Restitution Far Superior to Imprisonment
In the wake of what seems like the regular bust-boom cycle of modern planned economies, no great insight is required to see that the rich get richer, and regular investors are left holding the bag. One often finds that the CEO’s of banks and corporations knew that the bubble was about to bust, sold their interests for huge profits, and then walked away to their next lucrative post. And then, jails are filled with a growing percentage of our population, usually for theft and drug-related crimes. Increasingly jails are operated by private companies that sign lucrative contacts with state and federal governments, on the condition that they keep the prison occupancy rates at an agreed upon level. The losers are those who are locked up with bad company, usually going from bad to worse. The winners are the companies that own the prisons. The victims of these crimes rarely receive restitution, for monies go first to attorneys’ fees, then to state penalties, and if anything is left, the victim might receive some compensation. God’s wisdom is far superior to man’s. His prescribed penalty for theft is personal restitution for what is stolen. Imagine applying this to market manipulators, inside traders, corporate CEO’s, and shady politicians – that they have to give all the money they stole back to individual shareholders, with varying percentages of restitution, depending upon the circumstances of their thievery.
Restitution is far superior to imprisonment. First and most importantly, this is God’s prescribed penalty for theft. When he is longer feared as the Judge of the all the earth, the wisdom of his law will be ignored. Justice will then inevitably respect persons, corporate shields, and social status. And since God owns everything, he alone can tell us how it is proper to penalize those who steal property that does not belong to him. Second, in a just society, the thief would compensate the victim, not the state. This effectively puts the state out of the crime business, other than as an executer of justice against evildoers. Third, the thief would have to deal directly with his victim. Crime is personal; it is human lives that are taken, property that is stolen, pain and injury to men that result from negligence. Restitution makes the crime personal for the thief; restitution is made not to a calendar on the wall but to a fellowman whom he has defrauded. In such a system, fourth, the thief would continue to work while making restitution. His crime would be personally painful and costly. What men need most is to be held personally responsible for their actions – from highest to lowest in society – for this teaches them that God holds them personally responsible. And finally, restitution removes the burden of the entire incarceration scheme from the backs of taxpayers and places the cost of crime upon those who commit it.
The American penal system is based upon three false and dangerous assumptions. First, loss of personal liberty is the greatest of all penalties. This is simply not true, as is evidenced by the fact that a significant percentage of the prison population is repeat offenders who are in and out of prison for life. They are slaves to their sins and seem to prefer, albeit perhaps not consciously, the security of imprisonment. Second, loss of personal liberty is a justice recompense for crime. Whose justice says this? That of a state claiming omniscience, perhaps, but certainly not the victims of theft, who would much prefer to have back what was taken from them. A third assumption is that men need to be rehabilitated rather than make restitution, which is based upon false psychology. Men are never rehabilitated by being placed in confinement with the criminal element of society. They are rehabilitated by being made to pay for their actions. If we would take but a small portion of what is currently required to house millions of inmates nationwide and used that money to set up restitution work programs, the dignity of men would rise, the pinch of crime be felt more personally, victims’ rights receive due prominence, and God honored as the true protector and owner of men and property.
But there is another side to these laws, a spiritual side, for the Lord is not only concerned with his honor in the world and the good order of the kingdom of his Son among men, but he is also teaching us at least two higher truths by these particular laws. First, everything we have belongs to him, and therefore, whether the property is our own or our neighbor’s, we are custodians of God’s generosity. Because men are dead in sin and blind to all but their own interests, much public business is temporally ruined and will be judged by the failure to submit to his authority on this point. You and I have nothing that we have not received by God’s generosity (1 Cor. 4:7), and therefore we must not claim anything as belonging to ourselves. The second truth is that good intentions do not free us from personal responsibility for our actions. Young and old, we hear this excuse: “I did not mean to do this or that.” God’s voice then comes, “Yes, but you did it.” Many will come to his judgment seat and says quite sincerely, “I did not mean to come here. I did not mean for my actions to have this result, for my life to come to this doom.” God’s voice as the righteous Judge will then come and say, “Yes, but you did come here, and your sins have found you out.” Let us remember this as we study these laws. Let parents remember this truth when raising children. Each one of us is personally accountable to God our Maker and Jesus our King. We shall soon stand before him. Are we ready to do so?
