The translation is from ”Works of Martin Luther”
(Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915, vol. 4)
The Holy Gospel, since it has come
to light, rebukes and reveals all “the works of darkness,” as
I think, to be sure, that this book of mine will be quite in vain, because the mischief has gone so far and has completely got the upper hand in all lands; and because those who understand the Gospel ought to be able in such easy, external things to let their own conscience be judge of what is proper and what is not. Nevertheless I have been urged and begged to touch upon these financial misdoings and to expose some of them, so that even though the majority may not want to do right, some, if only a few, may yet be delivered from the gaping jaws of avarice. For it must be that among the merchants, as among other people, there are some who belong to Christ and would rather be poor with God than rich with the devil, as says Psalm 37:16, “Better is the little that the righteous hath than the great possessions of the godless.” For their sake, then, we must speak out.
is not to be denied that buying and selling are necessary. They cannot be
dispensed with and can be practiced in a Christian manner, especially when the
articles of trade serve a necessary and honorable purpose. For in this wise
even the patriarchs bought and sold cattle, wool, grain, butter, milk and other
goods. These are gifts of God, which He bestows out of the earth and
distributes among men. But foreign trade, which brings from
has cast us Germans off. We have to throw our gold and silver into foreign
lands and make the whole world rich while we ourselves remain beggars. England
would have less gold if Germany let it keep its cloth, and the king of
Portugal, too, would have less if we let him keep his spices. Count up how much
gold is taken out of
First – The merchants have among themselves one common rule, which is their chief maxim and the basis of all their sharp practices. They say: I may sell my goods as dear as I can. This they think their right. Lo, that is giving place to avarice and opening every door and window to hell. What does it mean? Only this: “I care nothing about my neighbor; so long as I have my profit and satisfy my greed, what affair is it of mine if it does my neighbor ten injuries at once?” There you see how shamelessly this maxim flies squarely in the face not only of Christian love, but of natural law. Now what good is there in trade? How can it be without sin when such injustice is the chief maxim and the rule of the whole business? On this basis trade can be nothing else than robbing and stealing other people’s property.
For when this rogue’s eye and greedy belly of a merchant finds that people must have his wares, or that the buyer is poor and needs them, he takes advantage of him and raises the price. He considers, not the value of the goods or what he has earned by his trouble and risk, but only the other man’s need; not that he may relieve it, but that he may use it for his own profit, to raise the price of goods, which he would not have raised if it had not been for his neighbor’s need. Because of his greed, therefore, the wares must have a price proportioned to his neighbor’s need for them, and his neighbor’s need, like his own wares, must have a valuation. Pray, is not that unchristian and inhuman conduct? Is not that selling a poor man his own poverty? If, because of his need, he has to buy his wares so much the dearer, it is just the same as if he had to buy his own need; for what is sold is not the wares as they are, but the wares plus the fact that he must have them. This and like abominations are the necessary consequence when the rule is: I may sell my wares as dear as I can.
The rule ought to be, not: I may sell my wares as dear as I can or will, but: I may sell my wares as dear as I ought, or as is right and proper. For your selling ought not to be a work that is entirely within your own power and will, without law or limit, as though you were a god and beholden to no one; but because this selling of yours is a work that you perform toward your neighbor, it must be so governed by law and conscience, that you do it without harm and injury to your neighbor, and that you be much more concerned to do him no injury than to make large profits. But where are such merchants? How few merchants there would be and how trade would fall off, if they were to amend this evil rule and put things on a Christian basis!
You ask, then, How dear may I sell? How am I to get at what is fair and right so as not to overreach or overcharge my neighbor? I answer: That is indeed a thing that will never be governed either by writing or speaking, nor has anyone ever undertaken to fix the price of every sort of wares. The reason is that wares are not all alike: one sort comes from a greater distance than another, one sort costs more than another. On this point, therefore, everything is, and must remain, uncertain and no fixed rule can be made, any more than one can set a certain city as the place from which all wares are to be brought or establish a definite cost price for them, since it may happen that the same wares, brought from the same city by the same road, cost vastly more one year than another, because, perhaps, the weather is had or the road is worse, or something else happens that raises the cost at one time above that at another time. Now it is fair and right that a merchant take as much profit on his wares as will pay the cost of them and repay him for his trouble, his labor, and his risk. Even a farmhand must have food and hire for his labor; who can serve or labor for nothing? The Gospel says, “The laborer is worthy of his hire.”
But in order not to leave this question entirely unanswered, the best and safest way would be for the temporal authorities to appoint over this matter wise and honest men who would appraise the cost of all sorts of wares and fix accordingly the outside price at which the merchant would get his due and have an honest living, just as at certain places they fix the price of wine, fish, bread and the like. But we Germans are so busy with drinking and dancing that we cannot tolerate any such regulation. Since, then, we cannot hope for such a law, the next best thing is to hold our wares at the price which they bring in the common market or which is customary in the neighborhood. In this matter we can accept the proverb: “Do like others and you are no fool.” Any profit made in this way, I consider honest and well earned, since there is risk of loss in wares and outlay, and the profits cannot be all too great.
But when the price of goods is not fixed either by law or custom, and you must fix it yourself, then indeed no one can give you any other instructions except to lay it upon your conscience to be careful and not overcharge your neighbor, and seek not avaricious gain, but only an honest living. Some have wished to make it a rule that a man may take a profit of onehalf on all wares; some say one-third; others say something else; but none of these things is a safe rule unless it be so decreed, either by the temporal authorities or by common law; what they would determine would be safe. Therefore you must make up your minds to seek in your trading only your honest living, count your costs, trouble, labor and risk on that basis, and then fix, raise, or lower the price of your goods, so that you are repaid for your trouble and labor.
To be sure, I would not have anyone’s conscience so perilously restrained or so closely bound on this point as to insist that one must strike the right measure of profit to the very heller; for it is not possible to get at the exact amount that you have earned with your trouble and labor. It is enough that with a good conscience you seek to arrive at the exact amount, for it lies in the very nature of trade that the thing is impossible. The saying of the Wise Man will hold in your case too: “A merchant will hardly deal without sin, and a merchant will hardly keep his lips from evil.” If you therefore take a little too much profit, unknowingly and unintentionally, let that go into your Lord’s Prayer, where we pray, “Forgive us our debts,” for no man’s life is without sin. Besides, the time will come when you will get too little for your trouble; throw that in the scale to balance the times when you have taken too much.
For example, if you had a business of a hundred gulden a year, and above all the costs and honest returns which you had for your trouble, labor, and risk, you were to take an excessive profit of one or two or three gulden, that I should call a mistake which could not well be avoided, especially on a whole year’s business. Therefore you should not burden your conscience with it, but bring it to God in the Lord’s Prayer, as another of those inevitable sins that cleave to all of us. It is not selfishness or greed that forces you to this mistake, but the very nature of your occupation (I am speaking now of good-hearted, God-fearing men, who would not willingly do wrong), just as the marriage duty is not performed without sin, and yet because of its necessity God winks at it, for it cannot be otherwise.
In deciding how much profit you ought to take on your business and your labor, there is no better way to reckon it than by estimating the amount of time and labor you have put on it and comparing it with that of a day laborer, who works at another occupation, and seeing how much he earns in a day. On that basis reckon how many days you have spent in getting your wares and bringing them to your place of business, how great the labor has been and how much risk you have run, for great labor and much time ought to have so much the greater returns. That is the most accurate, the best and the most definite advice that can be given in this matter; if anyone mislikes it, let him better it. My ground is, as I have said, in the Gospel, “A laborer is worthy of his hire,” and Paul also says, “He that feedeth the flock shall eat of the milk; who goeth to war at his own cost and expense?” If you have a better ground than that, you are welcome to it.
Second – There is a common error, which has become a widespread custom, not only among merchants but throughout the world, by which one man becomes surety for another; and although this practice seems to be without sin and looks like a virtue springing from love, nevertheless it causes the ruin of many and brings them irrevocable injury. King Solomon often forbade it and condemned it in his Proverbs, and says in Proverbs 6:8, “My son, if thou be surety for thy neighbor, thou hast bound thine hand, thou art snared with the words of thy mouth and taken with the words of thy mouth. Do this now, my son, and deliver thyself, for thou art come into the hand of thy neighbor; go, hasten, and urge thy neighbor; give not sleep to thine eyes nor slumber to thine eyelids; deliver thyself as a roe out of the hand and as a bird out of the hand of the fowler.” So also in Proverbs “Take his garment that becomes surety for a stranger, and take a pledge of him for the stranger’s sake.” Likewise in Proverbs “Be not of those that strike hands and become surety for debts.” And again in Proverbs 27:13, “Take his garment that becomes surety for another and take a pledge of him for the stranger’s sake.”
See with what strictness and vehemence the wise king forbids in Holy Scripture that one become surety for another, and the German proverb agrees with him, Burgen soll man wurgen; as if to say, “Standing surety should be slain.” It serves the surety right when he is caught and has to pay, for he acts thoughtlessly and foolishly in standing surety. Therefore it is decreed in Scripture that no one shall become surety for another unless he is able and entirely willing to assume the debt and pay it. It seems strange that this practice should be wrong and be condemned, though many have discovered the folly of it when it has made them scratch their heads.
Why, then, is it condemned? Let us see. Standing surety is a work that is too lofty for a man; it is unseemly, for it is presumptuous and an invasion of God’s rights. For, in the first place, the Scriptures bid us to put our trust and place our reliance on no man, but only on God; for human nature is false, vain, deceitful, and unreliable, as the Scriptures say and as experience teaches everyday. But he who becomes surety puts his trust in a man, and risks life and property on a false and insecure foundation; therefore it serves him right when he falls and fails and goes to ruin.
In the second place, a man puts his trust in himself and makes himself God, for that on which a man puts his trust and reliance is his god. But of his life and property a man is not sure and certain for a single moment, any more than he is certain of the man for whom he becomes surety, but everything is in God’s hand only, and He will not allow us a hair’s breadth of power or right over the future or have us for a single moment sure or certain of it.
