Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

Giving Back Their Cloaks: A Sermon on Usury

Sunday, September 6, 2009

 

 

Exodus 22: 21-31

Dean 

Rev. Dean Snyder


Foundry is part of the Washington Interfaith Network – 30 congregations in Washington, DC that work together to represent the interest of our neighborhoods and working people, ordinary citizens and the poor. The Washington Interfaith Network, or WIN, is part of the Industrial Areas Foundations, or IAF, founded by Saul Alinsky long ago. I wrote a paper about Saul Alinsky and IAF when I was a college student 40 years ago, so it has been around for a while.

 

After the financial crisis hit last year, IAF did house meetings with hundreds of people from member congregations throughout the East Coast and the Midwest, including lots of congregations in low-income neighborhoods, to find out how the financial crisis was affecting ordinary people and especially lower-income people. We did some house meetings here.

 

The number one concern was jobs…employment. This continues to be a big issue, of course.

 

But in the house meetings we also discovered something else. We learned lots of people are having problems with debt and with high interest. They have credit cards, maybe they’ve missed a payment, and suddenly the interest rate on their credit card debt had jumped up to 30 percent. I heard one woman say that her interest rate had jumped to 36 percent. Interest rates rose dramatically and suddenly. Late fees soared. Additional monthly fees were added to the cards. All of a sudden, credit card debt became much more expensive.

 

We learned that the interest on some people’s mortgages had ballooned. People who had adjustable rate mortgages were suddenly facing much higher mortgage payments because interest rates were way up.

 

And we learned a lot about other ways lower income and middle income people were paying extra money in interest and fees at a time they could afford it the least.

 

The Washington Post quoted a member of one of our congregations in Baltimore who had the courage to go public. How many of us would want to go public about our financial problems?

 

But a member of one of our congregations in Baltimore, Pauline Charles, had the prophetic courage to make a public statement.

 

Here’s what The Washington Post wrote:

 

After going on disability four years ago, Pauline Charles found herself tight on cash and thought her prayers had been answered when she responded to a television ad promising loans to anyone who owned a house or car.

 

The 50-year-old Baltimore resident, who had a car, borrowed $2,000. By the time she paid it off 18 months later, she had shelled out $11,000 in interest and feeds.

 

“I went in already with financial problems, and it just made my situation worse,” she said.[i]

 

So IAF has begun a movement to cap interest rates at 10 percent. Some of us will agree with that. Some won’t.

 

How many of us know it is okay to disagree about something like this?

 

What I want to do this morning is to look at some of what the Bible says about credit and interest. I do not want to use the Bible to proof-text the IAF campaign to end usury. I am not a biblical literalist. I am not looking to the Bible for rules that we can take from the culture in which they were written and apply willy-nilly to the culture in which we live. We wouldn’t need brains to do that, and we have been giving brains for a reason, and I assume part of the reason we have brains is so that we will use them.

 

What we are looking to the Bible for is principled ways of thinking about these kinds of issues…not rules but a way of thinking about the topic of interest and usury.

 

Let me also say, so that all of us can acknowledge this, that for some of us here this morning this is a very painful topic. If debt is not a painful topic for you, you should know that there is someone sitting near you for whom this is a very painful topic because debt is a real issue in their life. It weighs on them day and night. They wake up in the middle of the night worrying about debt. They are in almost a constant state of anxiety because of debt. It has been so easy to get into overwhelming debt in our society these past decades that many of us have been hooked.

 

For anybody who is experiencing the anxiety of debt, there are people who can help and you can find them by visiting the website of the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling.[ii] Just make the phone call and begin to get the monkey off of your back.

 

So we want to look at the Bible this morning for how our ancestors in the faith have thought about debt and credit and usury.

 

One of the things the Bible makes clear is that lending and borrowing money has gone on for a long, long time. Borrowing on collateral has gone on for a long time.

 

Exodus 22:25 says that if you lend money to the poor, you shall not deal with them as a creditor, you shall not exact interest from them. It is reasonable for you to expect to get the money you lend them back, but you should not try to make a profit off of poor people.

 

This is a hint as to the kind of principled thinking we find in the Bible. Don’t try to make a profit by lending money to poor people and charging them interest or all the interest you could charge them because this will only make their poverty worse – Exodus 22:25.

 

Exodus 22:26 says that if you take your neighbor’s cloak or outer garment in pawn – if you lend your neighbor money and take his or her cloak as collateral – you’ve got to give your neighbor the cloak back at nightfall in case the cloak is the only thing your neighbor has to sleep in. Don’t take something essential from your neighbor in pawn and keep it when it is essential to his or her welfare.

 

Did you know that over the past 20 years the number of pawn shops in the United States has doubled? From about 7,000 to 14,000.[iii] And the reason the number hasn’t grown more is because of the multiplication of payday lenders in the last decade or so. Payday lenders will take your paycheck and lend you the money on your paycheck so you have cash in hand and don’t have to wait for the check to clear. They typically charge from $15 to $25 per every $100 the check is worth to do this.

 

A Swarthmore University professor John Caskey is the world’s academic expert on what he calls Fringe Banking. I read his book Fringe Banking: Check-Cashing Outlets, Pawnshops, and the Poor years ago. An absolutely fascinating book. Then he wrote a chapter in a book entitled Credit Markets for the Poor a few years ago saying that payday lenders had taken over some of the business of pawn shops. Instead of taking your TV set to the pawn shop, you take your pay check to a payday lender.

 

Caskey says lots of people use payday lenders not because they don’t have bank accounts but because their banks will not cash their checks unless they have enough money in their accounts to cover the check, and many people don’t. Caskey discovered some people use payday lenders because they feel they are treated with more dignity by payday lenders than by they are by banks.[iv]

 

Exodus 22:26 – If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, give it back before nightfall in case it is the only thing your neighbor has to wear during the cold of the night.

