Readings for 30th Sunday in ordinary time: EX 22: 20-26; PS 18: 2-4, 47, 51, I THES 1:5C-10; MT 22: 36-40.
Today's readings raise the question of usury -- a word we don't often hear today, though its reality is part of the air we breathe.
Wikipedia defines usury as: ". . . the practice of making unethical or immoral monetary loans intended to unfairly enrich the lender. A loan may be considered usurious because of excessive or abusive interest rates or other factors, but according to some dictionaries, simply charging any interest at all can be considered usury."
In the light of that definition, consider the following:
* Last Sunday's New York Times editorial addressed President Obama's proposal that interest rates on loans to veterans be capped at 36 percent. The editorial began by saying that "poor and working-class people across the country are being driven into poverty and default by deceptively packaged, usuriously priced loans." The NYT editorial board argued that the 36 percent interest cap should be extended to all U.S. citizens. Thirty-six percent!
* The same editors reported a case where ". . . (A) South Carolina lender gave a service member a $1,615 title loan on a 13-year-old car and charged $15,613 in interest -- an annual rate of 400 percent -- without violating federal law."
* Despite such surprises, Wednesday's NYT edition ran another story headed "States Ease Interest Rate Laws that Protected Poor Borrowers." It reported that lenders such as Citigroup, One Main, Springleaf, and the American Financial Services Association claim a need to jack up interest rates on their poorest customers in order to keep their rates in line with their own increased business expenses for rent, electricity, and gasoline.
* Meanwhile the prime interest rate for bankers and corporate high rollers is 3.25 percent.
* Last June U.S. Senate Republicans shot down Elizabeth Warren's Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act. The bill would have allowed people with federal and private debt to refinance their loans at 3.86 percent. That would have given relief to more than 25 million borrowers owing $1.2 trillion in student loans. The GOP objected partly because the Refinancing Act would have created a new tax on millionaires to offset the lower interest rates.
The practices just described raise the question: how much interest can be charged before the rate becomes usurious? Today's liturgy of the word suggests an answer.
Begin with a consideration of today's gospel.
There Jesus is asked a question consistently addressed to rabbis and to wise persons in all traditions. "Which is the greatest of God's commandments?"
The question is reminiscent of the familiar cartoon where the bedraggled seeker climbs up that mountain, confronts the guru sitting in front of his cave and asks him, "What's the purpose of life?" That's really the gist of the question presented to Jesus. What is life's purpose?
Jesus' response is not humorous as we're always led to expect from those cartoons. His answer is not even surprising. Instead, it's the standard one usually given by rabbis and wise people: "Look within," he advises. "Find Ultimate Reality and devote yourself entirely to it. And then love that Reality's every manifestation beginning with the people closest to you and finishing with the trees, soil, rocks, and cockroaches."
That's the meaning of Jesus' response in today's gospel. It mirrored perfectly the answer, for instance, of Rabbi Hillel, one of Jesus' near contemporaries. Both of them said, "Love God with all your heart, mind, and spirit -- and your neighbor as yourself. That's the greatest commandment," they agreed. "That's the purpose of life. That summarizes all the content of humanity's Holy Books. All the rest is commentary."