Therefore the man who becomes surety acts unchristianlike, and deserves what he gets, because he pledges and promises what is not his and is not in his power, but in the hands of God alone. Thus we read in Genesis 43:9 and Genesis 44:14 how the patriarch Judah became surety to his father Jacob for his brother Benjamin, promising that he would bring him back or bear the blame forever, but God finely punished his presumption so that he could not bring Benjamin back until he gave himself up for him, and afterwards was barely freed by grace. It served him right, too, for these sureties act as though they did not need to be on speaking terms with God or to consider whether they were sure of a tomorrow for their life and property. They act without fear of God, as though their life and property were their own, and were in their power as long as they wished to have it; and this is nothing but a fruit of unbelief. James in his Epistle, James calls this pride and says, “Go to, now, ye who say, Today or tomorrow we will go into this or that city and there trade and get gain; whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor which endureth a little time and then vanisheth. For that ye ought to say, If we live and God will, we shall do this or that; but now ye glory in your pride.”
Moreover, God has condemned this presumption about the future and disregard of Him in more places, such as Luke where the rich man had so much grain one year that he wanted to pull down his barns and build greater, and bestow his goods therein, and said to his soul, “Good soul, thou hast much goods for many years; eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee, and whose shall that be which thou hast laid up?” So it is with all that are not rich toward God. So He answers the apostles also in Acts 1:7, “It is not for you to know the time or the hour which the Father hath in his own power”; and in Proverbs 27:1, “Boast not thyself of the morrow, for thou knowest not what may yet happen today.” Wherefore He has bidden us, in the Lord’s Prayer, to pray for nothing more than our daily bread today, so that we may live and act in fear and know that at no hour are we sure of either life or property, but may await and receive everything from His hands. This is what true faith does. Indeed we daily see in many of God’s works that things must happen thus, whether it suits us or not.
Solomon has devoted almost the whole of that book of his that is called Ecclesiastes to this teaching, and shows how all man’s planning and presumption are vanity and trouble and misfortune, unless God is brought into them, so that man fears Him and is satisfied with the present and rejoices in it; for God is the enemy of that secure and unbelieving presumption which forgets Him, wherefore He opposes it in all He does, lets us fail and fall, snatches away life and property when we least expect it, and “comes at the hour when we think not,” so that the godless, as the Psalter says, never live out half their days, but always, unexpectedly and just when they are getting started, must depart and leave it, as Job also says in many places.
If you say, however, “How then are people to trade with one another, if surety is not allowed? Many would have to stay back who can otherwise get on well”; I answer: There are four Christian ways of trading external goods with others.
The first way is to let them rob us of our property and take it from us, as Christ says in Matthew “If any man take thy cloak, let him have the coat also, and ask it not of him again.” This way of dealing counts for nothing among the merchants, and besides it has been neither held nor preached as a general Christian teaching, but as a counsel and as good intention for the clergy and the perfect, though they keep it even less than the merchants. But true Christians keep it, for they know that their Father in heaven has assuredly promised, in Matthew to give them this day their daily bread. If all of us were to act thus, not only would numberless abuses in all kinds of business be avoided, but very many people would not become merchants, because reason and human nature flee and avoid that sort of risk and damage above all things else.
The second way is to give freely to everyone who needs it, as Christ teaches in the same passage. This is a lofty Christian work and therefore counts for little among people, and there would be fewer merchants and less trade if it were put into practice; for the man who does this must truly lay hold on heaven and look always to God’s hand and not to his accumulations of property, knowing that it is God’s will to support him, even though all his corners be bare. He knows that it is true, as He said to Joshua, “I will not forsake thee, nor take away my hand,” and as the proverb puts it, “God has more than ever He gave away.” But that takes a true Christian, and a true Christian is a rare animal; the world and nature pay no heed to them.
The third way is lending; that is, I give away my property and take it back if it is returned to me; if not, then I must do without it. Christ Himself makes a rule for this kind of lending and says, “Lend, hoping for nothing again”; that is, Ye shall lend freely and run the risk that it may not be returned; if it comes back, take it; if not, make it a gift. The Gospel makes only one distinction between lending and giving, viz., a gift is not taken back and a loan is taken back if it is returned; but when we make a loan, we take the risk that it may be a gift. He who lends expecting to get back something more or something better than he has loaned, is clearly a damned usurer, since even those who lend demanding or expecting to get back just what they have lent, and taking no risk of its return, are not acting in a Christian way. This too, as I think, is a lofty Christian work and a rare one, when the way of the world is considered, and if it were practiced it would greatly lessen and destroy trade of all sorts.
These three ways of dealing, then, are a masterly keeping of the commandments not to presume upon the future nor to put trust in any man or in self, but to depend solely on God. In this way everything is paid in cash and the word of James is applied, “If God will, so be it.” In this way we deal with people as with those who may fail and are unreliable; we give our money without profit and take the risk that what we lend may be lost.
But here someone will say: “Who then can be saved and where shall we find Christians? Nay, in this way there would be no trade in the world; everyone would have his property taken or borrowed and the door would be thrown open for the idle gluttons, of whom the world is full, to take everything with their lying and cheating.” I reply: I have already said that Christians are rare in the world; therefore the world needs a strict, hard temporal government that will compel and constrain the wicked not to steal and rob and to return what they borrow, even though a Christian ought not demand it, or even hope to get it back. This is necessary in order that the world may not become a desert, peace may not perish, and trade and society may not be utterly destroyed: all which would happen if we were to rule the world according to the Gospel and not drive and compel the wicked, by laws and the use of force, to do and suffer what is right. We must, therefore, keep the roads open, preserve peace in the towns, and enforce law in the land, and let the sword hew brisky and boldly against the transgressors, as Paul teaches in Romans 13:4. For it is God’s will that those who are not Christians shall be held in check and kept from doing wrong, at least with impunity. Let no one think that the world can be ruled without blood; the sword of the ruler must be red and bloody; for the world will and must be evil, and the sword is God’s rod and vengeance upon it. But of this I have said enough in my little book On the Temporal Authorities. Borrowing would be a fine thing, if it were practiced between Christians.
In that case everyone would return what he had borrowed and the lender would willingly do without it if the borrower could not pay; for Christians are brethren and one does not forsake another, nor is any of them so lazy and shameless as not to work, but to depend on another’s wealth and labor, or be willing to consume in idleness another’s goods. But if men are not Christians, the temporal authorities ought to compel them to repay what they have borrowed; if the authorities are negligent and do not compel repayment, the Christian ought to put up with the robbery, as Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 6:7, “Why do ye not rather suffer wrong?” But if a man is not a Christian, you may exhort him, demand of him, treat him as you will; he pays no attention, for he is not a Christian and does not heed Christ’s doctrine.
There is a grain of comfort for you in the fact that you are not bound to make a loan except out of your surplus and what you can spare from your own necessities, as Christ says of alms, “What you have left over, that give in alms; so are all things clean unto you.” If, therefore, someone wanted to borrow from you an amount so great that you would be ruined if it were not returned, and you could not spare it from your own necessities, then you are not bound to make the loan; for your first and greatest duty is to provide for the necessities of your wife and children and servants, and you must not divert from them what is due them from you. Thus the best rule to follow is that if the amount asked as a loan is too great, you give something outright, or lend as much as you would be willing to give, taking the risk of losing it. John the Baptist did not say, “He that hath one coat, let him give it away,” but “He that hath two coats, let him give one to him that hath none, and he that hath food, let him do likewise.”
The fourth way of trading is buying and selling, and that with cash money or payments in kind. If a man wishes to practice this method, he must make up his mind not to rely on anything in the future but only on God, and to deal with men who will certainly fail and lie. Therefore the first piece of advice to such a man is that he shall not borrow anything or accept any security, but take only cash. If he wishes to lend, let him lend to Christians, or else take the risk of losing it and lend no more than he would be willing to give outright or can spare from his own necessities. If the government will not help him get his loan back, let him lose it; and let him beware of becoming surety for any man, but let him far rather give what he can. Such a man would be a true Christian merchant and God would not forsake him, because he trusts Him finely and gladly takes a chance, in dealing with his risky neighbor.
Now if there were no such thing in the world as becoming surety, and the free lending of the Gospel were in practice and only cash money or ready wares were exchanged in trade, then the greatest and most harmful dangers and faults and failings in merchandising would be well out of the way; it would be easy to engage in all sorts of business, and the other sinful faults could the better be prevented. For if there were none of this becoming surety and lending on security, many a man would have to keep down and be satisfied with a moderate living, who now aspires day and night after the high places, relying on borrowing and standing surety. This is the reason that everyone now wants to be a merchant and get rich. Out of this come the countless dangerous and wicked tricks and wiles that have become a jest among the merchants. There are so many of them that I have given up the hope that trade can be entirely corrected; it is so overladen with all sorts of wickedness and deception that it cannot drag its own length; by its own weight it must fall in upon itself.
In what has been said I have wished to give a bit of warning and instruction to everyone about this great, nasty, widespread business of merchandising. If we were to accept the principle that everyone may sell his wares as dear as he can, and were to approve the custom of borrowing and forced lending and standing surety, and yet try to advise men how they could act the part of Christians and keep their consciences good and safe – that would be the same as trying to teach men how wrong could be right and bad good, and how one could at the same time live and act according to the divine Scriptures and against the divine Scriptures. For these three errors – that everyone may sell what is his own as dear as he will, borrowing, and becoming surety – these, I say, are the three sources from which the stream of abomination, injustice, treachery and guile flows far and wide: to try to stem the flood and not stop up the springs, is trouble and labor lost.
At this point, therefore, I wish to tell of some of these tricks and evil doings which I have myself observed and which pious, good people have described to me, to make it apparent how necessary it is that the rules and principles which I have set down above be established and put in practice, if the consciences of merchants are to be counseled and aided; also in order that all the rest of their evil doings may be learned and measured by these; for how is it possible to tell them all? By the three aforementioned sources of evil, door and window are thrown wide to greed and to wicked, wily, self-seeking nature; room is made for them, occasion and power is given them to practice unhindered all sorts of wiles and trickery, and daily to think out more such schemes, so that everything stinks of avarice, nay, is drowned and drenched in avarice as in a great new Deluge.
First, There are some who have no conscientious scruples against selling their goods on credit for a higher price than if they were sold for cash: nay, there are some who wish to sell no goods for cash but everything on credit, so that they may make large profits. Observe that this way of dealing – which is plainly against God’s Word, against reason and all fairness, and springs from sheer wantonness and greed – is a sin against one’s neighbor, for it does not consider his loss, and robs and steals from him that which belongs to him; it is not a seeking for an honest living, but only for avaricious gain. According to divine law, goods should not be sold for a higher price on credit than for cash.
