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 percent.
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 25:35–37).
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 to borrow.
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’ Parables 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).
rsv 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 29:12, 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 19:11–26).
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 rich.
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, nlt).
kjv King James Version
nlt New Living Translation
Elwell, Walter A. ; Comfort, Philip Wesley: Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2001 (Tyndale Reference Library), S. 1133