Knowing When and How to Make Restitution

I. Sin and the Self

Some have said Roman Catholics take sin more seriously than Protestant do; that could well be debated, but in one sense that assessment might be right on target. It is not at all unusual for a priest hearing confession to tie restitution to having a wrong erased, well—pretty much erased, from one’s morality record. Rather than simply pronouncing forgiveness, the priest may say, “Say three Hail Mary’s, and you sin will be absolved,” or, if the sin or wrong is something that can be repaired, the priest’s prescribed restitution could involve fixing it or repairing as much as possible what the penitent parishioner has confessed to doing.

Many wrongs cannot be undone. A kid I was in elementary school with used to say, after classmates had made fun of him for being a nerd (a word we didn’t even have back then), “Sorry don’t put the hay back in the barn.” Later, I’m sure he learned to say, “Sorry doesn’t put the hay back in the barn.” Anyway, you get the point Eddie was making. The damage had already been done. The apology was nice enough, but the embarrassment the taunting had caused Eddie couldn’t be erased as easily as erasing Miss Garrett’s blackboard as far up as one of us could reach.

One Roman Catholic congregation has in its new member materials an explanation of the practice and the expectation for seeking forgiveness for moral failures along with what the new member might expect to hear from the hidden priest regarding penance or restitution. You will never find anything like this in any document produced by Silverside Church—even adapted to a progressive Protestantish slant:

After a person confesses her or his sins, and before the priest offers absolution, the priest imposes a penance. This is stipulated by Canon Law: “The confessor is to enjoin salutary and suitable penances in keeping with the quality and number of the sins but with attention to the condition of the penitent; the penitent is obliged to perform the penances personally.” The penance is supposed to “make satisfaction” for one’s sins, to reconcile or strengthen one’s relationship with God and neighbor, and to help the person grow in holiness. The old stand-by penance, the one routinely given for many years, was [to be required to say]…three Hail Mary’s. This penance has the advantage of being simple for the priest to assign and uncomplicated for the penitent to complete. While the priest may still assign a short prayer penance…priests [today] try to pay more attention to the penitent’s individual circumstances and then to tailor a penance that would be most helpful for that unique situation


I don’t know of any Protestants whose clergy do this sort of thing, formally at least. Many Protestant churches have either a unison prayer of confession or a time for silent prayers of confession during worship services, and after these times for confession the pastor may say something like: “Your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more.”

The critics of that Protestant practice, and Silverside folk don’t even get that much in their Gatherings because no one here sins, say that Protestants let the sinners off too easily. They say a rather mindless, “Slam. Bam. Thank you, God,” won’t do the trick.

Those who want to defend the typical Protestant practice say that those who have been sincere in their confession don’t need clergy to tell them what to do about the wrong they have done; if their confession was sincere they will rather automatically try to make amends if they can at all. One of the worst case scenarios according to my way of thinking evolved into Opus Dei, the tiny branch of Roman Catholicism that teaches self-flagellation as a way of dealing with personal wrongs. Many of us had never heard of such a thing until we saw or read The Da Vinci Code. It came to national attention while Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign was taking off because he has had a longstanding fascination with this group and its practices. Of greater concern, or of more importance depending on your point of view, as Pope John Paul II’s consideration for sainthood continues, a nun who once served as a personal aid to that Pope reported to the Vatican that he practiced self-flagellation. So far, we don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for someone who is being considered to be named one of the saints of the church. There aren’t many Opus Dei centers in the United States. You’ll be glad to know that one of them is in Philadelphia. Radical flagellents have been known to beat themselves, usually across the back, until the lashes bring blood. Today, one Opus Dei leader told a reporter, flagellents use a cotton whip that brings mild discomfort but not blood.

To makes it all worse, the God behind such practices hates the sinners more than they are taught to hate themselves. Groveling and appeasement are their only hopes for making always tenuous peace with this hateful, moody, and capricious God, and even with that it’s hard ever to feel OK about oneself. Therefore, the more we can hate ourselves the more in line with God’s thinking we are.

II. Zacchaeus

Zacchaeus is someone about whom most every child who has ever spent any time in Sunday School knows. As you grow up, if you continue to learn about the story, there’s much more to absorb than children can learn. What they can understand depending on their age is summed up nicely in the children’s Sunday School song:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.

And when Jesus passed that way
He looked up in the tree.
And said, “Zaccheus, you come down! For I’m going to your house you see!”