Again, there are some who sell their goods at a higher price than they command in the common market, or than is customary in the trade; and raise the price of their wares for no other reason than because they know that there is no more of that commodity in the country, or that the supply will shortly cease, and people must have it. That is a very rogue’s eye of greed, which sees only one’s neighbor’s need, not to relieve it but to make the most of it and grow rich on one’s neighbor’s losses. All such people are manifest thieves, robbers and usurers.
Again, there are some who buy up the entire supply of certain goods or wares in a country or a city, so that they may have those goods solely in their own power and can then fix and raise the price and sell them as dear as they like or can. Now I have said above that the rule that a man may sell his goods as dear as he will or can is false and unchristian. It is far more abominable that one should buy up the whole commodity for that purpose.
Even the imperial and temporal laws forbid this and call it “monopoly,” i.e., purchase for self-interest, which is not to be tolerated in city or country, and princes and lords would stop it and punish it if they did their duty. Merchants who do this act just as though God’s creatures and God’s goods were made for them alone and given to them alone, and as though they could take them from other people and set on them whatever price they chose.
If anyone wishes to urge the example of Joseph in Genesis 41:48, how the holy man gathered all the grain in the country and afterwards, in the time of famine, bought with it for the king of Egypt all the money, cattle, land and people – which seems, indeed, to have been a monopoly, or practice of self-interest – this is the answer: This purchase of Joseph’s was no monopoly, but a common and honest purchase, such as was customary in the country. He prevented no one else from buying during the good years, but it was his God-given wisdom which enabled him to gather the king’s grain in the seven years of plenty, while others were accumulating little or nothing. For the text does not say that he alone bought in the grain, but that he “gathered it in the king’s cities.” If the others did not do likewise, it was their loss, for the common man usually devours his living unconcernedly and sometimes, too, he has nothing to accumulate. We see the same thing today. If princes and cities do not provide a reserve supply for the benefit of the whole country, there is little or no reserve in the hands of the common man, who supports himself from year to year on his yearly income. Accumulation of this kind is not selfinterest, or monopoly, but a really good Christian providence for the community and for the good of others. It is not practiced in such a way that they seize everything for themselves alone, like these merchants, but out of the yield of the common market, or the yearly income which everyone has, they set aside a treasury, while others either cannot or will not accumulate, but get out of it only their daily support. Moreover the Scriptures do not tell us that Joseph gathered the grain to sell it as dear as he would, for the text clearly says that he did it not for greed’s sake, but in order that land and people might not be ruined. But the merchant, in his greed, sells it as dear as he can, seeking only his own profit, caring nothing whether land and people are ruined by it.
But that Joseph used this means to bring all the money and cattle, and all the land and people beside, into the king’s possession, does not seem to have been a Christian act, since he ought to have given to the needy for nothing, as the Gospel and Christian love bid us do. Yet he did right and well, for Joseph was conducting the temporal government in the king’s stead. I have often taught that the world ought not and cannot be ruled according to the Gospel and Christian love, but only by strict laws, with sword and force, because the world is evil and accepts neither Gospel nor love, but lives and acts according to its own will unless it is compelled by force. Otherwise, if only love were applied, everyone would eat, drink and live at ease on someone else’s goods, and nobody would work; nay, everyone would take from another that which was his, and there would be such a state of affairs that no one could live because of the others.
Therefore, because God so disposes things, Joseph did right when he got possession of everything by such fair and honest purchase as the time permitted, and following the temporal law, allowed the people to remain under restraint and sell themselves and all they had; for in that country there was always a strict government and it was customary to sell people like other goods. Besides, there can be no doubt that as a Christian and a good man, he let no poor man die of hunger but as the text says, after he had received the king’s law and government, he gathered, sold, and distributed the corn for the benefit and profit of land and people. Therefore the example of the faithful Joseph is as remote from the doings of the unfaithful, self-seeking merchants as heaven is far from earth. So far this digression; now we come back to the merchants’ tricks.
When some see that they cannot establish their monopolies in any other way because other people have the same goods, they proceed to sell their goods so cheap that the others can make no profit, and thus they compel them either not to sell at all, or else to sell as cheap as they themselves are selling and so be ruined. Thus they get their monopoly after all. These people are not worthy to he called men or to live among other men, nay they are not worth exhorting or instructing; for their envy and greed is so open and shameless that even at the cost of their own losses they cause loss to others, so that they may have the whole place to themselves. The authorities would do right if they took from such people everything they had and drove them out of the country. It would scarcely have been necessary to tell of such doings, but I wanted to include them so that it might be seen what great knavery there is in trade, and that it might be plain to everybody how things are going in the world, in order that everyone may know how to protect himself against such a dangerous class.
Again, it is a fine piece of sharp practice when one man sells to another, by means of promises, (Mit worten ym sack), goods which he himself has not, as follows. A merchant from a distance comes to me and asks if I have such and such goods for sale. I say, Yes, though I have not, and sell them to him for ten or eleven gulden when they could otherwise be bought for nine or less, promising him to deliver them in two or three days.
Meanwhile I go and buy the goods where I knew in advance that I could buy them cheaper; I deliver them and he pays me for them. Thus I deal with his – the other man’s – money and property, without risk, trouble or labor, and I get rich. That is called “living off the street,” on someone else’s money; he who does this need not travel over land and sea.
Again it is called “living off the street” if a merchant has a purseful of money and wishes no longer to subject his goods to the risks of land and sea, but to have a safe business, and settles down in a great business city.
Then when he hears of a merchant who is pressed by his creditors and must have money to satisfy them and has none, but has good wares, he gets someone to act for him in buying the wares and offers eight gulden for what is otherwise worth ten. If this offer is not accepted, he gets someone else to offer six or seven, and the poor man begins to be afraid that his wares are depreciating and is glad to take the eight so as to get cash money and not have to stand too much loss and disgrace. It happens, too, that these needy merchants seek out such tyrants and offer their goods for cash with which to pay their debts. They drive hard bargains and get the goods cheap enough and afterwards sell them at their own prices. These financiers are called “cutthroats,” but they pass for very clever people.
is another bit of self-seeking. Three or four merchants have in their control
one or two kinds of goods that others have not, or have not for sale. When
these men see that the goods are valuable and are advancing in price all the
time because of war or of some disaster, they join forces and pretend to others
that the goods are much in demand and that not many people have them on sale;
if however there are some who have these goods for sale they put up a stranger
to buy up all these goods, and when they have them entirely in their own
control they make an agreement to this effect: Since there are no more of these
goods to be had we will hold them at such and such a price, and whoever sells
cheaper shall forfeit so and so much. This trick, I hear, is practiced chiefly
and mostly by the English merchants in selling English or
Again, I must report this little trick. I sell a man pepper or the like on six months’ credit and know that he must sell it again by that time to get ready money. Then I go to him myself, or send someone else, and buy the pepper back for cash, but on these terms. What he bought from me for twelve gulden I buy back for eight, and the market price is ten. So I make going and coming, so that he may get the money and maintain his credit; otherwise he might have the disgrace of having no one extend him credit in the future.
The people who buy on credit more than they can pay for, practice or have to practice this kind of trickery – a man, for example, who has scarcely two hundred gulden obligates himself for five or six hundred. If my creditors do not pay, I cannot pay, and so the mischief goes deeper and deeper and one loss follows another the farther I go in this kind of dealing, until at last I see the shadow of the gallows and I must either abscond or go to jail. Then I keep my own counsel and give my creditors good words, telling them I will pay my debts. Meanwhile I go and get as much goods on credit as I can and turn them into money, or get money otherwise on a promissory note, or borrow as much as I can. Then when it suits me, or when my creditors give me no rest, I close up my house, get up and run away, hiding myself in some monastery, where I am as free as a thief or murderer in a church yard. Then my creditors are glad that I have not fled the country and release me from a half or a third of my debts on condition that I pay the balance in two or three years, giving me letter and seal for it.
Then I come back to my house and am a merchant who has made two or three thousand gulden by getting up and running away, and that is more than I could have got in three or four years either by running or trotting. Or if that plan will not help and I see that I must abscond, I go to the court of the Emperor or the Viceroy and for one or two hundred gulden I get a Quinquernell, i.e., a letter with the imperial seal permitting me to be at large for two or three years despite my creditors, because I have represented that I have suffered great losses; for the Quinquernells, too, make a pretense at being godly and right. These are knaves’ tricks.
Again there is another practice that is customary in the companies. A citizen deposits with a merchant one or two thousand gulden for six years. The merchant is to trade with this and pay the citizen annually two hundred gulden fixed interest, win or lose. What profit he makes above that is his own, but if he makes no profit he must still pay the charge. In this way the citizen is doing the merchant a great service, for the merchant expects with two thousand gulden to make at least three hundred; on the other hand, the merchant is doing the citizen a great service, for otherwise his money must lie idle and bring him no profit. That this common practice is wrong and is true usury I have shown sufficiently in the Discourse on Usury. I must give one more illustration to show how borrowing and lending leads to misfortune. When some people see that a buyer is unreliable and does not meet his payments, they can repay themselves finely in this way. I get a strange merchant to go and buy that man’s goods to the amount of a hundred gulden or so, and say: “When you have bought all his goods, promise him cash or refer him to a certain man who owes you money; and when you have the goods bring him to me, as though I owed you money and act as though you did not know that he is in my debt; thus I shall be paid and will give him nothing.” That is called “finance” and ruins the poor man entirely together with all whom he may owe; but so it goes in this unchristian borrowing and lending.
Again, they have learned to store their goods in places where they increase in bulk. They put pepper, ginger and saffron in damp cellars or vaults so that they may gain in weight; woolen goods, silks, furs of martin and sable, they sell in dark vaults or booths, keeping them from the air, and this custom is so general that almost every kind of goods has its own kind of air, and there are no goods that some way is not known of taking advantage of the buyer, in the measure or the count or the yard or the weight. They know, too, how to give them a false color; or the best looking are put top and bottom and the worst in the middle. Of such cheating there is no end and no merchant dare trust another out of his sight and reach.
