The concept of restitution in the Old Testament is often said to refer to repayment of stolen property, but Numbers 5:6-7 makes it clear that the principle is broader and should be applied if we wrong another “in any way.” We also have other Old Testament scriptures specifically showing restitution for any type of loss we cause. For example: “If a man borrows an animal from his neighbor and it is injured or dies ... he must make restitution” (Exodus 22:1, 3-6, 14).
Certainly, if we have intentionally or even unintentionally defrauded anyone of anything, we should make restitution for what we have taken. We see a clear example of this in the New Testament where Luke tells us that when Jesus was passing through Jericho, “A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy” (Luke 19:2). Unfortunately, some of this man’s wealth may have come from overcharging on the taxes he had power to collect. But Zacchaeus told Jesus: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).
Zacchaeus doubtless knew that the law only commanded him to repay with an additional fifth of what he had taken, but he was glad to pay back with even greater restitution. Jesus welcomed this repentant attitude and stated that salvation had come to the tax collector that day (Luke 19:9). Clearly, Jesus approved of Zacchaeus’ attitude of restitution, and the New Testament records the tax collector’s words for our edification.
So is there a principle in these biblical verses from which we can learn and one we can apply today? How about the item we borrowed from a friend and damaged in some way before we returned it? Or what about the time we were over at our friend’s home and accidentally knocked over a vase or spilled a staining beverage on their new carpet? It’s often considered polite for the host to gloss over such accidents, but as Christians we should always consider the principle of restitution – to insist on paying to clean the carpet we have stained or to replace the item we damaged. If the person whose property we have damaged will not accept direct restitution, then a gift of something else might certainly be appropriate according to the spirit of the principle of restitution.
While people may say the damage we have caused does not matter, humanly, it often does matter. Restitution can help others not be upset as they may feel deep down that the right thing would be to have insisted on paying for our damage. As Mark Twain candidly noted in a different context: “When a man says it’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing – it’s the money.” Even when people are gracious about loss we cause them, the principle of restitution is the application of love and the “golden rule.”
So consider applying the principle of restitution in your own life. Did you lose or damage a borrowed item? – Why not replace it with something better? Did you borrow a friend’s car? – How about returning it with more gasoline than it had when you started out? There are many ways we can apply the principle of restitution. It may not be a “law” we are obligated to keep, but it’s a principle we should want to follow.