Restitution God’s Justice for Theft (vv. 1-4)
Multifold, Twofold, Slavery
The laws for punishing thieves are straightforward and just. If their equity were followed today, it would be revolutionary for most western penal codes and an eternal mercy for many thieves. Intentional thefts, thefts that are carried through so that the stolen merchandise is destroyed or killed, must be repaid by multiples that reflect the intrinsic value of the property stolen and its usefulness to the rightful owner. Oxen had many uses – food, labor, sacrifice – and thus they were to be restored at a rate of five to one, while a sheep with less use at a lesser rate of four to one. This heavy restitution is not at a fixed rate, for these laws are general guides. A man whose television is stolen should not expect to have restitution made at the same level as the man whose work truck and tools are stolen. If the thief still has the merchandise on hand, then the required restitution is only twofold (v. 4). As an additional incentive to confess and restore quickly, if the thief confesses and returns the stolen property on his own, he is required to make only one-fifth restitution (Lev. 6:4-5). We might expect – “and he must go to jail…” But a man may fall into thieving for a variety of reasons, and incarceration will not deal with his heart and will worsen his circumstances. The stolen goods must be returned; he must learn to work for his bread (Eph. 4:28). The thief must be made to feel the pinch of his crime and take personal responsibility for his actions. If he has nothing with which to repay, he is remanded to servitude, so that while he continues to work for his bread, he may accumulate what he needs to make restitution.
Death Likely for Nighttime Burglary
The question naturally raises, “What if a thief is caught breaking into a house, and the owner kills him? Should the homeowner be punished? Not if the death occurred at night. It is expected that the owner of the house will defend himself and his family. In the darkness of night, there is no time to ascertain whether or not the burglar is armed or intends bodily harm. “Shoot first” is the natural and justifiable response, and the homeowner is not to be punished. He has in effect become an authorized agent of God’s justice. If the break-in and death occurs in daylight, however, the owner, while he may defend himself and family if life is threatened, may not adopt a “shoot first” response. A range of legitimate responses would be to scare the intruder away, quickly ascertain the true bodily threat, and perhaps wound or capture the thief so as to stop the incident, but in daylight, full restitution is made: life for life. To shoot first, as if a thief’s life is of less value than the homeowner’s, is false and unjust. Self-defense is permissible, for life belongs to God; reckless, unnecessary killing is to be met with execution, for life belongs to God. He alone can tell us when it is proper to take life. This truth is so much at the heart of God’s law that, to take but one example, a recovery of Christian faith through public repentance would result in widespread social changes in views about warfare, abortion, and vehicular homicide. Life for life is God’s rule, so that we are all taught to treat human life carefully. And if it is a question between defending my property and taking a human life, at least in the daylight, life comes first. Our homes are not our private castles in which we mete out judgment as we please.
Negligence and Property Damage (vv. 5-6)
In agrarian societies, loose animals and field fires were serious issues. A season’s produce might be lost due to another man’s animal or flock breaking in and grazing, perhaps for days before being noticed. Fires were a regular threat to life and livelihoods. The laws envisioned in these verses are based upon the personal responsibility of the perpetrator, even if the cause of the damage was accidental. The idea of negligence or reasonable care is undoubtedly at the heart of these laws – that I am responsible on a daily basis to make sure my animals are properly penned, and if there is any loss, I have to make it good from the best of my produce (v. 5). If I start a fire, I must make sure it is completely extinguished, for if a spark starts a fire and property is damaged, I am responsible to make good the loss (v. 6). If I start a campfire, think I have put it out, but then it blazes up when I leave and burns down other homes, I am personally responsible. I am responsible if the exhaust from my factory causes cancer to the local inhabitants, or poisons the drinking water. A corporate veil is one of Satan’s deception – along with many forms of insurance – that hide from men a basic truth about God’s world. I am personally responsible for my actions. That I did not intend to cause damage, harm, injury, or death by my actions does not free me from the consequences of those actions. Because we live in a fallen world, there will be accidents, but the human agents of those accidents are responsible, not because they are necessarily evil or criminal, but because what my hand takes away, my hand must make good.
