Sermon Passage: Matthew 5:46
“For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same” (Matthew 5:46)?
Love is the biblical message God proclaims to the world. The most memorized verse in the Bible states this fact. “For God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This statement is in the middle of a conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus, a ruler, and teacher of the Jews. It follows an illustration from the Old Testament Jesus used to highlight His mission. Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:14-15).
The mention of a snake on a pole brought the Old Testament story to the mind of Nicodemus (Numbers 22:4-9). Because of rebellion against God, snakes invaded the nation of Israel. Moses was instructed by God to erect a bronze serpent on a pole. Everyone who looked at this serpent would live. It was a symbolic Messianic prophecy about Jesus. Jesus is the snake on a pole who brings life to those who embrace Him! God expressed His love for the world through Jesus. The love of God is not an attitude or emotional feeling but is the nature of His being that consistently influences every decision and action He expresses towards us. No wonder John cried, “God is love!” (1 John 4:8, 16).
The reality that God is love has been difficult for me to embrace. I have been jaded by many human relationships where love was expressed but not experienced. The words of a person may have shown love, but the actions of that person did not. What they said gave the appearance of love, but I felt no love from them. These experiences caused me to be suspicious of God’s love. I cannot embrace Him in the flesh; I must embrace Him by faith. How can I trust that His love is not on the same level as the love expressed by the humans in my life?
Although this is a hurdle that each of us must conquer, we must not allow it to present an impossible barrier. The premise of the Sermon on the Mount proposes that we experience love on a new level. In each illustration, Jesus proclaims that our lives become an expression of God’s heart. In our helplessness, we are to merge with the Trinity God. This merger creates a new creation who is the Kingdom person. It is this new person who loves like the Trinity God loves. In other words, Christianity is not a new rule that demands a new love expression from us. Since we are helpless, this is impossible. It is the new creature, the Kingdom person, who becomes the avenue of this love. The issue is not turning the other cheek or going the second mile. The problem is merging and becoming an expression of the redemptive loving heart of God. If we accomplish the criteria of “pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,” we would not fulfill the dream of God for our lives. It is in oneness with Him that we become an expression of His love. In this final illustration, Jesus proposes that we are to “love your enemies and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” and become expressions of “sons of your father in heaven.”
In our passage, I wish Jesus would call us to “love our enemies” without additional details. The suggestion of such an endeavor would allow me to work out the details on my own. I could adjust the idea to fit my philosophical approach to life and then develop excuses as to why I cannot “love my enemies.” The problem with the passage is that Jesus formulates this love within a context. Let us investigate that context!
Compulsion of Love
Our passage verifies the compulsion of love (Matthew 5:46). Everyone at every level of society loves. The issue is not will you love, or will you not love; you have to love. In our passage, even tax collectors love. They do not love everyone, but they need to love someone. Jesus calls for a new level of love; it is a call to love on His level. Human nature compels everyone to love someone, but what boundaries or limits are we going to place on our love?
The issue in every relationship is love, which is questioned by many non-Christians. Many relationships do not require or know any love expression. For instance, there is a relationship between employee and employer. A corporation made up of a group of people you do not know may employ you. You have no love in those relationships. You never interact with them nor have any emotional feelings about them, but in the heart of the Christian, this seems illogical. As a Christian, you are to operate within the relationship of employee and employer as if God is your employer. We are to express in our relationship with our employer the same love existing in God’s relationship with Jesus,. It is not an emotional feeling of love as with the tax collector, but an expression of God’s heart through the believer who expresses through his work ethic the selfless, self-sacrificing love of God.
Onesimus was a runaway slave who became a Christian. Paul sent him back to his owner with a letter in the Bible known as the Epistle to Philemon. Paul’s appeal is that within this relationship of master and slave, the love of Jesus must be present. Is the master to love his slave as Jesus loves him? Is this an emotional attachment or a divine expression? It is love on a new level! The slave, Onesimus, had run away from his master. His path intersected with Paul while Paul was in prison. Onesimus was converted to Jesus through this connection and was ministering to Paul. Paul writes, “Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you” (Philemon 8-9a). It is not about a command for love; we must become the expression of God’s heart. The master-slave relationship must move to a higher level, “a beloved brother” (Philemon 16).
The only eternal issue is relationship. If you fight and argue, let it be for relationship. Material things will not outlast this life, only relationship. One hundred years from now, the physical will be gone, but relationship will remain. At the heart of our relationship is love, the heart of eternal life. Therefore, it is the crucial issue of the temporal. So, is there any area of life in which love is not the key issue?
On the highest level (God’s level), love is the issue. On the lowest level (tax collector) love is the issue. It is the essential element of life, both godly and ungodly, the compulsion of all life. No one can say that love does not apply to them for you cannot survive without love. As we study the Scriptures to discover the will of God, we are driven to the eternal value of relationships. Paul consistently proclaims the issue of reconciliation, capturing the motive that brought the Trinity God to the sacrifice of the cross. “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10). But this is not a mere theological truth to be preached. Paul says, “And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Romans 5:11). We know love and relationship in the present moment. It is the passion of God’s heart!
