Is restitution a biblical mandate?

Restitution is the act of returning something that has been lost or stolen or compensating for the theft of or damage to property. In the Bible, it most often refers to an owner being reimbursed by someone who has stolen or harmed the owner's property. It is completely biblical for someone to pay for damages or loss. But it is not necessarily biblical for a Christian owner to demand restitution.

Restitution was a significant part of the law God gave Moses. The Bible expected that if property, livestock, or even oneself were harmed or taken, the owner would be compensated. Several laws regarding biblical restitution can be found in Exodus 21—22.

- Exodus 21:7-11: If a woman's husband rejects her, he is required to provide her marital rights, anyway.

- Exodus 21:18-19, 22: When the Good Samaritan provided for the wounded man, he wasn't just being kind. He was fulfilling the principle of restitution for an injured man. It was standard to compensate a victim for the work they were unable to do and provide for their care during convalescence.

- Exodus 21:20-21, 26-27: Most likely, the "slave" was a Hebrew who had sold himself to indentured servitude for seven years to clear a debt. If the owner killed the slave, the owner would be punished because he killed a person. If the slave lived a day or two, there was no definitive way anyone could say the death was directly caused by the injuries, so the owner was not judiciously punished, but because the slave was part of his household, he had already lost the labor and provided for the slave's convalescence (equivalent to Exodus 21:18-19, 22, as the owner owned the labor). But if the owner harmed the sight or teeth of a slave, the slave was free to go, and the rest of their debt was cleared.

- Exodus 21:28-30, 32: If an ox killed someone, it would be stoned as the murderer of a person. If the ox was known to be violent, the owner would also have to pay, either by being stoned, or by redeeming his life with money.

- Exodus 21:33-34: If a man's carelessness caused the death of another's animal, the careless man had to pay the value of a live animal and deal with the carcass stuck in a pit.

- Exodus 22:1-3: The payment for injury or death was one-for-one; the repayment for theft was much higher. For oxen, five oxen were required; for sheep, four sheep were required. One reason for the discrepancy may be that oxen are gelded. Four sheep could make many baby sheep, but gelded oxen can't make baby oxen.

- Exodus 22:5-6: Carelessness, either by unsupervised animals or by burning chaff from fields, that caused damage to a neighbor's property, was to be repaid from the careless farmer's own produce.

- Exodus 22:14-15: If a man borrowed an animal or a piece of equipment from a neighbor and damaged it, he was required to make restitution. But if the owner came along to help or supervise, the owner should have prevented the damage, and no restitution was necessary.

- Exodus 22:16-17: If a man seduces a virgin, but her father does not consider him an appropriate match for his daughter, the man needed to provide a bride-price. The woman was no longer eligible to be married to another man (except to a particularly gracious man, like the husband of Rahab), and she would need support the rest of her life since she would never have a son to care for her.

In the Bible, restitution was expected and those who do not repay show a lack of good character. Psalm 37:21 says, "The wicked borrows but does not pay back, but the righteous is generous and gives." Zacchaeus, a tax collector who Jesus met, exemplified the beauty of restitution. When confronted with his lifestyle of stealing under the guise of government work, he admitted his sin and restored to the people four times what he had stolen from them (Luke 19:7-10).

The Old Testament law was based on restitution. It was more practical than modern imprisonment because it actually fixed the wrong that the owner suffered and directly matched the punishment to the crime. In addition, it served as an illustration of our position before God. Exodus 22:10-13 talks about an owner entrusting a friend with something precious that gets stolen, broken, or killed. In a way, God did that with us when He breathed into us and gave us life. We destroyed that life through our sin. Through the practice of restitution, we realize how much we owe God, and how we can never, ever pay back what we have taken from Him.

The New Testament addresses restitution from both the debtor and the owner's point of view. Romans 13:7-8 says, "Pay to all what is owed to them … Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law."

But the theme of the New Testament is the forgiveness of obligation. The parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35) is an illustration of how God forgives our debt and how He expects us to forgive those who owe us. Matthew 5:42 is the perfect example. It says, "Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you." The "give" in the first part of the verse doesn't mean to lend with the expectation of a return; it means to give freely to meet another's need. Matthew 6:12 shows that our relationship with God depends to a large degree on how much we forgive others. Even the Old Testament created a culture of debt forgiveness. Hebrew slaves were only to be held for seven years, and every fifty years, at the Year of Jubilee, every debt was to be forgiven, and the land restored to the family which originally owned it.

As believers, we should deal honestly with the world. We should repay our debts and give restitution for the harm we have caused. But we should also show love to others by forgiving what is owed us. It is not wrong to receive restitution, or even to request it. Civil justice exists for a reason (Romans 13:1–7) and forgiveness does not necessarily imply lack of consequences. However, our heart should be one of forgiveness and gentleness. We never seek restitution as a means of vengeance (Romans 12:19–21). Instead, we are to love our enemies and refrain from retaliation (Matthew 5:38–42). We do not demand our rights, but treat others with love, trusting in God's provision. And we should always remember the debt that we owe Jesus for dying on the cross for our sins. For this debt, we will never be able to make restitution.

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