What The Bible Say About Debt & Riches
DEBT Something owed
to another person, such as goods, property, or money. In the Bible,
righteous conduct is something one “owes” to God; hence, in theology, sin is
described figuratively as being “in debt.”
In Hebrew culture, debt was usually connected with usury
(the business of lending money on interest). The Hebrew verbs describing
usury picture a painful situation. One word for usury means “to bite,” a
vivid image for the way high interest “ate up” any kind of business
transaction so that borrowers never received the full value of the money.
People could be ruined financially by heartless exaction of interest (2 Kgs
4:1–7). Another verb is usually translated as “increase” or “profit” (Lv
25:37), since lenders profited from others’ labor. Ancient Near Eastern
interest rates on produce and goods might be as much as 30 percent of the
loan per year; on money, as much as 20 percent. Clay tablets from Nuzi, an
ancient town in northeastern Mesopotamia, indicate interest rates of even 50
The Law of Moses The
Mosaic covenant given to Israel immediately after the exodus sought to
eliminate extortionist practices from Hebrew life. Thus God’s revelation had
many rules and restrictions relating to debt and credit in Israel.
Protection for the Poor
Portions of the legislative sections of the Pentateuch (the first five books
of the Bible) regulated the practice of lending in a way that protected the
poor and secured each person’s right to earn a living and support a family.
Many popular Hebrew proverbs dealt with that theme. The positive thrust of
the biblical laws was to ensure help for the financially needy, without
interest. No personal profit was to be made at the expense of the poor (Ex
22:25; Dt 23:19–20); God was their special advocate. Thus, by lending
without interest, the Israelites could demonstrate their reverence for God (Lv
That point was reemphasized 40 years later when Moses
renewed the covenant with Israel just before their entrance into the
Promised Land. God was the landlord, and his tenants were to respect his
word. God promised the Israelites that if they would lend so as to alleviate
human misery, they would be unusually blessed by the Lord (Dt 15:6;
23:19–20; 28:12). Interest could be charged to a foreigner not living under
the Mosaic law, which was a condition parallel to commercial treaties
prevalent in the ancient Near East.
In ancient Israel, financial ruin was frequently brought
about by poor harvests. Often they were taken as an indication that the
relationship between God and his people was not right (Lv 26:14, 20). The
wealthy were expected to help, not to add more burdens to those who suffered
from poor harvests.
Violation of the Law
The law was so often violated that eventually exorbitant interest became a
social plague, making the situation of debtors hopeless. Many of the
fighting men who rallied around David early in his military career were
“outlaws” unable to repay their loans and interest (1 Sm 22:2). The prophet
Ezekiel called people to task for their failure to observe God’s commands
about usury (Ez 18:5–18; 22:12). When Nehemiah returned from the exile to
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, he brought charges against the government
officials whose interest rates had enslaved the people (Neh 5:6–13).
The Wisdom Literature, which included Job, Proverbs, and
Ecclesiastes, added that those who acquired riches by usury would not profit
in the long run, because God would give their profits to others who looked
after the welfare of the poor (e.g., Prv 28:8). The prophet Amos gave a
similar warning to corrupt merchants in Israel: “Because you trample upon
the poor and take from him exactions of wheat, … you have planted pleasant
vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine” (Am 5:11,
rsv). In spite of such
warnings, the law was often ignored, and burdensome interest charges were
laid on borrowers who were already poor.
Pledges and Surety
When it was necessary to borrow, the law provided alternatives to the unfair
practice of usury. When taking out a loan, a borrower would surrender some
movable property as collateral to ensure repayment. That “pledge”
represented a tangible sign of the debtor’s intention to repay the loan.
Certain restrictions applied to such pledges. For example, a creditor could
not take a widow’s clothes (Dt 24:17). Tools (such as millstones) or animals
(such as oxen) necessary for daily life were forbidden as pledges (v 6).
Clothing absolutely essential to the borrower (e.g., to keep warm) could be
temporarily offered as a pledge, but the temporary token had to be returned
before nightfall (Ex 22:26–27; Dt 24:10–13).