Now the merchants make great complaint about the nobles or robbers – saying that they have to transact business at great risk and are imprisoned and beaten and taxed and robbed. If they suffered all this for righteousness’ sake the merchants would surely be saints because of their sufferings. To be sure, it may happen that one of them suffers some wrong before God, in that he has to suffer for another in whose company he is found and pay for another man’s sins; but because of the great wrong that is done and the unchristian thievery and robbery that is practiced by the merchants themselves all over the world, even against one another, what wonder is it if God causes this great wealth, wrongfully acquired, to be lost or taken by robbers, and the merchants themselves to be beaten over the head or imprisoned besides? God must administer justice, for He has Himself called a righteous Judge.
that I would excuse the highwayman and bushwhackers or approve of their
thievery! It is the princes’ duty to keep the roads safe for the sake of the
wicked as well as of the good; it is also the duty of the princes to punish
unfair dealing and to protect their subjects against the shameful skinning of
the merchants. Because they fail to do it, God uses the knights and the robbers
to punish the wrongdoing of the merchants, and they have to be His devils, as
Of the companies I ought to say much, but that whole subject is such a bottomless abyss of avarice and wrong that there is nothing in it that can be discussed with a clear conscience. For what man is so stupid as not to see that companies are nothing else than mere monopolies? Even the temporal law of the heathen forbids them as openly injurious, to say nothing of the divine law and Christian statutes. They have all commodities under their control and practice without concealment all the tricks that have been mentioned; they raise and lower prices as they please and oppress and ruin all the small merchants, as the pike the little fish in the water, just as though they were lords over God’s creatures and free from all the laws of faith and love.
So it comes that all over the world spices must be bought at their price, which is alternating. This year they put up the price of ginger, next year of saffron, or vice versa, so that all the time the bend may be coming to the crook and they need suffer no losses and take no risks. If the ginger spoils or fails, they make it up on saffron and vice versa, so that they remain sure of their profit. All this is against the nature, not only of merchandise, but of all temporal goods, which God wills should be subject to risk and uncertainty. But they have found a way to make sure, certain, and perpetual profit out of insecure, unsafe, temporal goods, though all the world must be sucked dry and all the money sink and swim in their gullet.
How could it ever be right and according to God’s will that a man should in a short time grow so rich that he could buy out kings and emperors? But they have brought things to such a pass that the whole world must do business at a risk and at a loss, winning this year and losing next year, while they always win, making up their losses by increased profits, and so it is no wonder that they quickly seize upon the wealth of all the world, for a pfennig that is permanent and sure is better than a gulden that is temporary and uncertain. But these companies trade with permanent and sure gulden, and we with temporary and uncertain pfennigs. No wonder they become kings and we beggars!
Kings and princes ought to look into these things and forbid them by strict laws, but I hear that they have an interest in them, and the saying of Isaiah is fulfilled, “Thy princes have become companions of thieves.” They hang thieves who have stolen a gulden or half a gulden and trade with those who rob the whole world and steal more than all the rest, so that the proverb may hold true: Big thieves hang the little ones, and as the Roman senator Cato said: Simple thieves lie in prisons and in stocks; public thieves walk abroad in gold and silk. But what will God say to this at last? He will do as He says by Ezekiel; princes and merchants, one thief with another, He will melt them together like lead and brass, as when a city burns, so that there shall be neither princes nor merchants anymore. That time, I fear, is already at the door. We do not think of amending our lives, no matter how great our sin and wrong may be, and He cannot leave wrong unpunished.
No one need ask, then, how he can belong to the companies with a good conscience. The only advice to give him is: Let them alone, they will not change. If the companies are to stay, right and honesty must perish; if right and honesty are to stay, the companies must perish. “The bed is too narrow,” says Isaiah, “one must fall out; the cover is too small, it will not cover both.”
I know full well that this book of mine will be taken ill, and perhaps they will throw it all to the winds and remain as they are; but it will not be my fault, for I have done my part to show how richly we have deserved it if God shall come with a rod. If I have instructed a single soul and rescued it from the jaws of avarice, my labor will not have been in vain, though I hope, as I have said above, that this thing has grown so high and so heavy that it can no longer carry its own weight and they will have to stop at last.
Finally, let everyone look to himself. Let no one stop as a favor or a service to me, nor let anyone begin or continue to spite me or to cause me pain. It is your affair, not mine. May God enlighten us and strengthen us to do His good will. Amen.
First . It should be known that in our times (of which the Apostle Paul prophesied that they would be perilous) avarice and usury have not only taken a mighty hold in all the world, but have undertaken to seek certain cloaks under which they would be considered right and could thus practice their wickedness freely, and things have gone almost so far that we hold the holy Gospel as of no value. Therefore, it is necessary, in this perilous time, for everyone to see well to himself, and in dealing with temporal goods, to make true distinctions and diligently to observe the holy Gospel of Christ our Lord.
Second . It should be known that there are three different degrees and ways of dealing well and rightly with temporal goods.
The first is that if anyone takes some of our temporal goods by force, we shall not only permit it, and let the goods go, but even be ready to let him take more, if he will. Of this our dear Lord Jesus Christ says, in Matthew “If anyone will go to law with you to take your coat, let him take your cloak also.” This is the highest degree of this kind of work, and is not to be understood to mean, as some think, that we are to throw the cloak after the coat, but rather that we are to let the cloak go, and not resist or become impatient about it, or demand it back again. For He does not say, “Give him the cloak also,” but “Let him take the cloak also.” So Christ Himself, before Bishop Annas, when He received a blow on the cheek, offered the other cheek also and was ready to receive more such blows; nay, in His entire Passion we see that He never repays or returns an evil word or deed, but is always ready to endure more.
It is true, indeed, that He said to the servant Malchus, who struck Him, “If I have spoken evil, prove the evil; but if well, why smitest thou me?” Some even of the learned stumble at these words, and think that Christ did not offer the other cheek, as He taught that men should do. But they do not look at the words rightly; for in these words Christ does not threaten, does not avenge Himself, does not strike back, does not even refuse the other cheek; nay, He does not judge or condemn Malchus, but as Peter writes of Him, He did not threaten, or think to recompense evil, but committed it to God, the just Judge, as if to say, “If I have spoken rightly or you are right in smiting me, God will find it out, and you are bound to prove it.” So Zechariah said, when they killed him, Videat dominus et judicet, “God will see it and judge.” So He did also before Pilate, when He said, “He that hath given me over to thee hath a greater sin than thou.” For that is Christian and brotherly fidelity, to terrify him, and hold his wrongdoing and God’s judgment before him who does you wrong; and it is your duty to say to him, “Well, then, you are taking my coat and this and that; if you are doing right, you will have to answer for it.” This you must do, not chiefly because of your own injury, and also not to threaten him, but to warn him and remind him of his own ruin. If that does not change his purpose, let go what will, and do not demand it back again. See, that is the meaning of the word that Christ spoke before the court of Annas. It follows that, like Christ on the cross, you must pray for him and do well to him who does evil to you. But this we leave now until the proper time.
Many think that this first degree is
and need not be observed by every Christian, but is a good counsel, laid upon the perfect for them
to keep just as virginity and chastity are counseled, not commanded. Therefore
they hold it proper that everyone shall take back what is his own, and repel
force with force according to his ability and his knowledge; and they deck out
this opinion with pretty flowers, and prove it, as they think, with many strong
arguments; namely, First, the canon law (to say nothing of the temporal) says,
Vim vi pellere jura sinunt, that is, “The law allows that force be resisted
with force.” From this comes, in the second place, the common proverb about self-defense, that it is not
punishable for what it does. In the third place, they bring up some
illustrations from the Scriptures, such as Abraham and David and many more, of whom we read that they punished and repaid their enemies. In
the fourth place, they bring in Reason, and say, Solve istud (explain that); if
this were a commandment, it would give the wicked permission to steal, and at
last no one would keep anything; nay, no one would be sure of his own body. In
the fifth place, in order that everything may be firmly proved, they bring up
the saying of
See, these are the masterpieces with
which the doctrine and example of our dear Lord Jesus Christ, together with the
holy Gospel and all His martyrs and saints, have hitherto been turned around,
made unknown, and entirely suppressed, so that nowadays those spiritual and
temporal prelates and subjects are the best Christians who follow these rules,
and yet resist Christ’s life, teaching, and Gospel. Hence it comes
that lawsuits and litigations, notaries, officia1es, jurists, and that whole
noble race, are as numerous as flies in summer. Hence it comes that there is so
much war and bloodshed among Christians. Suits must also be carried to
Therefore, I want to do my part and, so far as I can, to warn everyone not to be led astray, no matter how learned, how mighty, how spiritual, or how much of all these things at once, they may be who have made, and still make a counsel out of this decree, no matter how many are the flowers and the colors with which they decorate it. No excuses help! This is simply a commandment that we are bound to obey, as Christ and His saints have confirmed it and exemplified it. God does not care that the laws – spiritual or temporal – permit force to be resisted with force.
And are not those precious things that the laws permit! They permit common brothels, though they are against God’s commandment, and many other wicked things which God forbids; and they have to permit secret sin and wickedness. The things that human laws command and forbid matter little; how much less the things that they permit or do not punish. Thus self-defense is before the human law unpunishable, but before God it has no merit. Suing at law is condemned by neither pope nor emperor, but it is condemned by Christ and His doctrine. That some of the Old Testament fathers punished their enemies was never due to their own choice in the matter, and it was never done without God’s express command, which punishes sinners, and punishes, at times, both good and bad, angels and men. For this reason they never sought revenge or their own profit, but only acted as obedient servants of God, just as Christ teaches in the Gospel that at God’s command we must act even against father and mother, whom He has commanded us to honor. Nevertheless, the two commandments are not contradictory, but the lower is ruled by the higher. When God commands you to take revenge or to defend yourself, then you shall do it; and not before then.
Nevertheless, it is true that God has instituted the worldly sword and the spiritual power of the Church, and has commanded both kinds of rulers to punish the evil and rescue the oppressed, as Paul teaches in Romans 13:3, and Isaiah in many places, and Psalm 82:3. But this should be done in such a way that no one would be an accuser in his own case, but that others, in their brotherly fidelity and their care for one another, would tell the rulers that this man was innocent and that man wrong. Thus the authorities would resort to punishment in a just and orderly way, on proof furnished by the others; indeed, the offended party ought to ask that his case be not tried, and ought to do his best to prevent it. The others, for their part, ought not to desist until the evil was punished.