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
Now a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a very happy man was he.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. This means, as you may know, that he was considered a traitor to his sister- and brother Jews. Tax collectors were Jews whom Rome hired to collect taxes from other Jews. The taxes were staggering. Depending on who the emperor was at a given time, personal preferences of the peoples held in subservience were largely honored. Nonetheless, Rome taxed these people heavily, and to say that the rank and file Jew hated the tax collectors would be an understatement. Tax collectors either made no salary at all, or else they made a pittance of a salary and, in either case, jacked up tax assessments in order that they could have plenty to skim off the top so that they, the tax collectors, could pad their pockets. So, here were Jews making a profit from the misery and struggle of other Jews. It seems ironic, unless one has some sense of the perspective of Jesus, that he had in his band of the twelve closest male followers, a tax collector by the name of Matthew.

Zacchaeus wasn’t just any tax collector; he was a chief tax collector so he not only dealt with several “clients” personally but also got cuts through what those whom he supervised took in from their “clients.” As it turns out, there was a great deal of wealth in Jericho, which was the town where Zacchaeus worked. This wealth was tied to the balsam trade. It was a wood producing area, and those who had grown wealthy from the balsam trade were very likely Zacchaeus’ personal “clients.” Obviously, Zacchaeus was well to do and much more well to do than most of the citizens of Jericho.

I am not sure why it was important to the storyteller that she or he would emphasize the height of Zacchaeus. Nonetheless, the point was made as something worth remembering that Zacchaeus was small of stature. As a matter of fact, almost everyone in Jesus’ day including Jesus, was of smaller stature by today’s western standards.

In any case, Zacchaeus was not tall, and he was a tax collector. I have wondered if the storyteller wanted to emphasize this about Zacchaeus because for a change he was inconvenienced. He told people how much their annual tax bills were, and did he ever have some fascinating tax tables to work with. Even those who detested him wanted to try to get on or stay on his good side.

For reasons not made known to us, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. We’re not told that there was anything more than curiosity involved, but at least there was that much interest; and the crowds lining the roadways as Jesus’ came into town were made up of people of average height or above and crowding together so that Zacchaeus had no line of vision to Jesus either over or around those whom he taxed. Some of them surely noticed Zacchaeus trying to get a peek of Jesus but pretended they didn’t. Thus Zacchaeus was significantly inconvenienced, and his only recourse was to climb a tree. That’s what he did.

When Jesus walks beside the huge sycamore fig tree into which Zacchaeus had climbed, he looks up at Zacchaeus and tells him to come down in a hurry. Why? Because Jesus needed hospitality, and he chose Zacchaeus to provide it. Why? Well, maybe he’d been through there before and knew that someone needed to confront Zacchaeus in regard to his patterns of taking advantage of his own countrypersons. Maybe Jesus knew of Zacchaeus’ wealth and decided to stay at a home where his presence wouldn’t squeeze a family’s already tight resources.

In any case, Zacchaeus didn’t hesitate. He scurried down the tree and took Jesus to his house. The conversation between the two men isn’t reported; all we can surmise is that they talked about the unfairness of Zacchaeus’ business practices. When the conversation was over, the chief tax collector reported a change of heart. He said he would give fifty percent of everything he owned to the poor. Then he said to Jesus, “IF I have defrauded anyone, I will repay it fourfold.” If? Really? If? Just drop the IF; Zacchaeus knew better, and his plan was shocking. It was the restitution he demanded of himself, though. Jesus did not ask this of him as far as anyone knows. Zacchaeus knew what the score was, and he knew the implications of what he planned to do. Restitution. Wonder what happened to Zacchaeus after he doled out all of the ill-gotten gain? One tradition reports that when Caesara appointed its first bishop, that bishop’s name was Zacchaeus, the publican or tax collector.

III. Healthy and Appropriate Restitution

Back in 1988, psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book titled, Whatever Became of Sin? . Sin-focused clergy, most of whom never bothered to read the book, saw in book reviews or heard at pastors’ conferences what the author’s key point was supposed to have been—namely that in a liberal leaning society people who do wrong are let off the hook too easily by teaching someone who has done wrong just to forget about it. Dr. Menninger did say that people who do deeds that are morally wrong need to be held accountable not only by society but also by themselves and further that they rather naturally tend to hold themselves accountable despite society’s trend of taking the word “sin” away from them. Menninger said that people who do wrong don’t need to be punished, but they need to know how to own their wrongs and try to repair them. Dr. Menninger died in 1990. It would have been interesting to know, and maybe he wrote about this somewhere or some of his students know, what kinds of patients he tended to treat.

