“Do not oppress a Poor Man (Deut 24,6)”

by John Wijngaards, LAWS FOR LIFE Series in the New Leader, 24 June 1973; in Telugu Bharata Mithram, 14 September 1975

No man may take a mill~or an upper millstone in pledge: That would be to take life in itself as a  pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24, 6)

Suppose that a farmer had had a bad year. Because of the scarcity of food, he and his family might have eaten all available corn. With the coming of the new season for sowing and ploughing, be might need to borrow money for the seed he has to sow. As in our own days the Israelites of ancient times would then approach a. moneylender, And, again as in our own days, the moneylender might ask for some valuable property as a pledge to keep with him, so as to force the borrower to pay back his debt in time. This pledge might be a precious stone, a piece of furniture, a silver dagger, an ornament or any other valuable object.

If the man had been really badly hit, he might have sold all precious objects previously in his possession. The money-lender might then be tempted to take in pledge objects which were needed by the family in their daily life. The millstone was an example of such an object. Every day the housewife would grind the corn neceasary for the daily meal. The grinding sound of the handmills, resounding from house after house, was in fact a. sign of prosperity and welfare (read Jeremiah 25,10).

Need of the millstone

The millstones used to look quite similar to those still found in villages of India taday. The lower stone was about 1 to I 1/2 ft. in diameter, with a slight hollow in the middle where the grain could be put. The upper stone made to fit on the lower one could be turned round a pivot fixed in the centre. By giving in pledge the whole handmill or the upper millstone, the family was no longer in a position to prepare its own food.

If a family had lost its millstone, it was forced to beg food from other families or borrow a millstone at times of the day when other families would not need to use their own. It was ea very humiliating condition which brought about a total dependence on the moneylender. The law forbade a moneylender to insist on his rights to such an extent. He was not allowed to take a pledge as neoeesasy to human life and human dignity as the millstone. And notice the reason given by the law: taking such a. pledge would be ,,to take life itself in pledge”. No human creature is allowed to force another to give his own life as a pledge to repay any debt. Every human person has the basic right to live and this right should be respected. If people are so poor that they have no valuable objects to give as pawn, the rich man should lend money without demanding any pledge.

Money lending today

In our own day the practice of oppression of the poor through money-lending is still rampant. Many money-lenders wait for the opportunity of another man’s poverty and ill-fortune to get him in a relenting grip. The meanness of the extortion is often manifested not only in the exorbitantly high rates of interest, but especially in certain arrangements of repayment or claims on pawns which, as the money-lender knows so well, will make it practically impossible for the debtor to get out of his clutches. Lending in this fashion is a real crime. It is a kind of murder since we take people’s life itself as a pledge. Even if it is done with the support of legal documents, it remains a sin, absolutely incompatible with justice and brotherly love.

To lend to a person who is in need can be a real act of charity, It helps th eother to tide over a difficult period and safeguards his dignity by allowing him to pay back what he owes. Jesus tells us: “If anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away from him” (Matt. 5. 42). The crime of many professional money-lenders however is precisely that they do not lend to help people, but to rob them. It is the cruelty and cowardice of the wolf that will attack its own companion and devour it when it is weak and wounded. Lending money with this view of exploiting another is an offence worthy of capital punishment, as it destroys the life of a human being. Let us keep far from this kind of practice.