Thus things would be conducted in a kindly, Christian and brotherly way, with more regard to the sin than to the injury. Therefore Paul rebukes the Corinthians, in 1 Corinthians because they went to law with one another, and did not rather suffer themselves to be injured and defrauded, though because of their imperfection, he did permit that they appoint the least of themselves as judges. He did this to shame them into a knowledge of their imperfection. In like manner we must still tolerate those who sue and are sued, as weak and childish Christians whom we must not cast off, because there is hope for their improvement, as the same Apostle teaches in many places. We ought to tell them, however, that such conduct is not Christian or meritorious, but human and earthly, a hindrance to salvation and not a help.
Christ gave this commandment in order to establish within us a peaceful, pure, and heavenly life. Now for everyone to demand what is his and be unwilling to endure wrong, that is not the way to peace, as those blind men think of whom it is said, in Psalm 13:1, “They know not the way to peace,” which goeth only through suffering. The heathen, too, know this by Reason, and we by daily experience. If peace is to be kept, one party must be quiet and suffer; and even though quarrels and litigations last for a long while, they must finally come to an end, after injuries and evils that would not have been, if people had kept this commandment of Christ’s at the start and had not allowed the temptation, with which God tries us, to drive them from the commandment and overcome them. God has so ordered things that he who will not let a little go because of the commandment, must lose much, perhaps everything, through lawsuits and war. It is fair that a man should give to the judges, proctors, and clerks, and receive no thanks for it, twenty or thirty or forty gulden in serving the devil, when he will not let his neighbor, for God’s sake and for his own eternal credit, have two gulden, or six. Thus he loses both his temporal and eternal goods, when, if he were obedient to God, he might have enough for both time and eternity. It happens, at times, that in this way great lords must lose a whole land in war and consume great sums of money on soldiers for the sake of a small advantage or a small liberty. That is the perverted wisdom of the world; it fishes with golden nets and the cost is greater than the profit; there are those who win the little and squander the much.
It would be impossible to become pure of our attachment to temporal goods, if God did not decree that we should be unjustly injured, and exercised thereby in turning our hearts away from the false temporal goods of the world, letting them go in peace, and setting our hopes on the invisible and eternal goods. Therefore he who requires that which is his own, and does not let the cloak go after the coat is resisting his own purification and the hope of eternal salvation, for which God would exercise him and to which He would drive him. And even though everything were taken from us, there is no reason to fear that God will desert us and not provide for us even in temporal matters; as it is written in Psalm 37:25, “I have been young and have grown old, and have never seen that the righteous was deserted or his children went after bread.” This is proved in the case of Job also, who received in the end more than he had before, though all that he had was taken from him. For, to put it briefly, these commandments are intended to loose us from the world and make us desirous of heaven. Therefore we ought peacefully and joyfully to accept the faithful counsel of God, for if He did not give it, and did not let wrong and unhappiness come to us, the human heart could not maintain itself; it entangles itself too deeply in temporal things and attaches itself to them too tightly, and the result is satiety and disregard of the eternal goods in heaven.
So much for the first degree of dealing with temporal goods! It is also the foremost and the greatest, and yet, sad to say! it has not only become the least, but it has come to nothing and, amid the mists and clouds of human laws, practices and customs, has become quite unknown.
It is that we give our goods freely to everyone who needs them or asks for them. Of this also our Lord Jesus Christ speaks in Matthew 5, “He who asks of thee, to him give.” Although this degree is much lower than the first, it is, nevertheless, hard and bitter for those who have more taste for the temporal than for the eternal goods; for they have not enough trust in God to believe that He can or will maintain them in this wretched life. Therefore, they fear that they would die of hunger or be entirely ruined if they were to do as God commands, and give to everyone that asks them. How, then, can they trust Him to maintain them in eternity? For, as Christ says, “He who does not trust God in a little thing never trusts Him in a great.” And yet they go about thinking that God will make them eternally blessed, and believing that they have good confidence in Him, though they will not heed this commandment of His, by which He would exercise them, and drive them to learn to trust Him in things temporal and eternal. There is reason to fear, therefore, that he who will not hear the doctrine and obey it will never acquire the art of trusting, and as they do not trust God for the little temporal goods, so they must at last despair about those that are great and eternal.
This second degree is so small a thing that it was commanded even to the simple, imperfect people of the Jews, in the Old Testament, as it is written in Deuteronomy 15:4, “There will always be poor people in the land, therefore I command thee that thou open thy hand to thy poor and needy brother, and give to him.” Besides, He commanded them severely that they must allow no one to beg, and says, in Deuteronomy 15:4, “There shall be no beggar or indigent man among you.” Now if God gave this commandment in the Old Testament, how much more ought we Christians be bound not only to allow no one to suffer want or to beg, but also to keep the first degree of this commandment, and let everything go that anyone will take from us by force. Now, however, there is so much begging that it has even become an honor; and it is not enough that men of the world beg, but the spiritual estate of the priesthood practices it as a precious thing. I will quarrel with no one about it, but I consider that it would be more fitting that there should be no more begging in Christendom under the New Testament, than among the Jews under the Old Testament; and I hold that the spiritual and temporal rulers would be discharging their duty if they did away with all the beggars’ sacks. Twelfth .
There are three practices or customs among men that are opposed to this degree of dealing. The first is that men give and present things to their friends, the rich and powerful, who do not need them, and forget the needy; and if they thus obtain favor, advantage, or friendship from these people, or are praised by them as pious folk, they go carelessly along, satisfied with the praise, honor, favor, or advantage that comes from men, and do not observe, meanwhile, how much better it would be if they did these things to the needy, and obtained God’s favor, praise, and honor.
Of such men Christ says, “If thou make a midday or an evening meal, thou shalt not invite thy friends or thy brethren, or thy relatives, or thy neighbors, or the rich, so that they may invite thee again, and thus take thy reward; but when thou makest a meal, invite the poor, the sick, the lame, the blind; so art thou blessed, for they cannot recompense it to thee; but it shall be recompensed to thee among the righteous, when they rise from the dead.” Although this doctrine is so clear and plain that everyone sees and knows that it ought to be so, yet we never see an example of it among Christians anymore. There is neither measure nor limit to the entertaining, the high living, the eating, drinking, giving, presenting; and yet they are all called good people and Christians, and nothing comes out of it except that giving to the needy is forgotten. O what a horrible judgment will fall upon these carefree spirits, when it is asked, at the Last Day, to whom they have given and done good!
The second custom is that people refuse to give to enemies and opponents. For it comes hard to our false nature to do good to those who have done it evil. But that does not help. The commandment is spoken for all men alike, “Give to him that asketh,” and it is clearly expressed in Luke 6:30, “To everyone that asketh of thee, give.” Here no exception is made of enemies or opponents; nay, they are included, as the Lord Himself makes clear in the same passage, and says, “If ye love only those that love you, what kind of a benevolence is that? The wicked, too, love those that love them. And if ye do good only to those that love you, what kind of a benevolence is that? The wicked also do that. But ye shall love your enemies, ye shall do good, ye shall lend to them and expect nothing from it; so shall your reward be great, and ye shall be children of the Highest, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” These wholesome commandments of Christ have so fallen into disuse that men not only do not keep them, but have made of them a “counsel,” which one is not necessarily bound to keep, just as they have done with the first degree. They have been helped in this by those injurious teachers who say that it is not necessary to lay aside the signa rancoris, that is, the signs of enmity, and bitter, angry attitudes toward an enemy, but that it is enough to forgive him in one’s heart. Thus they apply Christ’s commandment about external works to the thoughts alone, though He Himself extends it, in clear words, to works, saying, “Ye shall do good (not merely think good) to your enemies.” So, too, in Romans 12:20, Paul, in agreement with King Solomon, says, “If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for thereby thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head”; that is, you will load him with benefits, so that, overcome with good, he will be kindled to love for you. From these false doctrines has sprung the common saying, “I will forgive, but not forget.” Not so, dear Christian! You must forgive and forget, as you desire that God shall not only forgive and forget, but also do you more good than before.
The third custom is pretty and showy, and does most injury to this giving. It is dangerous to speak of it, for it concerns those who ought to be teaching and ruling others, and these are the folk who, from the beginning of the world to its end, can never hear the truth or suffer others to hear it. The way things now go, they apply the high title of “alms,” or “giving for God’s sake,” to giving for churches, monasteries, chapels, altars, towers, bells, organs, paintings, statues, silver and gold ornaments and vestments, and for masses, vigils, singing, reading, testamentary endowments, sodalities, and the like. Giving has taken hold here, and the real stream of giving is on this side, to which men have guided it and where they wanted to have it; no wonder, therefore, that on the side to which Christ’s word guides it, things are so dry and desolate that where there are a hundred altars or vigils, there is not one man who feeds a tableful of poor people, let alone gives food to a poor household. Not what Christ has commanded, but what men have invented, is called “Giving for God’s sake”; not what one gives to the needy living members of Christ, but what one gives to stone, wood, and paint is “alms.” And this giving has become so precious and noble that God Himself is not enough to recompense it, but has to have the help of breves, bulls, parchments, lead, metal, cords large and small, and wax, green, yellow and white. If it makes no show, it has no value; and it is all bought at great cost, “for God’s sake,” from Rome, and such great works are rewarded with indulgences, here and there, over and above the reward of God; but giving to the poor and needy, according to Christ’s commandment, this miserable work must be robbed of such splendid reward, and be satisfied with the reward that God gives.
Thus the latter work is pushed to the rear and the former is put out in front and the two, when compared, shine with unequal light. Therefore, St. Peter of Rome must now go begging throughout the world for the building of his church, and gather great heaps of “alms for God’s sake,” and pay for them dearly and richly with indulgences. And this work suits him well, and he can easily attend to it, because he is dead; for if he were alive, he would have to preach Christ’s commandments and could not attend to the indulgences. His lambs follow diligently after their faithful shepherd, go about with the indulgences in every land, and wherever there is a dedication-day or a fair these beggars gather like flies in summer, and they all preach the same song, “Give to the new building that God may recompense you, and the holy lord, St. Nicholas.” Afterwards they go to their beer or wine, also “for God’s sake”; and the commissaries are made rich, also “for God’s sake.” But there is no need for commissaries or legates to preach to us that we shall give to the needy according to God’s commandment.
