Going the Second Mile
"If someone forces you to go one mile…" This expression came out of old Persia and refers to the authority given by the king to those sent to do his bidding. If a courier or soldier needed assistance in fulfilling the king’s mission, he could commandeer any man or horse or wagon with no questions asked. Later the armies of the Greeks and the Romans adopted the practice.
In Jesus’ day any Jew could be forced away from his own concerns to help a legionnaire who may or may not have really needed him. In much the same way Simon of Cyrene was "compelled," (forced) to bear the cross of Jesus (Matthew 27:32).
The Jews of Jesus’ day, of course, deeply resented this humiliating law and saw it as a symbol of foreign domination. You can imagine, then, their surprise when Jesus said, "go with him two miles."
I. A One-mile World
"If someone forces you… strikes you… sues you… asks you" (Matthew 5:38-42).
A. This saying is hard on us because we, like the Jews of the first century, live in a one-mile world.
1. It is a world of rights and responsibilities.
2. It is a world of basic criteria and minimum standards.
B. Our concept of "justice" is built on the principle of "reciprocity." It seeks to insure that those who violate rights and deny justice are appropriately punished.
1. "An eye for an eye," is the way the Bible puts it. Rather than inviting retaliation, the real goal of this law was to insure justice by guaranteeing proportional compensation to the victim. It was designed to keep the rich and powerful from literally "getting away with murder."
2. Such justice is sanctioned by God Himself as a means of constraining the human tendency toward exploitation and manipulation of the defenseless.
C. Understanding this, we are even more surprised at these words of Jesus.
1. Rather than calling upon them (and us) to resist this unjust law or, at best, to comply with it only minimally, he calls upon his followers to respond to evil with good and to domination with voluntary subordination.
2. To citizens of a one-mile world this just does not compute.
II. A Second-mile Church
"Turn the other cheek… give your last garment… go the extra mile… love your enemies" (Matthew 5:38-48)
A. At this point I am desperate to explain how this text does not mean what it really says.
1. I would like to appeal to "oriental exaggeration" or "rhetorical hyperbole" as a way to diffuse the power of these words to upset my life. I would like to do this but I can’t.
2. Though Jesus does not expect a slavishly literal application of the examples He offers (see John 18:22, 23; Matthew 21:12-17), it is none-the-less clear that He is calling for a new and different response to the people who try to exploit us.
B. What does it mean to "go the second mile?"
1. It means to rise above the instinctive desire to "strike back," "get even," or "settle the score" and to meet evil with good.
2. It means to swallow pride and abandon self-interest. It means to be slow to anger and quick to forgive. It means to live by grace in the face of the unfair.
C. Why should we do this?
1. To master the power of passive resistance? To shame the sinner into repentance? To these potential benefits Jesus does not appeal.
2. Do this, He says, because God acts like this toward us (see Matthew 5:45; also Romans 5:7).
Before we dismiss the ethic of the second mile as "ideal" or "unworkable" we should remember how close it is to the gospel.