In drastic circumstances, where there was no collateral,
a debtor could pledge a son, daughter, or slave. The value of the child’s or
slave’s labor could then be credited against both interest and principal. An
account in the Bible of a widow’s two sons about to go into slavery shows
how cruel the custom could be (2 Kgs 4:1–7). Pledging labor or their
children’s labor was the only way slaves could pay off a debt when they had
A borrower could also have a wealthy friend assume
responsibility as a cosigner on a loan and thus become the pledge, or
surety. The book of Proverbs cautioned against standing surety for others,
however, especially for strangers (Prv 6:1–3; 11:15; 17:18; 22:26; 27:13).
Sabbatical and Jubilee Years
Two legal provisions to curb the enslavement of people by long-standing
debts were the sabbatical year and the jubilee year. The sabbatical year, or
“year of release,” took place every seventh year. At that time debts were
canceled and slates wiped clean (Dt 15:1–12; cf. Ex 21:2; 23:10–11; Lv
25:2–7). The law clearly forbade lenders to withhold loans to those in
desperate need during a sixth year. Jewish tradition held strict injunctions
against a lender trying to collect on a loan that should have been forgiven
in the sabbatical year.
Every 50 years Israel had its Year of Jubilee. In that
year land reverted to its original owner if it had not already been redeemed
by some relative. That provision prevented the buildup of landed estates by
the wealthy few while the many poor suffered in slavery (Lv 25:13–17).
Although the Mosaic law could not guarantee economic utopia, it sought to
curb the greediness in human nature. It also aimed at providing everyone
with an equal opportunity and a fresh start every 50 years.
Debt in the New Testament
The NT shows how various cultures handled the matter of loans and debts.
There were Jewish people who adhered strictly to the Mosaic law and refused
to charge their fellow Jews high interest. Hellenistic and Roman legal
practices, however, penetrated parts of Jewish society.
Jesus alluded to non-Jewish economic practices in his parable of a servant
who jailed a fellow slave for not repaying a loan (Mt 18:23–35). The parable
illustrates the ordinary Hellenistic and Roman custom of jailing or
restraining such a person as surety. That practice forced a debtor to sell
his property, to ask family and friends to cover the loss, or to sell
himself into slavery. The parable of the talents (25:14–28) and the parable
of the pounds (Lk 19:12–24), speaking allegorically about the kingdom of
God, mention earning interest on money invested with bankers.
Economic and Theological Instruction
The apostle Paul instructed Christians to “owe nothing to anyone” (Rom
13:8), which means at the very least that Christians should make good on
loans promptly. On the other hand, a Christian’s economic activity should be
characterized by kindness toward those in need, generosity, and willingness
to help (Mt 5:42; Lk 6:35).
The NT also presents a number of lessons in doctrine
based on a figurative use of “debts” and “debtors.” Jesus once referred to
sinners (Lk 13:2) with a word literally meaning “debtors” (v 4). In the
Lord’s Prayer “debts” is paralleled with “sins” (Mt 6:12; Lk 11:4).
Sin is seen as an enslavement (Jn 8:34), and all men and
women as debtors to God. Redemption can be made only by God, who “gave his
only Son” to set people free (3:16–18). The writer to the Hebrews showed
that Jesus was made the surety of the new covenant (Heb 7:22).
The apostle Paul felt indebted to all people because of
his own salvation, a debt he could pay by preaching the gospel (Rom
1:14–15). The NT teaches that all who receive the gospel are likewise in
debt and therefore should devote themselves to serving others as a way of
serving God (cf. 15:26–27).
Revised Standard Version
Elwell, Walter A. ; Comfort, Philip
Wesley: Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale
House Publishers, 2001 (Tyndale Reference Library), S. 369
RICHES Wealth measured
by money or the amount of property owned, whether land and buildings (Is
5:8–10), livestock (1 Sm 25:2–3), or slaves (8:11–18). Great riches brought
great influence and power, as the Hebrew word for wealth implies.
The Bible seems to speak with two voices on the subject
of riches, sometimes describing material wealth as a sign of God’s blessing
and approval (e.g., Gn 24:35), at other times virtually identifying the rich
with the wicked (e.g., Ps 37:7, 16).
