Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Learning from another culture: Zacchaeus and laws about stealing

I think that if you asked most Americans -- or even just Christians and Jews -- whether they would rather live under modern American law or under Torah law, many would say American law. (Though if given a choice between Torah law and Shariah law, they would likely choose Torah law.) But I'd like to mention a provision in the Torah that makes more sense to me than our modern American laws: what do you do about stealing?
If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. (Exodus 21:1)
In our "advanced" modern justice system, if a person has something stolen from them, they will never recover its value except possibly through insurance. Even if someone catches the thief, still the lost property or its value will never be restored to the person who was wronged. The thief may spend time in prison -- which costs the taxpayers, does not help the thief, and does not help the person who was wronged. It prevents the thief from stealing again only so long as he is confined, but not the day afterward. And in our prisons, the thief is supported at other peoples' expense from other peoples' labor; that's an interesting consequence for a thief. It's easy to wonder whether we ever really thought that one through.

Zacchaeus the tax collector lived in a Roman-occupied land and could have thought in terms of Roman law. I'm not sure whether he had done anything wrong under Roman law, but under Torah law he was a thief, admitting that he had cheated people. He thought in terms of the Torah:
If I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount. (Zacchaeus, in Luke 19:8)
Here is an interesting thing: under Torah law, the person who was cheated is now better off than if he had never been wronged, since he receives back four times his original loss. That justice system took the wrong of a crime and turned it into a blessing for the one who was wronged. It also turned the former thief into an honest man who was now a benefit to the one he had harmed.

Our culture has lots of things still to learn about justice.


Craig said...

Great insight!!

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you for the encouragement.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

So that's why he said he'd pay back four times as much. I should have known that.

I've sometimes wondered how he could possibly know who he had cheated.


Weekend Fisher said...

LOL. I never really thought about that ... must have been bothering his conscience for awhile.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF