“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? 47 And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they?”
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.
Called to a higher love
Many people are trying to score brownie points with God, but may be accomplishing nothing. A character in P.D. James’s 2003 novel The Murder Room certainly thought so when he said, “I find it difficult enough to behave with reasonable decency here and now without agonizing to acquire celestial brownie points for some fabled hereafter.”
Jesus would have agreed that a lot of people are accomplishing nothing that impresses God because they only love the lovable. Is that true of you?
Far from loving their enemies, Jesus found the love exercised by his disciples to be deficient. Craig Keener says: “Even those they considered the most immoral met the standard of righteousness practiced by Jesus’ most pious hearers. Jesus thus provokes his hearers to shame by comparing their ability to obey the love commandment with that of tax gatherers and non-Jews.”
To understand the depth of the insult, it helps to know how taxes were gathered in first-century Israel. First, the amount of tax owed was not known by the subject peoples whom the Romans taxed. The Romans allowed those Jews who wished to collect taxes to bid on the job, and the winner was told how much to collect. But a tax collector could not make a living by collecting the exact tax and handing it over to the Romans, so they inflated the required tax communicated to each person. Everyone knew that the tax collectors were cheating them for personal gain.
So, why did people pay their inflated taxes? They remembered Cassius, the proconsul of Syria, who had sold four Judean towns into slavery and tore down their homes when tax payments were not made on time. The Romans were quite finished with Jewish resistance!
Who loved a tax-gatherer? Only another tax-gatherer! Jesus chided his disciples for reaching no higher with their love than the same standard held by those considered traitors to their own people. Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. If the lowly tax gatherer loves his peers in the same manner as the supposedly more righteous disciples of Jesus (5:46), then the disciples should expect from God the same thing the tax gatherer would get — nothing!
To seal the point, Jesus makes exactly the same argument with Gentiles, a group considered notorious idolaters. Unless the love demonstrated by Jesus’ disciples rises above the love of Gentiles for their own kind, why should they think themselves special before God (5:47)?
Entering the kingdom of God is more than just showing up with your hand outstretched!
A greater love
If you want to make a mark for God, you have to do more than imitate the common standards of your society. Jesus calls his disciples to love the unlovable and even to love their enemies.
Remember, the one you call Lord is the one who said, “Unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). You know he will strengthen you and empower you through his Holy Spirit to do all he commands. You will have all you need to love others in a way that pleases God.
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1999) 205.
 Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah, The Macmillan Bible Atlas (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968) 137.