May 16, 1995
When Rome ruled the known world, a law allowed soldiers to demand that any citizen carry their pack of equipment and weapons for one Roman mile. Israelites living in Judea and Galilee during the time of Christ, were included in that citizenship. Although they were allowed to keep their religion, the Jews longed for full political liberty. Can you imagine how they felt whenever they saw a soldier looking at them or even coming their way?
Put yourself in their place, maybe walking home after a hard day’s work. A soldier rides up and orders you to go 1620 yards in the opposite direction carrying his helmet and metal breastplate. Or perhaps you are dressed for an important job interview when accosted and forced to carry a dirty, smelly pack that smears both muck and aroma on your suit.
Roman taxes were bad enough without this further oppression. When Jesus came, many Jews began looking to Him as their Messiah, the One who would deliver them from their enemies, the Romans. Can you imagine their reaction when He told them, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles”?
Jesus gave them this startling command when was speaking to the disciples and a huge crowd gathered at the Mount of Olives. His discourse that day is commonly called the Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, Jesus upended traditional rabbinic teaching. He also said things that mock so-called common sense, like “love your enemy” and “do good to those who hate you.” Why would He tell them to go beyond compliance and do Roman soldiers a favor?
Today, if someone tried to order anyone to carry their pack or do anything else they didn’t want to do, there would be a quick protest to the American Civil Liberties Union or some other rights protection group. North Americans value personal rights. We are free people who resist doing anything we don’t want to do. Besides, that Roman law was exploitive and encouraged people in power to be selfish and cruel.
It would be easy to look at the words Jesus said and think He was telling His followers to be submissive to evil, selfish people. That is not the case. He clearly teaches elsewhere that we should stand up against evil and do all we can to make sure people are treated justly and with respect. Furthermore, it is not biblical to encourage selfishness in others or allow them to do unkind things.
Why then did He urge “go the second mile?” Think of the typical response to unjust treatment: revenge; however, according to the Bible, getting even is not a godly response to evil. Romans 12 says, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the Lord... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
The people Jesus talked to were outraged at the Romans who exploited their resources, time, energy and personal liberty. Even if they were not strong enough to physically resist, revenge was certainly in their hearts.
Nevertheless, Jesus told them when someone tries to rob you of your liberty, give it to them. This is not to encourage selfishness, not even to show unusual kindness. Instead, doing the unexpected for those who do not deserve it is being like Christ. He did not wait until we repented, made up for it, smartened up or quit sinning. Instead He “demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
By making a free choice to serve others, God’s people demonstrate they possess a loftier kind of liberty, a freedom that no one, not even a Roman soldier, can take away.