 

The principled thinking behind this is that you do not take advantage of your neighbor’s desperation.

There is a philosophy in the Bible that says we shouldn’t try to get every last cent we can possibly get out of whatever it is we do for income. Leviticus 19:9-10 says: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”

 

Don’t try to harvest in such a way as to get every last grape, every last olive, every last ear of corn. Leave some for the poor and for travelers passing by your field, and leave them at the edges of the field so it is convenient for them to help themselves.

 

Don’t try to make every last cent off of whatever it is you do to make a livelihood.

 

As far as I can see, the Bible is not against work and it is not against making a living. Jesus is a little strange about all this (we are going to look at Jesus in January when I do a sermon series on the Economics of Jesus), but as far as I can tell, the Bible views work as generally a good thing.

 

There are some very interesting proverbs in the Book of Proverbs. I heard somebody talk about Proverbs 11: 24-26 recently: Proverbs 11:24 says: “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water. The people curse those who hold back grain, but a blessing is on the head of those you sell it.”

 

The people curse those who grow grain and hold it back from sale. Why? Because if the farmer doesn’t sell the grain the miller can’t make flour. If the miller can’t make flour, the baker can’t bake bread. If the baker can’t bake bread, the inn can’t sell sandwiches. If the inn can’t sell sandwiches, the travelers can not travel to do their business in remote places. The whole society suffers if the farmers will not sell grain.

 

And this discussion takes place in Proverbs within the context of a discussion about giving and generosity. Doing our work and producing income in such a way that others can do their work and make income is an act of generosity in a similar way that giving to charities or justice movements is an act of generosity.

 

As far as I can see the Bible generally regards working and trading your time and skills for income as a beneficial thing. Refusing to trade your time and skills for income could even be seen as an act of selfishness like the farmer refusing to sell his or her grain. Unless you are retired with a pension. Then you can give your time and skill away.

 

So the Bible discourages trying to maximize profits, especially at the expense of the poor and those who are desperate. The Bible discourages us trying to make every last cent we can make from our work.

 

I discovered something very interesting in our Scripture lesson of the morning. I selected the lesson some time ago. I thought I might leave out the last verse of the lesson because I was afraid people might find it distracting. Most of the lesson is about how we treat the poor and about giving to God and sacrifices. The last verse of the passage seemed out of context to me.

 

Let me review what the last verse of the chapter says. It says: “You shall be people consecrated to me; therefore you shall not eat any meat that is mangled by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.” (Exodus 22:31)

 

That seemed to me a strange verse to include in this discussion about not charging the poor interest and giving back a person’s cloak if you’ve taken it as collateral on a loan. I almost left it out of the morning’s reading but I decided I had to leave it in to be intellectually honest. I couldn’t just pick and choose the verses I wanted to leave in the passage, although I was afraid that this passage about not eating any meat that has been mangled by beasts in the field might cause you to take what the passage says about not making money off of credit to the poor or taking advantage of the desperate less seriously.

 

Then, as I was studying the passage I realized why this verse is there. The passage is suggesting that making money off of the poor or taking advantage of people who are desperate is the equivalent of eating road-kill.

 

That is what it is saying. It is just gross. It is nasty. It’ll make you sick. You’ll catch a disease from it.

 

Our Union de Trabajadores won a big victory this year. We are very proud of the union. The union met with the director of the city’s department of employment services this year and won a commitment for the city to help recuperate stolen wages. It is a common occurrence, and there used to be nothing day laborers could do about it.

 

Wage theft is like eating road-kill. It is gross, nasty.

 

There is still a lot of work for the union and for us to do. We need to make sure the city keeps its commitment. The union is strategizing about additional means of applying public pressure on contractors who commit wage theft.

 

This work by the union serves us all because when a society allows wage theft of those with least protections, it lowers the morality of the entire society, and we all suffer. Eating road-kill eventually becomes normal.

 

I think that is what Exodus 22 is saying.

 

Making a profit off of lending money to the poor, taking advantage of the desperation of people in need or crisis, trying to make every last possible cent out of our work or whatever product it is we contribute to the larger society, these things are unhealthy, the Bible says…certainly spiritually unhealthy and unhealthy for our society…and probably physically unhealthy as well.

 

Because finally we come to treat ourselves pretty much the way we treat others. Unless we are sociopaths, finally we manage to pretty much love ourselves only to the degree we love others. If we treat others like things to make money off of, then we will tend to treat our own bodies, minds and spirits the same way. I think this is part of what Jesus was hinting at when he told us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

 

If we treat others primarily as a source of our own enrichment, no matter how impoverished they may be, we will tend to use our own selves, body, soul and spirit the same way.

 

Work is good. Making a living is good. Making enough so that we can share with others is good. Making a profit off of other people’s desperation isn’t good. Making every last cent we can isn’t so good. Part of the reason some of us are spiritually drained and depleted is because we have been trying to make every last possible cent we can, or get ounce of prestige or admiration we can, or achieve every possible thing we could achieve before we die.

 

Today we want to bless and encourage and pray for the Union de Trabajadores. I’d like to invite union members and organizers and allies forward for a time of prayer.

 

 

www.foundryumc.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[i] Annys Shin, “Protesters Seek Federal Usury Law,” Washington Post (July 23, 2009) at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/22/AR2009072202228.html.

[ii] http://www.nfcc.org/

[iii] Sheryl Rich-Kern, “Bad Times Mean Good Times for Pawn Shops” at http://www.nhpr.org/node/21882.

[iv]John P. Caskey, “ Fringe Banking and the Rise of Payday Lending,” Credit Markets for the Poor

 Edited by Patrick Bolton, Howard Rosenthal (Russell Sage Foundation Publications), 17-45.