We see truth in what he had to say on this subject, but most of us also know of religious traditions that browbeat adherents into believing that “mistake” and “sin” are synonymous. Since we all make mistakes, as far as I know, this has led to self-loathing and crushing shame. Aside from reflecting horrendous theology that is as far from the core of Jesus’ teaching as possible, it is useless to lead someone or useless to be led into such a state of mind. Self- loathing is crippling. People who detest themselves have no energy available for trying to accomplish anything positive. So, if the person who committed the wrong has been brow beaten into hating himself or herself then there is no energy left for her or him to try to correct the mistake for the sake of the person who was wronged as well as for the sake of the person who did the wrong.

Some acts of restitution are easy to figure out—a corrective for stealing, for example. If someone steals from another person then the she or he should return what has been stolen to the person stolen from.

I have a friend finishing his last year of a prison term. I’ve mentioned him in a sermon a time or two recently as the end draws nigh. With an amazing array of sterling personal qualities, I say without exaggeration, he became greedy as an accountant. He was filing federal returns for clients, reporting to the IRS inflated amounts of money due the clients. Being an approved instant refund agent, he was keeping the “extra” money that came back presumably for his clients. The federal judge who pronounced his sentence several years ago first ordered him to repay the IRS. That was part one of his restitution. Part two was to pay any clients who had suffered loss because of the ways he may have prepared their returns; that was his restitution to them. He had violated federal law, however, and the law of the land states that he had to make restitution to the country by serving a prison sentence. Sorry and repayments didn’t put the hay back in the barn.

He is entirely a non-violent person, and I happen to think community service would have been a much more suitable sentence. The law, paired up with mandated sentencing guidelines, though, says that restitution to the country if one has stolen from the country is payable in time served. So, there he was.

Under the best of circumstances, one chooses for oneself to make restitution including the how and the how much. Zacchaeus was in that boat though something in that conversation with Jesus had clearly put him on that track.

Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Always pulling, prodding, stretching us morally. He says if you’re in the middle of a worship service, and you’re right at the apex of the service—in his case, the point at which gifts were offered to God—and you happen to remember that somebody has something against you, you should leave the worship service and go directly to the person whom you know has something against you, even if you have nothing against that person and even if you think what she or he is holding against you is of no consequence. You go to make peace as best you can with that person. Only after that do you return to the worship service, I’m guessing he had really long services in mind, and finish presenting your gifts to God. Would you call that a kind of reverse restitution, or would you call it a demonstration of your willingness to make restitution even though the conflict is one sided?

Jesus has in mind something that can be fixed, potentially or probably, by the person who was not offended, by the person who didn’t feel wronged. The person who left worship needs to say something like, “I have heard that something I said or did offended you, and even though it wasn’t intentional—in fact, I’m not even sure what it was—I want to do whatever I can do to make things right and restore the positive connection we have had.” So, I ask, “Why should I leave my time of inspiration, which I need so much, to go and try to make restitution for I don’t even know what with someone who might not even open the door to me?”

Jesus’ teaching makes no provision for that kind of concern. The issue is not what the person offended, justifiably or otherwise, will do or avoid doing. I am the one in worship presuming to offer my best in gratitude to God, and I am frustrated to find out that doing so is also connected to real life stuff going on away from worship.

We have to think carefully about that at Silverside. Most of us stand for causes and principles that offend plenty of other people—people who don’t even know us personally. If we press this teaching, we’d never get to church because we would be out trying to make things right with someone we offended simply by speaking our truth, which by the way, we think is connected to other core truths Jesus himself taught.

I wonder if we could make it work by putting out on the front signs, “We are sorry if we offended you with our efforts to understand truth as well as justice and live them out. Personal apologies and attempts at restitution offered every Sunday morning BEFORE OUR GATHERING.”

Jesus asked his hearers to apply this principle in relationship to sisters and brothers, your blood relatives and/or members of your faith family. Geez. That doesn’t help. I’d have to drive over to Lynchburg, Virginia, to tell my nephew working on a Ph.D. in theology at Falwell’s seminary, unless Tweeting counts, that I can’t complete my weekly worship experience without acknowledging that I know my theology is offensive to him. “Neither of us is likely to change our theological positions, but we were relatives before we were theologians; and we have our mutual appreciation for the teachings of Jesus in common. We also have my sister, your mother, in common; and if we create tension at one more family event she’s going to keep us both from all future family gatherings. Is it worth that?”

Jesus’ hyperbole wasn’t intended to impress or entertain, however clever it may have sounded. There is a core of seriousness to the hyperbole here. If interpersonal or financial/property restitution can be made, it must be made. There’s just no way around it. And while sorry may not put the hay back in the barn, sometimes, not always, it moves a bale or two in that direction.