But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “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.”
Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
-Luke 19:8-9 (NIV)
Police in the village of Bidingen, Germany, got more of a result than they probably expected when they published an appeal in a newspaper asking anyone who may have witnessed a bicycle theft to come forward.
After the theft, police took out the ad asking for anyone who might have seen anything or known anything to step up and help the investigation. They identified the bike and the location from which it was stolen, and they mentioned that the bike was worth 400 euros, or about $500. Apparently the police got little direct response. But the victim got a letter.
A letter from the thief.
The thief didn’t identify himself in any way, but he wrote that he was very sorry for stealing the bike. He said that he would like to return it, but that he couldn’t remember where he had left it. But he did the next best thing.
Inside the envelope, with the letter, the victim found 400 euros.
After the letter came to the victim, Police spokesperson Gerhard Kreis commented that the thief “may just have been a thoroughly honest person who saw the error of his ways.” And he added, “You still get them you know.” He’s right, of course; there are – and always have been, and always will be – people in the world with moral compasses reliable enough that they can tell when they’re off course. But it has to be a somewhat unusual experience for police anywhere to come across one who will write a letter of apology to a victim – especially when they haven’t been caught. And it has to be even less common for a thief who no one has been able to identify to pay someone back for what he’s taken.
Though it’s not a word we use much, what that thief did is called restitution. To make restitution is to make amends for a wrong done to another person, to take responsibility for the unjust action and to make up for it as much as possible. It’s not a word – or an idea – that many of us are very familiar with, though, because it’s not something our culture or our judicial system reinforces. Take stealing as an example. In our world, if you steal you’ve broken a law. If you’re caught you’re prosecuted by the state in the name of the people, and if you’re convicted you’ll do some time in jail and/or pay a fine to the state. Once you’ve served your sentence, you’re said to have “paid your debt to society.” Insurance companies replace the possessions you’ve taken from the victim, and the matter is closed. The state’s laws have been broken, the offender has been punished, and justice has been done.
Except that the thief has not had the opportunity to look his victim in the eye, express his remorse for what he has done, and make restitution. There is no need for that, we think, because the prosecutor has done his job and the judge has done his and the insurance company theirs. The problem with that is that it fails to take into account that a crime such as stealing is not only an offense against “the people”, but also an offense against a specific person.
Not surprisingly, we tend to take that view when it comes to sin as well. When we do wrong, we tend to see it as a violation of God’s law. Of course, we can’t do enough time to make up for our sin, so we’re very thankful that Jesus died for us. And when we receive God’s forgiveness in the name of Jesus, by his grace the debt is paid. It’s like that sin was never committed, we are often told – and often tell ourselves.
Now I believe that, and I’m thankful for it. It’s true that God in his grace “forgives” sins through the work of Jesus on the cross. That’s important, because I need to know that I don’t carry a debt in my relationship with God. But it overlooks the fact that most, if not all, of the sins we commit are not only sins against God. They involve others.
Remember Zacchaeus? Crooked tax collector who financed his big house and opulent lifestyle by taking more taxes from his countrymen than he had to pay to Rome? But then he met Jesus, and Jesus went and ate with him and sometime between the soup course and dessert Zacchaeus found his plate piled high with forgiveness and grace. It turns out that God loves cheaters too. And who wouldn’t be glad?
Well, if you were one of those Zacchaeus cheated, you wouldn’t be glad. You’d remember, maybe, that because of him you’d lost your house. Or maybe you had an empty pantry. Or maybe your infant child had died of malnutrition. You wouldn’t be glad, you’d be angry, because while your stomach growled and your children cried, Zacchaeus would still be sitting in his big house, enjoying the grace of God.
But before Jesus can even announce the forgiveness that has come to his house, Zacchaeus is making restitution. He gives half of what he has to the poor – victims of the inequity he’s helped to create. He gives back money he’s unjustly taken, with 400% interest. A lot of financial situations in Jericho changed that day because Zacchaeus understood what sin is and what grace demands.
Let me be the first to remind you that, if you’ve put your trust in Jesus, salvation has come to your house, too. By God’s grace, and God’s grace alone, you are included in the promises that God has made to his people for millennia. Don’t doubt that; take hold of it and take joy in it!
But don’t forget that sin – even sin forgiven by God – still hurts people. In every one of our lives is someone against whom we’ve sinned, someone we’ve injured in our more selfish moments. Maybe it’s your husband or wife. Maybe it’s your parents, or your children. A good friend, a colleague, a neighbor?
Ask God to open your eyes to those folks, and to help you find ways to make restitution. It won’t always be money – in fact, it might rarely be money. But there are ways you can give back what you never should have taken, repair what you should never have damaged, heal scars you never should have created. The grace you’ve received from God demands nothing less. True repentance, true remorse, always involves some kind of restitution.
If nothing else, maybe you could start by writing a letter….