Men will scream at the bar of human justice the same excuses they plan to try before God’s tribunal on that awful day – I did not mean to; this is not fair. But we see that God teaches us by this law not to evade personal responsibility for our actions. Consequences are painful and difficult to bear. What if a business has to shut down because it was determined that the exhaust from its manufacturing caused infertility through the area, and the costs of restitution were so high that the business should not continue? Most manufacturing concerns have liability insurance, but one must seriously question whether this is helpful or actually encourages the laissez-faire attitude that God condemns. If a company owner was ignorant that his operations were causing health issues, then his punishment is much less than for criminal, willful theft of his neighbor’s health. In both cases, there must be restitution. This would make everyone much more careful in the operation of their business, quick to repair broken steps, honest in their chemical analyses, transparent in reporting, and vigilant in taking every precaution to preserve life and property. And if men were held accountable for human health damage and deaths caused by manufacturing byproducts, food processing methods, pesticides, or water treatment practices, that no corporate shield could protect liars from God’s life for life principle of justice, I dare say that we should soon see a great change throughout society. Profit would still be sought, but not at the expense of human life. God holds us responsible, and civil justice must do the same.
Taking Care of a Neighbor’s Property (vv. 7-15)
In the days before banks and other storage options, your neighbor was your best option. If you had to travel and could not take movable property with you, entrusting it to your neighbor’s care was often your only option. Fallen men necessarily value their own property more highly than their neighbor’s, but God’s law of love and liberty directs us to have the same solicitude for his property as we do for our own. Thus, if entrusted property is found to be stolen, the restitution laws apply (v. 7). If the thief is not found, suspicion will necessarily fall upon the man to whom the property was entrusted (v. 8). What is the property owner to do? Appeal must be made to the judges, who must investigate, with the guilty party liable for restitution (v. 9). In the case of an entrusted animal, if it is lost, dies, or driven away without any witnesses seeing exactly what happened, then the man to whom the property was entrusted must swear before the Lord that he has not stolen his neighbor’s property. The property owner must accept this, trusting that God is a good property owner and knows what has happened. If the property trustee is a thief, the theft and the false oath he will be repay (vv. 10-11). If a theft has occurred, double restitution is required (v. 12). If the entrusted animal is torn, the property trustee shall bring witnesses (the carcass of the torn beast?) and shall not be obliged to make it good (v. 13).
If an animal is borrowed (or a lawnmower, personal loan, or automobile), and the animal die or the engine quits while it is being borrowed, then the borrower must make it good. It was hurt or died while he had possession of his neighbor’s property, and he is responsible. If the owner is present when the accident occurs, the borrower is not held liable, for the owner was there to witness that his property was not being abused (v. 14). If a man hires out a car and it quits running, he is not held liable, for he paid for the use of the vehicle (v. 15). The tendency of these laws is clear. First, we must be careful with our neighbor’s property and are responsible for it while it is in our care. The same is true of investment fund managers, who again are allowed to speculate, take their cut, sometimes defraud investors, and are rarely held accountable. But loaned money to banks and investment firms are subject to the same provisions. We must treat others’ goods and monies as if they were our own. The liability that ensures for lost, stolen, or borrowed property, if it were made personal, as God’s law intends, would certainly keep down some of the fraudulent dealings we see in our nation, especially with monetary speculation. No amount of professional certifications or insurance policies should preserve men and companies from being held personally liable for their mismanagement, carelessness, and outright theft. Those entrusted with the property of others should be the last to be taken care of in the event of market crashes. The world may have changed somewhat since God gave these laws, but justice has not. Men have not. The duties of love remain the same. Against the murderous lies of Cain, we are our brother’s keeper, and the keeper of his life, his goods, and his wellbeing. This is one of the most basic principles of love and a necessary foundation for justice. Otherwise, evolutionary biting and devouring and theft will be institutionalized among us, with justice bought and sold to the cleverest thief.
The Gospel Rehabilitation of Thieves: Zacchaeus (Luke 19:9)
Repentance Proved by Restitution
In the famous conversion of Zacchaeus, we have a living testimony to the power of repentance. Far, far from the law being oppressive, this converted tax collector wanted to obey the requirements of the law. He had grown rich from underhanded dealings, probably keeping two sets of books – one for the government and one for himself – and I do not think this practice has perished from the earth! Why did Zacchaeus stop doing business this way? He was confronted by the glory of Jesus Christ. He heard the gospel, and his thieving heart was confronted and convicted. His profit-idol was cast down. Zacchaeus invited Jesus to his house, where he learned more. His repentance was proven to be genuine by the restitution he pledged to make. He promised to return 400% of what he had taken. Some have said that since the return of the stolen money was voluntary, he was only required to repay 120% (Lev. 6:4-5). But Zacchaeus knew the blackness of his heart. He was not trying to see how little he could repay and how much he could keep for himself. True repentance is like this – not how much it must confess, return, forsake – but how much it may love, thank, adore, and dedicate. And our Lord’s response: “This day has salvation come to this house” (Luke 19:9-10).
