Changing Perspectives: Go the Extra Mile

The third directive Jesus delivers has become common in our modern lexicon. It is an idiom that has taken a motivational form. “If someone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two miles.” We have shortened it to the phrase: go the extra mile.

With our modern perspectives, we take this to mean we should go above and beyond expectations. Do more than required. Put in the extra effort. After all, in America, we don’t reward people for doing the basic duties of their jobs, we want them to exceed bare minimums. We don’t want good experiences, we want greatness – such an impressive experience is only achievable if we go the proverbial extra mile.

Of course, this isn’t what Jesus was talking about. It is a nice notion and I won’t dispute that contributing greater effort is a worthy cause. But Jesus wasn’t talking about working hard. He was talking about the law.

During his life, Jesus ministered to people under Roman rule. The Empire used military might to expand their territory. To maintain control and order in the far-flung territories away from the heart of Rome, Caesar used the practice of impressment to coerce locals into joining the military, serving in loyalty to the emperor. Along with this method of conscription, impressment afforded soldiers special rights and privileges under the law. One of those legal allowances is that a Roman soldier could compel a Jewish native to carry their gear for one mile.

The packs these soldiers had to carry were heavy and could weigh up to 100 pounds. Roman soldiers were human just like the rest of us; it is understandable if they grew weary lugging their burdens around in the deserts of ancient Israel. To motivate them, and provide occasional relief, the law granted them the ability to force a Jew to carry their pack for one Roman mile – equal to 1000 paces. If you were a Jewish citizen, you were not allowed to resist. To do so would be an act of rebellion and the Roman empire delivered harsh punishments to anyone who defied them.

This is why Jesus chose the language he used. The word ἀγγαρεύσει (angareusei) is only used once in the New Testament, when Jesus talks about going one Roman Mile. Angareusei means “compelled to go” or “forced to go.” If anyone angareusei you one mile, go two. There is another word Jesus used in the original language that adds context lost in English translations: ὕπαγε (pronounced hupagey) which means to be led away under someone else’s authority. Jesus is describing a situation where one of his listeners could be compelled or forced to walk a mile by their authority according to Roman law of impressment.

If I lived with these laws dictating my life, I would do everything I could to avoid Roman soldiers. If I saw them coming my direction, I would turn around and walk the other way, ducking into random alleys or stranger’s homes. If they caught up with me and decided I needed to carry their packs, I would not be given a choice. Their orders were not requests. I would be, like Jesus said, forced to go.

To be asked to carry the pack for a soldier was demeaning. It was forced hard labor for no other reason than your heritage and ethnicity. They knew their status was above you and their demands reinforced the notion that the Jews were a conquered people. This was the definition of oppression. Which makes the second half of Jesus’ statement confusing. If going one mile was so brutal and humiliating, why would he tell us to go two miles?

Just as refusing to carry a soldier’s pack for a mile when ordered to do so was a crime punishable by imprisonment, that same law dictated that the soldier could only force a Jewish citizen to go one mile at the most. There were limits. The Roman Empire had to balance their desire to subjugate the citizenry with the need to discourage insurrection.

Jesus knew that Roman soldiers could force you to go one mile, but they could not make you go two. And just as a Jewish citizen would be jailed for refusing to carry a pack for a mile, the soldier could face consequences if the citizen were to carry that pack for more than a mile. Carrying a pack for the second mile is generous, but it is also challenging. The Roman soldier would be faced with a decision: demand you stop or risk the possibility of punishment. Regardless of what option the soldier takes, he would be more hesitant to order another Jewish citizen to carry his gear.

Being forced to carry a heavy pack for a mile was humiliating. The generous offer to carry it for a second mile shifts the humiliation to the soldier. Going the first mile robbed the Jewish citizen of their dignity. By going the second mile, they reclaimed their dignity. By going another mile, the Jewish citizen was demonstrating their humanity to a soldier who viewed them as a lower class of people. If a Roman soldier didn’t want me to carry their pack a second mile, they shouldn’t have asked me to carry it for the first mile.

In this verse, Jesus wasn’t telling his audience to work harder, put in more effort, or be more generous. He was giving them a way to say, “I exist and I deserve better.”

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