By any standard, John the Baptist was odd.
Matthew 3:4 portrays a wilderness dweller clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. His food? Locusts and wild honey.
Most detect the explicit part of his message. We must repent, turning away from our sins. He warned the crowds who traveled out to gawk at this Elijah-like prophet:
Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven! (Matt. 3:3, CEB)
Yet there’s an often overlooked element to his fiery preaching. Repentance alone is insufficient. Once we have repented, there is a second step: “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives” (3:8, CEB; italics added).
John the Baptist’s two-step sermon that day squares with a word from the prophet Ezekiel centuries earlier. God called Ezekiel a “lookout” to warn Israel about a “sword” that the LORD was about to bring against them — see Ezekiel 33:1-16. God had pronounced a “death sentence” upon them since they were a “wicked people” (v. 8). Yet this sentence was not inevitable. How could it be averted?
And even if I have pronounced a death sentence on the wicked, if they turn from sin and do what is just and right – if they return pledges, make restitution for robbery, and walk in life-giving regulations in order not to sin – they will live and not die (Ezek. 33:14-15, CEB).
Repentance alone was not sufficient. Israel was required to produce evidence of repentance by paying back what they had stolen. The vital second step was restitution.
The online Oxford English Dictionary gives three definitions for “restitution”:
- The restoration of something lost or stolen to its proper owner;
- Recompense for injury or loss;
- The restoration of something to its original state.
Zaccheus is the example par excellence of restitution, of “restoring something to its orignal state.” Luke 19:1-10 tells the story of a thieving tax collector and an unlikely dinner with Jesus at Zaccheus’ house. Others grumbled that the Lord was eating with a “sinner” (v.7) but Jesus never hesitated to fellowship with people from all walks of life. He knew his presence was just what they needed. Moved by Jesus’ gesture, Zaccheus later announced:
Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much (Luke 19:8, CEB).
Once Zaccheus had made the promise of restitution, Jesus announced: “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10, NIV).
Some lessons for our time
The first striking observation is that these three passages speak of restitution in a corporate setting. John the Baptist preaches to a group of Jews who came out together to see him. Ezekiel prophesied to the “house of Israel,” and it was with a group dining around a table that Zaccheus has his “lightbulb” moment. Discerning the voice of God and God’s will in a given situation is not a solitary pursuit. Rather, it is together that God’s people find a way forward in all matters spiritual, including what restitution will look like in a particular circumstance.
Secondly, restitution is not optional. Rather, it is a requirement, a necessary outward evidence of an inward transformation. In this sense, it is sacramental.
Third, when individuals are cheated of money or property, it breaks relationships. Restitution acknowledges that there is no such thing as being in a right relationship with God if we are in a wrong relationship with others. That is why Jesus said we must first be reconciled with our brother or sister before we come to offer our sacrifice to God (Matthew 5:24).
Christians and tipping : What can restitution teach us?
Jirair Tashjian notes that tax collectors in the time of the Romans “made their living by charging an extra amount…they were considered traitors who became wealthy by collaborating with Roman authorities at the expense of their own people.” So, the negative reaction they had toward Zaccheus and other tax collectors was justified. Zaccheus had cheated them, and they were sore about it, wondering why Jesus would associate with such a “sinner” (Luke 19:7).
I wonder: Are some Christians eating out at restaurants like Zaccheus? We may not cheat taxpayers, but are we cheating hard-working waiters?
A Business Insider article from 2015 tells the story of 17-year-old Garret Wayman. He was elated when he saw that a diner had left a $ 20.00 tip, only to discover that it was a Christian tract in disguise. He took to Twitter to complain of the deception, and his tweet was retweeted more than 2,000 times. Wayman remarked: “To get my hopes up like that…is just flat out mean.”
This appears not to be an isolated instance. Other negative testimonies about the “church crowd” are out there online for anyone to read. Are we alienating by our actions would-be followers of Jesus?
One believer justified her skimpy tipping by saying: “I only give 10% to God. Why should I give more than that to someone else?” Yet does that attitude build bridges or barriers? Would we rather have others say of Christians “Those are the generous people” or “Those are the stingy people”?
If custom dictates a 15%-20% tip, should we not give at least that, perhaps more for good service? Proper (even generous) tipping should not be viewed as an option for the Christian, but as a joyful Christian duty. It’s a positive testimony that we serve a God whom we trust so much to provide for our needs that we can afford to be open-handed with others. Paul advises:
So pay everyone what you owe them. Pay the taxes you owe, pay the duties you are charged, give respect to those you should respect, and honor those you should honor. Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law (Romans 13:7-8, CEB).
It may be impossible to go back and make restitution to every restaurant server whom we have cheated by chinsy tipping. On the other hand, if we are in the habit of eating at a particular restaurant, would it not be possible – like Zaccheus – to resolve to do better going forward? So, if we’ve frequented a restaurant for 5 years and undertipped by 5% during that time, then for the next 5 years, we can promise God that we’ll compensate by adding an additional 5% onto the 15% or 20% that is customary. When the 5 years are over, you’re likely to continue the higher rate because you’ll be sleeping better, the reward of a unselfish spirit (Luke 6:38, Hebrews 13:16). Most importantly, your changed attitude will commend the gospel as your reputation morphs from “skin flint” to “generous.”
Summing it all up
Restitution is about making things right with others as evidence that we are right with God. Both the Old and the New Testaments teach it. Do we preach it? Do we implement it? Together, may God help us all as followers of Jesus to reinvigorate this neglected practice that recommends the gospel to others.
U.S. silver $ 1.00 note, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
restaurant table, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)