Love Restores More Than Required
Already Zacchaeus showed his repentance by his submission to the limits of the law, but true repentance does not look at the minimum. When our hearts are renewed by the power of the Holy Ghost, like Zacchaeus, we want to do more. He pledged to give half of his goods to the poor. We should not think he was being magnanimous or playing to his audience or currying favor with the Lord. He loved his newfound Lord. As the early believers willingly sold property and goods to provide for their needy brothers and sisters, so Zacchaeus, being released from deadly love of money, began to do what he had never done before. He looked around to those in need. Remember that this 50% would have been from what was left after he made the fullest possible restitution. And our Lord commended him for both – obedience to the law and freewill love from the heart. They are not opposed, as many say. Had Zacchaeus only given the 50% from his abundance, his gift would have been false charity, his largesse swollen by his ill-gotten gains, like many notable philanthropists of our day – making a bundle by questionable means, and then generously giving away what was not rightfully theirs to give in the first place! Not Zacchaeus: his generosity was legitimate because it sprang from obedience to God’s holy word. His love was legitimate because he first made restitution. He made many poor people happy. Even more, he humbly gained our Lord’s approbation, and is even now with him, with a true crown upon his head. This is the power of the gospel – it brings us face to face with our sins, shows us our only remedy in the blood of Jesus Christ, and then empowers our hearts to obey God by the indwelling Spirit.
Of all the positive lessons we take from the wisdom of God’s justice pertaining to restitution, perhaps the most eternal is taking seriously our personal responsibility to right our wrongs, pay for our mistakes, and accept responsibility for our actions regardless of our intentions. Consider our words – does it matter that we do not intend to hurt, when we actually do hurt? And yet, how many run roughshod over the feelings of others, even belittling those feelings, all the while saying things like, “Well, I cannot help the way you took what I said.” These laws on theft teach us a different lesson. Whatever our intentions, we are responsible for our words, accidents we cause, losses that others incur through our carelessness. What is most dangerous is that we take our responsibility evading ways straight into heaven, or we would if we were allowed to do so. It is not my fault. I did not mean to do it. God cuts right through that and teaches us to man-up, as they say, not arrogantly, but with great meekness. He holds us accountable for our words and deeds – every idle word, every careless hearing of his word, the smallest action. And his law is designed, therefore, to get us ready for his summons to the great assize in heaven.
Many think that because Jesus Christ has died for our sins, that no further accounting is to be made, but this is not the teaching of Scripture. There is a judgment of reward. The works of some will be burnt up (1 Cor. 3:15), although they will be saved. God’s children widely differ in their fruitfulness. The Lord bestows his grace and talents as he pleases. And yet, this is said to inspire us to faithfulness, to devote our heart to our Savior, so that whether he has given many or a few gifts, whether our measure of faith is great or small, we may do all to his name. Perhaps the first step to greater faithfulness is to take personal responsibility and to yield to God’s restitution justice. Begin in your homes and relationships within the church. Begin by taking serious stock of what you are doing with what the Lord has given to you. He has given you gifts on loan, and he will expect an accounting. Let us love him and use his gifts to promote his glorious gospel of grace throughout the world. Whether we have been thieves – time, money, gifts – let us begin to repay what we owe, with joy, like Zacchaeus – and enjoy our Lord’s salvation.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. What are some ways that restitution is superior to imprisonment – specifically for theft crimes?
2. How does the distinction in penalty in vv. 2-3 teach us to treat all human life carefully?
3. Who is responsible for accidents? Implication for business owners? Chemical plants?
4. What must be our remarkable attitude toward our neighbor’s property?
5. How was Zacchaeus’ repentance proven to be legitimate?
6. How do these laws get us ready for the final judgment?
7. How should these laws inspire us to faithfulness?