Today’s Exodus reading brings up an interesting problem: half the laws it contains are no longer in effect, and almost all of us constantly break one of them. Though most of our 20 ecumenical councils condemned anyone who dared charge interest for lending money, our new Catholic Catechism doesn’t even have a section on usury. Over the last 300 years that sin dropped off our moral radar screens quicker than the falling interest rates on passbook saving accounts. Nor among our lists of sins do we ever mention our end of the day obligation to return the collateral we’ve taken on loans. That’s never been part of my examination of conscience.
Yet the first part of today’s Exodus regulations still remains in effect: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien . . . . You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.” Why do we keep some biblical rules and totally disregard others? Can moral obligations change from one generation to another?
Forty years ago many Catholics were asking these very questions during the great 1968 birth control controversy. Is it possible to change the church’s prohibition against artificial contraception? In the midst of this very public debate many well-known, respected theologians brought up the usury controversy which had taken place centuries before, pointing out that both the biblical and church prohibition on charging interest was based on economic principles which eventually were proven to be false.
People originally regarded wealth like we regard a whole apple pie. There’s only so much of it to go around. Everyone’s entitled to an equal slice. If I lend someone money and charge interest, I’m getting part of his or her slice, making my slice bigger - totally against God’s biblical plan of justice and equality for all.
Eventually economists surfaced the mistake in their reasoning, discovering the whole “wealth pie” grows when people borrow money, even at interest. Both lender and borrower can end up with a larger piece. Counter to the what the law intended, poor people were actually being hurt by the usury regulation.
That’s why today’s gospel is essential in forming our Christian morality. Jesus and all biblical authors agree there must be a priority of laws. Some rules are more important than others. We presume, for instance, that ambulances can break speeding laws when they’re rushing seriously ill patients to hospitals. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, students of the 613 laws of Moses frequently debated which were the most important.
When Matthew’s Jesus is brought into that debate, he responds as any good Jew would respond. “You shall love Yahweh your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God is demonstrated by our love of neighbor. That’s why aliens, orphans and widows are still to be protected. Our relationships with God and those around us have priority over everything else in our lives.
Paul can only be referring to such deep concern for others when he compliments the Thessalonians for becoming “a model for all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia . . . . In every place your faith in God has gone forth.... “Paul and his co-workers are overjoyed and amazed that what they taught these early converts about love of God and neighbor is actually being put into practice.
Our history of faith demands we never let up teaching these moral priorities. People get hurt when we mix them up. I always remind my friends who long for the good old, pre-Vatican II days that there was a mid-60s national survey in which Catholics were asked, “Which is the more important law, love of neighbor or giving up meat on Friday?” A majority responded, “Giving up meat on Friday!”