Anything, especially money, given for temporary use, with expectation of future return or the delivery of an equivalent.
Often very high interest was charged in nations of antiquity, and people unable to repay loans were treated harshly. Interest rates requiring one half of a man’s crop for use of a field are known from ancient records, and the requiring that a merchant repay double what he borrowed was not viewed as unlawful. (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by J. Pritchard, 1974, pp. 168, 170) At times the treatment of a debtor was very harsh.
In ancient Israel, however, the situation was quite different. Ordinarily loans of money or foodstuffs were made to poor fellow Israelites who were the victims of financial reverses, and the Law prohibited exacting interest from them. For an Israelite to have accepted interest from a needy fellow Israelite would have meant profiting from that one’s adversity. (Ex 22:25; Le 25:35-37; De 15:7, 8; 23:19) Foreigners, though, could be required to pay interest. But even this provision of the Law may have applied to business loans only and not to cases of actual need. Often foreigners were in Israel as transient merchants and could reasonably be expected to pay interest, as they would also be lending to others on interest.
The Hebrew Scriptures censure the borrower who refuses to repay a loan (Ps 37:21) and at the same time encourage lending to those in need. (De 15:7-11; Ps 37:26; 112:5) Says Proverbs 19:17: “He that is showing favor to the lowly one is lending to Jehovah, and his treatment He will repay to him.”
The case of Hannah illustrates that Jehovah repays generously. After ‘lending’ her only son Samuel to Jehovah for service at the sanctuary in fulfillment of her vow, Hannah was blessed, not with just another son, but with three sons and two daughters.
While on earth Christ Jesus reflected the generous spirit of his Father Jehovah and taught others to do likewise. Amplifying the matter of making loans, Jesus said: “If you lend without interest to those from whom you hope to receive, of what credit is it to you? Even sinners lend without interest to sinners that they may get back as much. To the contrary, continue . . . to lend without interest, not hoping for anything back; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind toward the unthankful and wicked.”
Jesus’ Jewish listeners were obligated by the Law to make interest-free loans to needy fellow Israelites. It was not unusual even for sinners to lend without interest to those who would be in position to make repayment. Such lending without interest might even be done with the intent of gaining some favor from the borrower in the future. On the other hand, one desiring to be an imitator of God would do more than a sinner, by lending to needy persons whose economic situation was such that they might never be able to make repayment.
The application of Jesus’ words is, of course, limited by circumstances. For example, the obligation to care for the needs of family members takes a prior claim. It would therefore be wrong for anyone to make a loan that would interfere with his obligation to provide life’s necessities for his family. (Mr 7:11-13; 1Ti 5:8) Also, the attitude and circumstances of the prospective borrower enter the picture. Is he in need because of his being irresponsible, lazy, and unwilling to accept work although jobs he is able to perform are available? If so, the words of the apostle Paul apply: “If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat.”