Paul thundered this truth to the church in Corinth. The motive behind the actions of the Trinity God in Christ is to bring us into a relationship that we, in turn, might be ministers of relationship to each other. “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Reconciliation is not new information to us as we discovered this in the previous five illustrations in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins with murder (Matthew 5:21-26). Although those of old were content not to murder, Jesus calls us to examine how we feel about each other. He challenges every demeaning view, places reconciliation with those who have something against us above offering sacrifices to God, and wants us to agree with our adversary. Those of old were content not to commit adultery (Matthew 5:27-30). The issue is not an activity to do, but a selfless love we have in our heart for others. Those of old were concerned about separating from their wives (Matthew 5:31-32). Jesus’ concern is what we cause in each other. Those of old kept their word when God was involved (Matthew 5:33-37). Jesus declared honesty and truth as the foundation for relationships. Those of old were concerned about fairness (Matthew 5:38-43). Jesus saw every circumstance as the platform to develop relationships through the expression of love.
Compensation of Love
Now Jesus speaks about loving others in the context of rewards. “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same” (Matthew 5:46). The Greek word “misthos,” translated “reward,” can be used in a positive or negative sense. There is a reward for worthy acts and retribution for wrong deeds. We must understand it as a real wage or payment. The idea is that love always has consequences, which Jesus proposes as “reward.” Prevenient grace introduces all love is a result of the direct intervention of God. If God left humanity to its own devices, there would be no love, not even self-love. The only reason the ungodly man can love his family is that the Spirit of Jesus intervened. The tax collector loves within his group, but this is only because of the Spirit of God. All love anywhere, or any place, is traceable back to God.
If the tax collector loved on his level, he received compensation. Jesus used this example because of the hated position of the tax collector. The tax collector was a Jew who betrayed his people for the sake of financial gain. He received the right to collect taxes for Rome by bribing the right people. The officials set the amount of the tax to be collected. Anything the tax collector gathered above that amount was his gain. He was shunned and hated by all. The only friendship or love possible in his life, he confined to his small group of fellow tax collectors. Within this little cluster of people, he was able to foster and justify his lifestyle. He justified cheating and lying because his best friends had the same practice. He practiced “love those who love you” (Matthew 5:46). He forced himself to find love in the small group like him.
Jesus expanded the idea of rewards in the next chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. When I do charitable deeds to be seen, praised, and appreciated by others, what is my reward? It is limited to the admiration and honor attributed to me by the small group that sees my charitable deed. Therefore, “you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). When I pray like the hypocrites, what is my reward? “For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Matthew 6:5). Their reward is limited to the appreciation and honor among those who hear them pray. When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites who put on a sad countenance and disfigure their faces so those around them will be aware of their sacrifice of fasting. “Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Matthew 6:16). Their reward is limited to the appreciation and honor bestowed upon them by their fellow men who see their fasting.
What would happen in our lives if we enlarged our boundaries beyond the limits of our select group to “love those who love you” (Matthew 5:46)? If we were “sons of your Father in heaven,” and experienced His boundary of love, what would be our reward? Regarding charitable deeds, Jesus said, “But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly” (Matthew 6:3-4). In the matter of prayer, Jesus said, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:6). As to fasting, Jesus said, “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:17-18).
What reward will we receive if we live in the lightest level of love, which is “love your enemies?” Our boundaries will expand from our small group, which is to “love those who love you.” This expansion includes loving everyone. Jesus pushed the limits of love to be all-inclusive. What will be the reward? We will be “sons of your Father in heaven.” We have His design, DNA, or birthing to be a son. The nature of the Father becomes our nature! In reality, “He makes (poieo) His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Our reward is being a son! Therefore, the issue is about your goal; what do you want for a reward? Is it Him? Do you want to be approved in your limited group, or do you want to be accepted by Him as a son and become an expression of His nature?
Choice of Love
So, what are the levels of love? There are only two! There is the tax collector who loves those who love him and being a son of God who loves his enemies. I have tried to make the third level. I want to love those who love me and tolerate those who are my enemies. I want to love those who love me and ignore those who are my enemies. I do not hate them or even despise them; I eliminate them from my life. I establish the boundaries of my love, and if you are not in my circle, I do not include you. I do the same thing within the fellowship of the church. I have my group where I am accepted and relate. If you are not in this circle, you do not exist; you may attend the same church but are not within the realm of my love.
The difficulty with the establishment of this third level is motive, which expresses the nature. It is the same as “love those who love you.” It is a selfish, self-centered love that contributes to my wellbeing and desires. I love people in Africa; I give to missions. I help with the homeless; I give money to a mother who does not have food for her kids. Let us analyze the motive behind such expressions of love. These are all in the limited love of the tax collector, which is the lowest level of love. He has his small cluster of people he embraces and helps. They are people who do not condemn him and are like he is. Why does he love this group that loves him? They meet his needs, make him feel good, and give him a sense of acceptance or importance. Why do I love the people in Africa and give to missions? It makes me feel good about myself and convinces me I am a good person. So, the tax collector loves his group because he loves himself, just as I give because I love myself. Therefore, both are an expression of self-love, which limits my boundary of love.
Therefore, there are only two groups or levels of love. You either have self-love or the love of the Father. If we are to be “sons of your Father in heaven,” we must be an expression of His nature. It is not a rule or performance we are to achieve. It is a nature we express. I must have His mind and think as He does, giving expression in all my relationships. My boundary of love must be extended from self-love to loving my enemies, pushing the boundary to include everyone. It is the nature of the Father.
I am helpless, “poor in spirit,” the premise of the Sermon on the Mount. I must embrace this helplessness, allow God to fill me with His nature, and in the merger, He creates a new creature called the Kingdom of Heaven. It gives me the DNA of God’s divine nature. I am a son of God, loving as He does!