There was a man who was very rich. His house was filled with luxury and he wanted for nothing. At least nothing in the material sense. The heart of this man was empty, thus he began a quest for fulfillment. Before we look at his journey, let’s look at how he became wealthy.
The lucrative career he chose was collecting taxes. When we think of taxes, we all have negative feelings. In his era, tax collectors were the lowest form of human existence. He worked for the Roman government. When Rome conquered a nation, they allowed the people a few unique freedoms. They were allowed to keep their culture, language, and rulers. However, Rome also set up their own rulers who held a higher position of authority. They also required every citizen to be bilingual and learn a simplified version of Greek. Each nation would also be put under tribute. In other words, they had to pay taxes to Rome.
As long as rulers behaved under the Roman governors, people learned the national language, and taxes were paid, subcultures were acceptable in this form of government. This method of compromise helped maintain stability in one of the world’s longest lasting empires.
It’s not hard to imagine that paying taxes to a foreign government wasn’t a popular idea. I say foreign because Rome wasn’t native to their culture. To simplify tax collecting, Rome would hire locals to collect the tribute money. A local understood the town’s economy and knew who had money, and had a good idea of how much.
A tax collector had the backing of the Roman government, so resisters could be arrested or have their property seized. Rome also turned a blind eye to the amount of money collected. Collectors only had to meet their quotas. Anything collected above this amount was bonus money for the collector. In the eyes of the community, tax collectors were legalized thieves.
This rich man was despised by his neighbors. He was a traitor because he joined with the oppressive government against his own people. He was a thief because he raised extra taxes against his neighbors so he could pad his own pockets. When the townspeople refused to pay the inflated tax prices, the soldiers came in to take it by force. When a man complained that his taxes were higher than he knew Rome required, the soldiers showed no concern. The commander had no interest in even making sure the money collected made it to the government.
“That’s on him. Tax collectors know the amount due. I’m a soldier, not an auditor,” would have been his answer to the locals.
The commander knew it was a rip off, but did not care. This created hatred against this tax collector, and all others like him. In fact, all tax collectors were like him. The free money is what lured these worthless and greedy fellows into this despicable profession.
This man grew wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. He had the biggest house, best food, servants, and great possessions. Though his financial goals were coming to pass, he felt empty. Having all this wealth didn’t fill the void of loss of friendships and self-respect. One day he heard about Jesus coming to town. Hope rose in his heart and he sought the one people claimed to be a Savior.
The town’s people pushed him away and kept him far back from the one he wanted to see. At this point, many will recognize the story. He saw where Jesus was walking, ran ahead, and climbed a tree where he could see Jesus and get his attention. The man’s name was Zacchaeus.
Jesus called him down, came to his house, and Zacchaeus gladly gave up his wealth for the new life Jesus offered. He gave the substance of his house to repay those he robbed with the sword of the Romans.
The Apostle Matthew was in the exact same position. He was probably a miserable man, sitting among the money he collected at the receipt of customs. Jesus walked by and said, “Matthew, come and follow Me.” Matthew left his position and it’s wealth behind without a second thought, followed Jesus, and became an apostle and the author of the Gospel of Matthew.
At this point you may be wondering what this has to do with loving your enemies. It has a lot to do with it. Jesus used tax collectors as an example of loving your enemies. In our culture, we read this and it doesn’t evoke the same feelings as it did to the culture of His day. A tax collector was the most despised group of people in the Jewish culture. They were manipulators, thieves, traitors, and bullies. They had the power to accuse their enemies of crimes, and bring the judgment of the government upon the people.
Everyone feared and hated tax collectors. It was the profession of ill repute. No one was considered more corrupt and more worthless as a human being than a collector in that era. They were the enemy. Jesus even used them as illustrations in many of His teachings.
Now let’s look at what it means to love our enemies. Loving those who hate us and cause harm, goes against everything engrained into our nature. Yet this is exactly what Jesus commands. It’s perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the Christian life because it goes against everything our human nature is founded upon. Humanly speaking, it’s not possible to love someone who is actively trying to harm us. Love in the Christian life is not based upon human love or our abilities at all.
Keep in mind, the love of God is poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit once we receive Christ. God is not asking you to give your love to those who don’t deserve it. God is asking you to take the love He has poured into your heart, and give His love to those around you. This applies to friends, neighbors, family, and even enemies. This love is what reflects true Christianity to the world around us. Until we have the opportunity to love those who show hate, little distinguishes us from the world. Look at Matthew 5:44-48
44 “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,
45 “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47 “And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?
48 “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
It’s hard to look at this and not scratch our heads and say, “How?” During our casual reading this may not seem that difficult, but let the opportunity come to put it into practice, and you’ll see how hard it is to love.
If someone gets in our face, yelling and screaming curses, it’s not our natural reaction to say, “I bless you.” There are people in this world filled with hatred and destructive behaviors. Some people are just mean. They think nothing of harming another – whether it be by words or actions.
What if someone uses us? There are those who manipulate others by preying upon their trust, only to use them for personal gain. Swindlers think nothing of leaving families destitute while they make off with their money. They will even use Christianity as a means to personal gain, building trust only to create an opportunity to prey on others.
Do we bless them? Can we bless? It isn’t our natural reaction. Yet Jesus made it clear that unless we are able to practice this type of love, we are no different than those we consider to be ungodly among us. The Bible requires a hard thing. “Bless and do not curse.” This is only possible when we are abiding in the love of God. Both the command and the promise is found in Proverbs 25:21-22
21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
22 For so you will heap coals of fire on his head, And the LORD will reward you.
The opposite is also true. We are commanded not to seek revenge, for vengeance belongs to the Lord alone. When we take vengeance into our own hands, we put ourselves in God’s place. Our enemy escapes consequences from God and we bring that upon ourselves for our disobedience. However, if we do good, pray for (not against) those who harm us, the Lord rewards us and then takes action on our enemies.
His first goal is mercy, just as the Lord showed us mercy while we were enemies of God. How God chooses to deal with those who wrong us is not our concern. In fact, when we rejoice over our enemies in their struggles, it displeases God and according to the Bible, His wrath is turned away from our enemies.
The reward is not in seeing someone suffer, but in the blessings of the Lord. If we obey, the Lord rewards us and instead of increased bitterness, we find freedom.
By nature, you cannot love those who hate you, but when you abide in the agape love of God, you will find the power to love those who seek your harm, and you will be rewarded with God’s blessing when you show love to others, whether they be enemies or friends. This is simple to understand, but difficult to live out. Often we must pray for strength. When you pray for enemies, you will find a love you didn’t know existed.
Let me reiterate this principle again. Abide in the love of God. The Lord’s love (agape) is outward focused. That means it is seeking a way out of our hearts and into the lives of those around us. Resisting the outward expression of God’s love through us creates a calloused heart. However, to surrender to the love that transformed our heart will become a wellspring of life to us as it passes God’s life changing love to others.
Either way, our life will be affected by God’s love. A resistant heart becomes calloused and bitter, cutting off God’s love through us and preventing us from experiencing this life giving power. However, when we allow it to flow, our lives will be constantly transformed.
I’ve never met a bitter person that had life. I’ve also never met a loving person that lacked life. Love creates life. Life is fulfilled in us as agape reaches outward to others.
Excerpted from Simple Faith