Each offering in Israel’s sacrificial system has its place, but there is a special feature of the guilt offering (also known as the reparation offering) that makes it particularly relevant to the world of work. The guilt offering of Leviticus is the seed of the biblical doctrine of repentance. (Numbers 5:5-10 is directly parallel.) According to Leviticus, God required offerings whenever a person deceived another with regard to a deposit or a pledge, committed robbery or fraud, lied about lost property that had been found, or swore falsely about a matter (Lev. 6:2-3). It was not a fine imposed by a court of law, but a reparation offered by perpetrators who got away with the offense, but who then felt guilty later when they came to “realize” their guilt (Lev. 6:4-5). Repentance by the sinner, not prosecution by the authorities, is the basis of the guilt offering.
Often such sins would have been committed in the context of commerce or other work. The guilt offering calls for the remorseful sinner to return what was wrongfully taken plus 20 percent (Lev. 6:4-5). Only after settling the matter on a human level may the sinner receive forgiveness from God by presenting an animal to the priest for sacrifice (Lev. 6:6-7).
The guilt offering uniquely emphasizes several principles about healing personal relationships that have been damaged by financial abuse.
1. Mere apology is not enough to right the wrong, and neither is full restoration for what was taken. In addition, something akin to today’s concept of punitive damages was added. But with guilt offerings—unlike court-ordered punitive damages—offenders willingly take on a share of the harm themselves, thereby sharing in the distress they caused the victim.
2. Doing all that is required to right a wrong against another person is not only fair for the offended, but it is also good for the offender. The guilt offering recognizes the torment that seizes the conscience of those who become aware of their crime and its damaging effects. It then provides a way for the guilty to deal more fully with the matter, bringing a measure of closure and peace. This offering expresses God’s mercy in that the pain and hurt is neutralized so as not to fester and erupt into violence or more serious offenses. It also extinguishes the need for the victim (or the victim’s family) to take matters into their own hands to exact restitution.
3. Nothing in Jesus’ atoning work on the cross releases the people of God today from the need for making restitution. Jesus taught his disciples, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). Loving our neighbors as ourselves lies at the heart of the law’s requirements (Lev. 19:18 as quoted in Rom. 13:9), and making restitution is an essential expression of any genuine kind of love. Jesus granted salvation to the rich tax collector Zacchaeus who offered more restitution than the law required, lifting him up as an example of those who truly understood forgiveness (Luke 19:1-10).
4. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:23-24 also teach us that doing everything in our power to reconcile with people is an essential aspect of getting things right with God and living in peace wherever possible. Receiving forgiveness from God goes beyond, but does not replace, our making restitution, where possible, to those whom we have harmed. In response to God’s forgiveness of us, our hearts are moved to do everything we can to reverse the harm we have caused to others. Seldom will we have the ability to fully undo the damage our sin has caused, yet the love of Christ impels us to do as much as we are able.
The guilt offering is a potent reminder that God does not exercise his right of forgiveness at the expense of people harmed by our misdeeds. He does not offer us psychological release from our guilt as a cheap substitute for making right the damage and hurt we have caused.
Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 345.