edge of default. You want them paying enough to cover the interest, but not so much of the principle that they ever really pay it off. If they get behind on their payments, you loan them some more, but at a higher interest rate. You do whatever you need to keep them paying on the loan. Eventually they will default, but not until after you’ve received interest that is 2-3 times as much as what you’ve loaned them.”

I remember sitting there, a little stunned by his business model. It was all perfectly legal, yet it felt so wrong. I wish I had said something. I should have said something. But I never did. Maybe it was lack of courage, but it was also that I couldn’t articulate that feeling of wrongness.

Perhaps if I had been reading the Bible a little more thoroughly, doing more than just skimming over some of the more boring parts, I would have found the words. The Bible has a few things to say about this.

“If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” (Exodus 22:25 NRS)

“You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.” (Deuteronomy 23:19 NRS)

“If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right;…does not take advance or accrued interest…” (Ezekiel 18:5, 8 NRS)

I kind of remembered reading these verses but passed them off because 1) they obviously only applied to ancient Israel, and 2) they were obviously unrealistic in a modern economy.

But then there was this: “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6:35 NRS) This verse was printed in red ink. Jesus said it. It’s hard to ignore what Jesus says; we do it all the time, it’s just harder to justify.

These verses don’t just prohibit the charging of exorbitant interest but the charging of any interest. So what’s the issue?

Part of the answer is found in Nehemiah 5. A famine has ravaged the land, and the people have had to borrow against their fields and vineyards just in order to buy food to eat, seed to plant—and pay the king his tax.

The result, the people cry out, is that they have become slaves to their own people. Nehemiah gathered the nobles and officials who were making the loans and charging interest, and they agreed to return the interest gathered and not charge any more.

So that’s one part of the issue: taking people who are already in a tight spot and making it even tighter, essentially making them slaves while the lenders get even richer. When a helping hand was needed, some generosity, some understanding, what they got was a bunch of wealthy people who didn’t need the money to live  charging the poor money they did need.

But there is a deeper principle at work here: no one should enrich themselves from the suffering of another person. It’s all right to make a living wage providing a service to a person in need; no one expects roofers to repair storm damage for free, or doctors to treat patients at no cost, or pharmaceutical companies from earning from the drugs they sell to pay everyone a good living wage

But people who try to get rich—sometimes excessively so—by taking advantage of human suffering may gain wealth, but only at the expense of their humanity.

And that is what Jesus, the Law and the Prophets are guarding against. They are protecting the lenders as well as the borrowers.

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