What shall we say to this? If we
reject these works, the Holy See at
Pope, bishops, kings, princes and lords ought to labor for the abolition of these intolerable burdens and impositions. It ought to be established and decreed, either by their own mandate or in a general council, that every town and village should build its own churches and care for its own poor folk, so that beggary would cease entirely, or at least that it would not be done in such a way that any place should beg for its churches and its poor in all other cities, according to the present unhappy custom; and the Holy See at Rome ought to be left to enjoy its own bulls, for it has enough else to do, if it will perform its office, without selling bulls and building churches that it does not need. God has expressed it plainly in His law, in Deuteronomy “There will always be poor people in your city.” Thus He has committed to every city its own poor, and He will not have men running hither and you with beggars’ sacks, as men now run to St. James and to Rome. Although I am too small a man to give advice to popes and all the rulers of the world in this case, and although I myself think that nothing will come of it; nevertheless, it ought to be known what the good and needful course would be, and it is the duty of the rulers to consider and to do the things that are necessary for the best ruling of the common people, who are committed to them.
A device has been invented which teaches in a masterly way, how this commandment can be circumvented and the Holy Ghost deceived. It is, “No one is bound to give the needy unless they are in extreme want.”
they have reserved the right to investigate and decide what “extreme want” is. Thus
we learn that no one is to give or help until the needy are dying of hunger,
freezing to death, ruined by poverty, or running away because of debts. But this
knavish gloss and deceitful addition is confounded with a single word which
says, “What thou wilt that another do to thee, that do thou also.” Now no one
is so foolish as to be unwilling that anyone should give to him until the soul
is leaving his body or he has run away from his debts, and then help him, when
he can no more be helped. But when it comes to churches, endowments,
indulgences and other things that God has not commanded, then no one is so keen
or so careful in reckoning out whether we are to give to the church before the
tiles fall off the roof, the beams rot, the ceiling fall in, the
dispensationletters mold, the indulgences decay – though all these things could
wait more easily than people who are in need – but in these cases every hour is
one of “extreme want,” even though all the chests, and the floor itself, were
full, and everything well-built. Nay, in this case treasure must be gathered
without ceasing, not to be given or lent to the needy on earth, but to the Holy
Cross, to our Dear Lady, to the holy patron, St. Peter, though they are in
heaven. All this must be done with more than ordinary foresight, so that if the
Last Day never came, the church would be taken care of for a hundred or two
hundred thousand years; and thus, in case of need, the canonization of a saint,
or a bishop’s pallium, or other like wares can be bought at the fair in
would grieve one to the heart, if these damned goods, taken from the needy, to
whom they properly belong, were spent for anything else than Roman wares. St.
Ambrose and Paulinus, in former times, melted the chalices and everything that
the churches had, and gave to the poor. Turn the page, and you find how things
are now. Well for you, dear
We come now to the third degree of dealing with temporal goods. It is that we willingly and gladly lend without charges or interest.
Of this our Lord Jesus Christ says, in Matthew “He that would borrow of thee, from him turn not,” that is, “do not refuse him.” This degree is the lowest of all and is commanded even in the Old Testament, where God says, in Deuteronomy 15:7, “If anyone of thy brethren in thy city become poor, thou shalt not harden thy heart against him nor shut thy hand; but that shalt open it and lend him all that he needs”; and they have allowed this degree to remain a commandment, for all the doctors agree that borrowing and lending shall be free, without charge or burden, though all may not be agreed on the question to whom we ought to lend. For as was said about the previous degree, there are many who gladly lend to the rich or to good friends, more to seek their favor or put them under obligation than because God has commanded it, and especially if it is given the high title, spoken of above, viz., “for God’s service,” or “for God’s sake.” For everybody gladly lends to the Holy Cross and our Dear Lady and the patron saint, but about those to whom God’s command points there is always trouble and labor, to them no one wants to lend, except in cases of extreme want, where lending does no good, as has been said above.
Christ, however, excluded no one from His commandment; nay, He included all kinds of people, even one’s enemies, when He said, in Luke 6:34, “If ye lend only to those of whom ye expect that they will make return, what kind of benevolence is that? Even wicked sinners lend one to another that they may have the same again”; and also “Ye shall lend and expect nothing in return.” I know very well that very many doctores have interpreted these words as though Christ had commanded to lend in such a way as not to make any charge for it or seek any profit by it, but to lend gratis. This opinion is, indeed, not wrong, for he who makes a charge for lending is not lending and neither is he selling; it must therefore be usury, because lending is, in its very nature, nothing else than to offer another something without charge, on the condition that one get back, after awhile, the same thing, or its equivalent, and nothing more. But if we look the word of Christ squarely in the eye, it does not teach that we are to lend without charge, for there is no need for such teaching, since there is no lending except lending without charge, and if a charge is made, it is not a loan. He wills that we lend not only to friends, the rich, and those to whom we are well disposed, who can repay us again, by returning this loan, or with another loan, or by some other benefit; but also that we lend to those who cannot or will not repay us, such as the needy and our enemies. It is just like His teaching about loving and giving; our lending is to be done without selfishness and without self-seeking. This does not happen unless we lend to our enemies and to the needy; for all that He says is aimed to teach us to do good to everyone, that is, not only to those who do good to us, but also to those who do us evil, or cannot do us good in return. That is what He means when He says, “Ye shall lend and expect nothing from it,” that is, “Ye shall lend to those who cannot or will not lend to you again.” But he who lends expects to receive back the same thing that he lends, and if he expects nothing, then, according to their interpretation, it would be a gift and not a loan. Because, then, it is such a little thing to make a loan to one who is a friend, or rich, or who may render some service in return, that even sinners who are not Christians do the same thing, Christians ought to do more, and lend to those who do not the same, i.e., to the needy and to their enemies. Thus, too, the doctrine falls which says that we are not bound to lay aside the signa rancoris, as has been said above; and even though they speak rightly concerning lending, yet they turn this commandment into a counsel and teach us that we are not bound to lend to our enemies or to the needy, unless they are in extreme want. Beware of this!
It follows that they are all usurers who lend their neighbor wine, grain, money, or the like, in such a way that he obligates himself to pay charges on it in a year or at a given time; or that he burdens and overloads himself with a promise to give back more than he has borrowed, or something else that is better. And in order that these men may themselves perceive the wrong that they are doing – though the practice has, unfortunately, become common – we set before them three laws.
First, This passage in the Gospel commands that we shall lend. Now lending is not lending unless it be done without charge and without advantage to the lender, as has been said. Crafty avarice, to be sure, sometimes paints itself a pretty color and pretends to take the surplus as a present, but that does not help if the present is the cause of the loan; or if the borrower would rather not make the present, provided he could borrow gratis. And the present is especially suspicious, if the borrower makes it to the lender, or the needy to the wealthy; for it is not natural to suppose that the needy would make a present to the wealthy of his own free will; it is necessity that forces him to do so.
Second, This is contrary to the natural law, which the Lord also announces in Luke and Matthew “What ye would that men should do to you, that do also to them.” Now, beyond all doubt, there is no one who would that men should lend him rye to be repaid with wheat, bad money to be repaid with good, bad wares to be repaid with good wares; indeed, he would much rather that men should lend him good wares to be repaid with bad, or with equally good wares, but without charge. Therefore it is clear that these usurers are acting against nature, are guilty of mortal sin, and seek their neighbor’s injury and their own profit, because they would not put up with such treatment from others, and are thus dealing unfairly with their neighbor.
Third, It is also against the Old and the New Law, which commands, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” But such lenders love themselves alone, seek only their own, or do not love and seek their neighbor with such fidelity as they love and seek themselves.
Therefore no better or briefer instruction can be given about this, and about all dealing with temporal goods, than that everyone who is to have dealings with his neighbor set before him these commandments, “Whatsoever thou wilt that another do to thee, that do thou to him also,” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” If, beside this, he were to think what he would have for himself, if he were in his neighbor’s place, he would learn for himself and find for himself all that he needs to know.
There would be no need for law books or courts or accusation; nay, all the cases would be quickly and simply decided. For everyone’s heart and conscience would tell him how he would like to be dealt with, what he would like to have remitted, what given and what forgiven, and from this he must conclude that he ought to do just that for everyone else. But because we leave these commandments out of view, and look only at the business, and its profit or loss, we must have all the countless books, courts, judges, law suits, blood, and all misery, and thus, upon the violation of God’s commandments, must follow the destruction of God’s kingdom, which is peace and unity, in brotherly love and faithfulness. And yet these wicked men go about, begging at times and fasting, giving alms at times, but in this matter, on which salvation depends, they are quite heedless and carefree, as if this commandment did not concern them at all, though without it they cannot be saved, even if they did all the other works of all the saints.
Here we meet two objections. The first is that if lending were done in this way, the interest would be lost, that is, the profit which they could make meanwhile with the goods that were lent. The second is the great example. Everywhere in the world it has become the custom to lend for profit, and especially because scholars, priests, clergy, and churches do it, seeing that the improvement of the church’s spiritual goods and of the worship of God is sought, and without these there would be very few Christians in the world, and everyone would be reluctant to lend.
Answer. There is nothing in all of that. In the first place, you must lose the interest and the profit if it be taken from you or if you give to someone outright; why, then, will you seek it and keep it in lending? He who decides to give and lend must give up the interest in advance, or it is neither giving nor lending. In the second place, whether it is a good custom or a bad custom, it is not Christian or divine or natural, and no example helps against that fact. For it is written, “Thou shalt not follow the crowd to do evil, but honor God and His commandments above all things.” That the clergy and the churches do this is so much the worse. For spiritual goods and churches have neither authority nor freedom to break God’s commandments, rob their neighbor, practice usury, and do wrong. Moreover, the service of God is not improved by it, but corrupted.
Keeping God’s commandments is improving the service of God; even knaves can improve the church property; and even if the whole world had the custom of lending with this kind of a charge, the churches and the clergy should act the other way, and the more spiritual their possessions were, the more Christian should be the manner in which, according to Christ’s command, they would lend them, give them, and let them go. He who does otherwise, is doing so, not for the improvement of the churches or of their spiritual goods, but for his own usury-seeking avarice, which decks itself out with such good names. It is no wonder, then, that Christians are few; for here we see who they are that practice really good works, though many blind and deceive themselves with their own selfchosen good works, which God has not commanded them. But if anyone finds that this makes it hard for him to lend to his neighbor, it is a sign of his great unbelief, because he despises the comforting assurance of Christ, who says, “If we lend and give, we are children of the Highest, and our reward is great.” He who does not believe this comforting promise and does not make it a guide for his works, is not worthy of it.