God made all things for people to enjoy (1 Tm 6:17). That
is why being rich is a matter for thanksgiving, not embarrassment. Every
possession that a person can possibly own comes from the Creator (Ps 24:1),
so all wealth can rightly be counted as a blessing from God. It was in this
spirit that David could pray to God, “Riches and honour come of thee” (1 Chr
kjv). Even when wealth is
earned by hard work, the Bible reminds its readers that both their talents
and their resources are God-given. Jesus illustrates this important lesson
in the parables of the 10 talents (Mt 25:14–30) and the 10 minas (Lk
Nowhere, then, does the Bible say that having possessions
and becoming wealthy are wrong in themselves. There would be no point in the
Ten Commandments’ ban on stealing and envy if it was wrong for God’s people
to own anything at all. Jesus himself never taught that it was sinful to be
However, Jesus warned that riches could keep a person out
of the kingdom: “How hard it is for rich people to get into the Kingdom of
God!” (Mk 10:23,
nlt). Affluence, he
taught, can destroy peace (6:24–34), blind people to the needs of others (Lk
16:19–31), stand between individuals and the gateway to eternal life (Mk
10:17–27), and even bring God’s judgment (Lk 12:16–21). He told his
disciples not to accumulate personal wealth (Mt 6:19), and he praised those
who gave up their possessions (19:29).
Jesus’ warnings against wealth are not, in fact, directed
against riches in themselves. What he condemns is the wrong attitudes many
people have toward acquiring wealth, and the wrong ways in which they use
it. Longing for riches, not having them, chokes the spiritual life like
weeds in a field of grain (Mt 13:22). The greedy desire to have more wealth
doomed the unforgiving servant (18:23–35). And the rich man’s selfishness,
not his wealth, sealed his fate (Lk 16:19–26). Paul captured the main theme
in these parables when he said, “The love
of money is at the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tm 6:10,
nlt, emphasis added).
The greatest danger of all arises when riches gain the
mastery in a person’s life. The whole Bible warns against this idolatrous
attitude to material things (e.g., Dt 8:17–18; Lk 14:15–24). Satan tempted
Jesus to put material wealth and power in God’s place (Mt 4:8–9), and Jesus
delivers the clearest warning against making money one’s master (6:24). In
this light Jesus instructs the rich young ruler to sell everything (Mk
10:17–22). Here was a wealthy man who had allowed his possessions to possess
him. Jesus’ aim was to make him recognize his bondage so he could escape
from his self-made prison. The fact that he turned away from Jesus
demonstrates the powerful pull of riches.
These blunt warnings are the most striking aspect of
Jesus’ teaching on wealth. But alongside his exposure of wrong attitudes he
was careful to sketch in the outline of right attitudes. Those who recognize
that they are God’s trustees (not owners) of their possessions, he taught,
will find many valuable outlets for their riches in the Lord’s service (Lk
12:42–44). Instead of making them tight-fisted, their riches should allow
them to express love in many practical ways (2 Cor 8:2). And instead of
having their inward peace ruined by anxious greed, they would find the
secret of serenity in an increasing sense of dependence on their heavenly
Giver (Lk 12:29–31; 1 Tm 6:17).
According to the Bible, then, the morality of riches
depends entirely on personal attitudes. And nowhere does this come out more
than in the frequent comparisons Scripture draws between material and
spiritual wealth. Those who make material riches their goal in life have
wrong values. However wealthy they may appear, they are poverty-stricken in
God’s sight (Mt 16:26; Rv 3:17). In his view, the truly rich are those whose
main aim in life is to serve him as King (Mt 13:44–46). Their wealth lies in
the currency of faith and good works (1 Tm 6:18; Jas 2:5)—a heavenly bank
balance that no one can steal and nothing can erode: “Wherever your treasure
is, there your heart and thoughts will also be” (Mt 6:21,
New Living Translation
Elwell, Walter A. ; Comfort, Philip
Wesley: Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale
House Publishers, 2001 (Tyndale Reference Library), S. 1133