Apologies and Restitution

We have all seen the following scenario:  little Joey and Tommy are playing in the playground. Joey starts hitting Tommy. Joey’s mom comes over and separates the boys and tells little Joey that he needs to say I’m sorry. Little Joey doesn’t want to say I’m sorry, but after a while reluctantly agrees, and mutters a begrudging “I’m sorry”.  Now that she’s gotten an apology from Joey for Tommy the stressed mama makes sure the boys are still separate, and backs off.  However, in a few minutes, the incident starts again, maybe this time it’s Tommy hitting Joey, or it could just as well be Joey hitting Tommy again. We’ve all seen it.

First of all, we want to acknowledge that mom is doing a good thing in getting her son to apologize.  But my question is did the mother really do everything she could to help the situation. Well, if all she wants to do is teach the principle of saying “I’m sorry” after an injustice, then yes she did.  But if she wants to teach her child to build relationships then there certainly is a lot more work to be done here.

While we’re on the topic, the above example is young children but it seems many adults follow the same principle. In that principle all that you ever have to do is apologize, i.e., say “I’m sorry”.

The problem is that just saying “I’m sorry” does not: number one, restore the relationship to a healthy state, and number two, fulfill the guidance that the Bible has provided throughout the ages.

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luk 19:1-10 ESV)

Zacchaeus was a rich tax collector, because of that he was not popular. But our Lord praised him, both by staying at his house, and also with his words.  The principle that this section brings out is the principle of restitution. If Zacchaeus defrauded someone he restored him fourfold.  That means if Zacchaeus wrongly took a thousand dollars from someone, he gave them four thousand to correct the situation.

Now, before I go too much further, I do want to say a word about restitution and the law. I have heard it argued that Christians don’t need to make restitution because they are not under the law, and it was the law that required restitution. But I say to you, that not all things in the law are limited to being only part of the law. For example, the law made exact provisions for honoring the principle of resting on the Sabbath, and because of that, some people say resting on the Sabbath is part of the law so we don’t have to do that. But I say to you, that God rested on the seventh day of creation before there was ever a law and so set the example that a day of rest is an eternal principle that is not limited to the law. Likewise, the Law was full of offerings, but we see in the first chapters of Genesis in the story of Cain and Abel the principle of offerings to the Lord and that they should be worthy of being an  offering.  Giving to God, making an offering, is a universal principle outside the confines of the law, So, likewise, is the principle of restitution: when someone has harmed someone or caused them loss, in order to restore the relationship, the person’s loss needs to be paid back as closely as possible. And if you look at the examples in the Bible of restitution, what is paid back is most often more than what was lost.  Zacchaeus above paid fourfold.   There are varying amounts in the law:

“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the stolen beast is found alive in his possession, whether it is an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double. “If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets his beast loose and it feeds in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best in his own field and in his own vineyard. “If fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started the fire shall make full restitution. “If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man’s house, then, if the thief is found, he shall pay double.(Exo 22:1-7 ESV)

The above section call for “full restitution”, double, fourfold and fivefold restitution in varying cases.  Those amounts were under the law which no longer binds us.  But the examples of restitution show that the person is generous in making restitution.

Restitution shows the goodwill of the restorer. The person making restitution wants the injured party to feel good about their relationship again.

The Empty Apology

The complete opposite of restitution is the empty apology. The empty apology goes like this; Frank and Mary worked in the same shop. Frank goes into the refrigerator and eats Mary’s sandwich. Mary finds out that it was Frank that ate the sandwich and Frank says “I’m sorry.”  Mary is a generous person, and since  this the first time this has happened she says okay and walks away. But a few days later Frank is hungry again, and sees Mary’s sandwich in the refrigerator and eats it.   Mary again finds out that it’s Frank but Frank is quick to apologize again, and says I’m sorry. Mary is a little troubled but forgives again. Then it happened the third time.  Mary is now upset with Frank. She tries to talk with him but his response is “I said I’m sorry!”  The words “I’m sorry” imply that there were feelings of remorse, and consequently, that the infraction would not be repeated. Clearly Frank does not have that understanding. Rather, Frank appears to have the understanding that you can do anything you want and the only price you’ll ever have to pay are two words, “I’m sorry.” Frank’s apology is empty.

The example of eating a sandwich may not relate to you.  The example could be 1 of a million other things, someone not sharing in the chores, a family member spending more than their share of family funds on fun items, not cleaning up messes, and those are just light examples.   How about more serious ones like mates flirting with other people, mates cheating with other people,  getting into fights, staying out drinking, or taking someone’s car without permission.  There are a  million issues that come up between people, the list goes on and on, i.e., always making you late, or always making you wait, etc. etc. etc.

And there are a ton of excuses; “I forgot” being maybe the biggest.  “I forgot”, “it didn’t seem important”, “I couldn’t help myself”, “I got too busy” all show a lack of care for the person you say this to.  “I didn’t agree with you”, “I’m not going to do that”, or even “you’re crazy if you think I’m going to do that”  are inflamatory words that will increase the conflict.  (Certainly there are times when someone has unreasonable expectations but I’m not talking about those.  I have given examples of clear infractions here starting with Joey hitting Tommy.)

The point is that the words “I’m sorry” are empty if they are not followed by action. Of course we are encouraged to forgive one another knowing that God for Christ’s sake has forgiven us. And we certainly want to teach our kids to forgive as well as practice it ourselves.   But we are also to be wise as serpents. And when we see someone constantly violating, constantly performing some grievance, we are not going to feel loved, or possibly even safe in that relationship.


So what does it take to restore a relationship? If you make a mess, you clean it up, whether it’s your stuff or not. If a little child takes a toy from another child they should at least let the other child pick one of theirs that they can play with for a while. The point is that the other child needs to feel the love.

Sometimes to restore a relationship you offer something the other person wants. If the person you offended already cleaned up the mess you made perhaps there’s a gift you can give them along with the reassurance that in the future you’ll clean up the mess. If you destroy someone’s clothes you buy them clothes as nice or nicer than that you destroyed.  Or if you’re always making someone late maybe you can do the seemingly impossible and start being ready before the other person so that they can see the you are genuinely committed to being on time.

In a fight sometimes both parties need to make restitution.  Maybe the other person started it but you allowed yourself to heap false accusations and false motives on the other person.  At the very least you need to acknowledge that your words were not true and express the good characteristics that the other person has but that you maligned.

Restitution is not some legal principle of the law of the Old Testament that was only enacted by a tough God in that tough set of precepts called the Law.  Restitution is the principle used of by loving people to restore love to the relationship.

So both in parenting and in our own lives we need to teach and practice apologies with restitution as part of the system of restoring relationships and not as a way to say a quick “I’m sorry” and exonerate ourselves as we continue to act selfishly.

Love your neighbor as yourself.




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