Beneath these three degrees are other degrees and ways of dealing with temporal goods, such as buying, inheriting, conveying, etc., and these are governed by temporal and spiritual law. By these no one becomes better or worse in the sight of God, for there is no Christian merit in buying anything, getting it by inheritance, or acquiring it in some other honest way, since the heathen, Turks, and Jews can be this good.
But Christian dealing and the right use of temporal goods consist in the three above-mentioned degrees or ways – giving them away, lending them without charge, and quietly letting them go when they are taken by force.
Let us now leave all the other ways of dealing out of account, and give attention to the matter of buying, especially the buying of income, since this makes a pretty show and seems to be a way by which a man can burden others without sin and grow rich without worry or trouble. For in other dealings it is manifest to everybody if a man sells too dear, or sells false wares, or possesses a false inheritance, or wealth that is not his, but this slippery and newly invented business makes itself ofttimes the pious and faithful protector of damnable greed and usury.
Although the buying of income is now established as a proper trade and a permitted line of business, it is, nevertheless, to be hated and opposed for many reasons. First, because it is a new and slippery invention, especially in these last, perilous times, where nothing good is invented anymore and the thoughts of all men are bent upon wealth and honor and luxury, without any limit. We cannot find any example of this business among the ancients, and Paul says of these times that many new, wicked practices will be invented. Second, because, as they must themselves admit, however right it is, it makes a bad show and has an offensive outward appearance, and St. Paul bids us avoid all evil and offensive appearances, even though the thing itself were right and proper – ab omni spetie mala abstinete (Thessalonians ult.), “Be on your guard against every evil appearance.” Now in this business the advantage of the buyer, or receiver of income, is always looked upon as greater and better, and is more sought after by everyone than that of the seller, or payer of income; and this is a sign that the business is never conducted for the sake of the seller, but always for the sake of the buyer, for every man’s conscience fears that it cannot be right to buy income, but no one has any doubt that he can sell it at any risk that he cares to take. So close does this business come to the conscience.
This business, even though it be conducted without usury, can scarcely be conducted without violation of the natural law and the Christian law of love. For it is to be supposed that the buyer never, or very seldom, seeks and desires the welfare and advantage of his neighbor, the seller, more than or equally with his own, especially if the buyer is the richer man and does not need to buy. And yet the natural law says, What we wish and desire for ourselves, we shall wish and desire for our neighbor also; and it is the nature of love, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:5, not to seek its own profit or advantage, but that of others. But who believes that, in this business, anyone buys income (unless he absolutely needs it) with a view to giving his neighbor, the seller, a profit and advantage equal to his own? Thus it is to be feared that the buyer would not like to be in the seller’s place, as in other kinds of trade.
Everyone must admit that whether this business be usury or not, it does exactly the same work that usury does; that is to say, it lays burdens upon all lands, cities, lords, and people, sucks them dry and brings them to ruin, as no usury could have done. We see this plainly in the case of many cities and principalities. Now the Lord taught, not that the fruit is to be known by the tree, but the tree by the fruit. Thus I cannot possibly think you a sweet fig-tree, when you bear nothing but sharp thorns, and I cannot reconcile the claim that this buying of incomes is right with the fact that land and people are ruined by it.
Let us imagine, then, or dream, or force ourselves to think that this business is right, as it is now conducted; nevertheless, it deserves that pope, bishops, emperor, princes and everybody else endeavor to have it abolished, and it is the duty of everyone who can prevent it to do so, if only on account of its wicked and damnable fruits, which burden and ruin the whole world.
Therefore it is not enough that this business should be rescued by canon law from the reproach of usury, for that does not rid it of or secure it against avarice and self-love; and from the canon law we find that it is not directed toward love, but toward self-seeking. Money won by gambling is not usury either, and yet it is not won without self-seeking and love of self, and not without sin; the profits of prostitution are not usury, but they are earned by sin; and wealth that is acquired by cursing, swearing and slander is not usury, and yet it is acquired by sin. Therefore I cannot conclude that those who buy income which they do not need are acting rightly and properly. I make bold to say and give warning that the rich, who use this business only to increase their incomes and their wealth, are in great danger. Moreover, I do not think it permissible to act as do some avaricious fellows (Geytzige blasen), who collect their incomes at stated times, and quickly invest it again in income – so that the one income always drives the other along, as water drives the millwheel. This is such open and shameless avarice that no man, however stupid, can deny that it is avarice; and yet all that is held to be right. If there were no other reason to regard this buying of income as usury or as wrong dealing (especially in such a case as I have mentioned), this one reason would be enough, viz., that it is a cloak for such manifest and shameless avarice, and allows men to do business without risk. Whatever is of God avoids sin and every kind of evil; but this business gives avarice free rein; therefore it cannot be of God, as it is now conducted.
We will now look at the arguments by which this tender business is justified. There is a little Latin word called interesse. This noble, precious, tender, little word may be rendered in German this way: If I have a hundred gulden with which I can trade, and by my labor and trouble make in a year five or six gulden or more, I place it with someone else, on a productive property, so that not I, but he, can trade with it, and for this I take from him five gulden, which I might have earned; thus he sells me the income – five gulden for a hundred – and I am the buyer and he the seller. Here they say, now, that the purchase of the income is proper because, with these gulden, I might perhaps have made more in a year, and the interest is just and sufficient. All that is so pretty that no one can find fault with it at any point. But it is also true that it is not possible to have such interest on earth, for there is another, counter-interest, which goes like this: If I have a hundred gulden, and am to do business with it, I may run a hundred kinds of risk of making no profits at all, nay, of losing four times as much besides. Because of the money itself, or because of illness, I may not be able to do business, or there may be no wares or goods on hand. Hindrances of this kind are innumerable, and we see that failures, losses, and injuries are greater than profits. Thus the interest on loss is as great as the interest of profits, or greater.
Now if income is bought on the first kind of interest only, so that these risks and the trouble are not assumed, and it can never happen that the buyer loses more than he invests, and thus the money is invested as though all of it could always be without the other interest, then it is clear that the trade is based on nothing, because there cannot be any such interest, and it cannot be invented. For in this business, goods are always on hand, and one can transact it sitting still; a sick man can do it, a child, a woman; indeed, it matters not how unfit the person is, though no such persons can engage in trade, and earn profits, with bare money. Therefore those who regard only this kind of interest, and trade in it, are worse than usurers; nay, they buy the first interest with the second interest, and win in order that other people may lose. Again, since it is not possible to regulate, compute, and equalize the second interest (for it is not in man’s power), I do not see how this business can last. For who would not rather invest a hundred gulden for income than trade with it, since in trade he might lose twenty gulden in a year, and his capital besides, while in this business he cannot lose more than five, and keeps his capital? Moreover, in trade his money must often be inactive because of the market (Der wahr halben), or because of his own physical condition, while in this business it is moving and earning all the time.
Is it any wonder, then, that a man gets control of all the wealth in the world, when he has goods always at hand, with constant safety and less risk, and when his capital is protected in advance? One’s profits cannot be small at times when one can always procure goods, just as one’s losses cannot be small when one cannot get rid of goods, or cannot procure them.
Therefore, money in trade and money at interest are different things, and the one cannot be compared with the other. For money invested in income has a basis which constantly grows and produces profit out of the earth, while money in trade has no certainty; the interest it yields is accidental, and one cannot count on it at all. Here they will say, perhaps, that, because they place money on land, there is an “interest of loss,” as well as an “interest of profit,” for the income stands or falls according as the land stays or not. This is all true, and we shall hear more about it below. But the fact remains that money which one can place on land increases the “first interest” too much and decreases the “second interest” as compared with money that moves in trade; for, as was said above, there is more risk in trade than in land. Since, then, one cannot get ground with a definite sum of money, neither can one buy income with a definite sum.
Therefore, it is not enough to say, “With so much money I can buy so much income from a piece of ground, and therefore it is right for me to take so much income for it and let someone else look after the ground.” For in that way one would assess a piece of ground at a definite value. That is impossible, and great hardship must result for land and people.
Therefore it is no wonder that the knights of income (Zins junckeren) quickly become rich above others, for since the others keep their money in trade, they are subject to the two kinds of interest, but the knights of income, by this little trick, get out of the second interest and come into the first; thus their risk is greatly reduced and their safety increased. It ought, therefore, not be permitted to buy income with cash money, without specifying and defining the particular piece of ground from which the income is derived, as is now the custom, especially among the great merchants, who place money on ground in general, without specification. By so doing they ascribe to the nature of money that which is only accidental to it. It is not in the nature of money that it buys ground, but it may happen that a piece of ground is for sale for income when some money is at one’s disposal; but that does not happen with all ground or with all money; therefore the ground ought to be named and exactly defined. If that were done, it would be evident how much money would be useless for income purposes and have to stay in trade or in the coffers, though it now produces income with neither right nor pretext except that one says (in a general way), “By placing it on a piece of ground, I can buy so much income with it, and that will be interest.” Yes, my dear fellow, my money can buy my neighbor’s house; but if it is not for sale, the ability of my money has no effect on his interest. In the same way, it is not the luck of all money to buy income from ground; and yet some people want to buy income from everything that can be used. They are usurers, thieves, and robbers, for they are selling the luck of the money, which is not theirs and is not in their power. “Nay,” you say, “it can buy income from a piece of ground.” I answer, It does not do so yet, and perhaps it never will. Hans can take a Gretchen, but he has her not yet, and so he is not yet married.
Your money can buy income; that is half of it, but the deal depends on the rest of it – the acceptance and the other half. But now the rich merchants want to sell the good fortune of their money, and that without any bad fortune, and sell the will and intentions of other people besides, because it rests with them whether the sale can be made. That is selling the thirteenth bear-skin.
I say, further, that it is not enough that the ground be there and be named, but it must be described parcel by parcel and the money placed on it and the income to be got from it indicated, as, for example, the house, the garden, the meadow, the pond, the cattle, and all this free and unsold and unencumbered. They must not play the blind cow in the community and place a burden on the whole property. If this provision is not made, a town, or a poor man, must be sold in a sack and utterly ruined by the blind bargain, as we see happening now in many cities and states. The reason is this – the trade of a city may fall off, citizens become fewer, houses burn down, fields, meadows and all the ground run down and the goods and the cattle of every householder grow less, more children come; or it may be burdened with some other misfortune. Thus the wealth slips away, but the blind bargain, made with the whole property of the community, remains. Thus the poor and small remnant of wealth must bear the burden and expense of the whole former lot; and this can never be right. The buyer is sure of his income and has no risk, and this is against the nature of any real bargain; and it would not be so, if the property were described parcel by parcel, and the income were to fluctuate with the value of the ground, as is right.
The only way of defending this business against the charge of usury – and it would do so better than all talk of interest – would be that the buyer of income have the same risk and uncertainty about his income that he has about all his other property. For with his property the receiver of income is subject to the power of God – death, sickness, flood, fire, wind, hail, thunder, rain, wolves, wild beasts, and the manifold losses inflicted by wicked men. All these risks should apply to the buyer of income, for upon this, and on nothing else, his income rests; nor has he any right to receive income for his money, unless the payer of the income, or seller of the property, specifically agrees, and can have free and entire and unhindered use of his own labor. This is proved from nature, Reason, and all laws, which agree in saying that in a sale the risk lies with the buyer, for the seller is not bound to guarantee his wares to the buyer. Thus when I buy the income from a particular parcel of ground, I do not buy the ground, but the labor of the seller upon the ground, by which he is to bring me my income. I therefore take all the risk of hindrance that may come to his labor, insofar as it does not come from his fault or neglect, whether by the elements, beasts, men, sickness, or anything else. In these things the seller of the income has as great interest as the buyer, so that if, after due diligence, his labor is unprofitable, he ought and can say freely to the receiver of the income, “This year I owe you nothing, for I sold you my labor for the production of income from this and that property; I have not succeeded; the loss is yours and not mine; for if you would have interest on my profits, you must also have an interest in my losses, as the nature of a bargain requires.” The owners of income, who will not put up with that, are just as pious as robbers and murderers, and wrest from the poor man his property and his living. Woe to them!
From this it follows that the blind trade in incomes that are based not on a designated piece of property, but on the land of a whole community, or many properties taken together, is wrong. For although the purchaser of income cannot show on what property the charge rests, he has, nevertheless, no risk, never accepts the possibility that income may fail here or there, and wants to be sure of his income. But perhaps you will say, “If this were to be the case, who would buy income?” I answer: See there!
I knew very well that if human nature were to do the right thing, it would turn up its nose. Now it comes out that in this trade in incomes the only things that are sought are safety, avarice, and usury.
O how many cities, lands, and people must pay these charges, when it has long since been men’s duty to remit them! For if this risk is not taken, the purchase of incomes is simply usury. They go on endowing churches and monasteries and altars and this and that, and yet there is no limit to the trade in incomes, just as though it were possible for wealth, persons, luck, products, and labor to be alike in all years. However equal or unequal these things may be, the charge must go on at the same rate. Ought this not ruin land and people? I am surprised that the world still stands, with this boundless usury going on! It is thus that the world has improved! What in earlier days was called a loan, is now changed into the purchase of income.
The income purchase is sometimes made in such a way that income is bought from those to whom the buyer ought to lend or give something. That is utterly worthless, for God’s commandment stands in the way, and it is His will that the needy shall be helped by loans or gifts.
Again it happens that both buyer and seller need their property, and therefore neither of them can lend or give, but they have to help themselves with such a bargain. If this is done without breaking the church-law which provides for the payment of four, five, or six gulden on the hundred, it can be endured; but respect should be always had for the fear of God, which fears to take too much rather than too little, in order that avarice may not have its way in a decent business deal. The smaller the percentage the more divine and Christian the deal.
It is not my affair, however, to point out when one ought to pay five, four, or six percent. I leave it for the law to decide when the property is so good and so rich that one can charge six percent. It is my opinion, however, that if we were to keep Christ’s command about the first three degrees, the purchase of incomes would not be so common or so necessary, except in cases where the amounts were considerable and the properties large. But the practice has got down to groschen and pfennige and deals with little sums that could easily be taken care of by gifts or loans in accordance with Christ’s command. And yet they will not call this avarice.
There are some who not only deal in little sums, but also take too much return – seven, eight, nine, ten percent. The rulers ought to look into this. Here the poor common people are secretly imposed upon and severely oppressed. For this reason these robbers and usurers often die an unnatural and sudden death, or come to a terrible end (as tyrants and robbers deserve), for God is a judge for the poor and needy, as He often says in the Old Law.
But then they say, “The churches and the clergy do this and have done it, because this money is used for the service of God.” Truly if a man has nothing else to do than to justify usury, a worse thing could not be said about him, for he would take the innocent church and the clergy with him to the devil and lead them into sin. Leave the name of the Church out of it, and say, “It is usury-seeking avarice that does not like to work to earn its bread, and so makes the name of the Church a cloak for idleness.”
Why talk of service of God? The service of God is to keep His commandments, so that no one steals, robs, overreaches, or the like, but gives and lends to the needy. You would tear down this service of God in order to build churches, endow altars, and have mass read and prayers sung; though God has commanded none of these things, and with your service of God you bring the true service of God to naught. Put in the first place the service of God that He has commanded, and let the service of God that you have chosen for yourself come along behind. As I said above, if all the world were to take ten percent, the church endowments should keep strictly to the law, and take four or five, with fear; for they ought to let their light shine, and give an example to the worldly. But they turn things around, and would have freedom to leave God’s commandments and His service in order to do evil and practice usury. If you would serve God your way, then serve Him without injuring your neighbor, and without failing to keep God’s commandments. For He says in Isaiah 61, “I am a God that loves justice and I hate the sacrifice that is stolen.” The Wise Man also says, “Give alms of that which is thine.” But these overcharges are stolen from your neighbor, against God’s commandment.
But if anyone is afraid that the churches and endowments will go down, I say that it is better to take ten endowments and make of them one that is according to the will of God, than to keep many against God’s commandment. What good does a service do you if it is against God’s commandment and contrary to the true serving of God? You cannot serve God with two kinds of service that contradict one another, any more than you can serve two masters.
There are also some simple folk who sell these incomes without having ground or security, or sell more than the ground can bear, and this leads to evident ruin. This matter is very dangerous and goes so far that it is hard to say enough about it. The best thing would be to turn back to the Gospel, approach it, and practice Christian dealing with goods as has been said.
There is also in this business a dangerous tendency, from which I fear that none of the buyers of income – at least very few of them – are free. It is that they want their income and their property to be sure and safe, and therefore place their money with others, instead of keeping it and taking risks. They very much prefer that other people shall work with it and take the risks, so that they themselves can be idle and lazy, and yet stay rich or become rich. If that is not usury, it is very much like it. Briefly, it is against God. If you seek to take an advantage of your neighbor which you will not let him take of you, then love is gone and the natural law is broken. Now, I fear that, in this buying of income, we pay little heed to the success of our neighbor, if only our income and our property are safe, though safety is the very thing we ought not to seek. This is certainly a sign of greed or laziness, and although it does not make the business worse, it is, nevertheless, sin in the eyes of God.
Back in Saxony and Lueneburg and Holstein, the thing is done so crudely that it would be no wonder if one man were to devour another.
There they not only take nine or ten percent, or whatever they can get, but they have also hitched a special device on to it. It goes this way – if a man lets me have a thousand gulden for income, I have to take instead of cash money, so many horses or cows, so much bacon, wheat, etc., that he cannot get rid of otherwise, or cannot sell for so high a price. Thus the money that I get amounts to scarcely half of the sum named, say, to five hundred gulden, though the goods and the cattle are of no use to me, or may bring me in scarcely one or two hundred gulden. These fellows are not highway robbers, but common house thieves. What shall we say about this? These men are not men at all, but wolves and senseless beasts, who do not believe there is a God.
In a word, for all this usury and unfair securing of income there is no better advice than to follow the law and example of Moses. We ought to bring all these charges under the ordinance that that which shall be taken or sold or given shall be a tithe, or in case of need a ninth, or an eighth, or a sixth.
Thus everything would be fair, and all depend on the grace and blessing of God. If the tithe turned out well in any year, it would bring the creditor a large sum; if it turned out badly, the creditor would bear the risk as well as the debtor, and both would have to look to God. In that case, the income could not be fixed at any given amount, nor would that be necessary, but it would always remain uncertain how much the tithe would yield and yet the tithe would be certain.
The tithe, therefore, is the best of all fixed charges and it has been in use since the beginning of the world, and in the Old Law it is praised and established as the fairest of all arrangements according to divine and natural law. By it, if the tenth did not reach, or were not enough, one could take and sell a ninth, or fix any amount that the land or house could stand.
fixed the fifth as the amount to be taken, or found it so fixed and customary
But now that incomes are bought in definite and certain amounts, all years are equal, good and bad alike, and land and people must be ruined. The purchaser buys the same income for unequal and equal years, poor years and rich years; nay, he buys a blessing that God has not yet given for a blessing that is already given. That can never be right, for by that means one sucks another’s sweat and blood. Therefore it is no wonder that in the few years that the buying of incomes has been practiced, i.e., about a hundred years, all princedoms and lands have been impoverished and pawned and ruined.
But if the sale or income were based, not on produce, but on houses or places that were gained and acquired by manual labor, it could be justified by the law of Moses, by having a “jubilee year” in these things and not selling the income in perpetuity. For I think that, since this business is in such a disordered state, we could have no better examples or laws than the laws which God provided for His people, and with which He ruled them.
He is as wise as human Reason can be, and we need not be ashamed to keep and follow the law of the Jews in this matter, for it is profitable and good.
Emperor, kings, princes and lords ought to watch over this matter and look to their lands and peoples, to help them and rescue them from the horrible jaws of avarice, and things would be so much the better for them. The diets should deal with this as one of the most necessary things, but they let this lie, and serve, meanwhile, the pope’s tyranny, burdening lands and people more and more, until at last they must go to destruction because the land can no longer endure them, but must spew them out.
God give them His light and grace. Amen.