41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
Matthew 5:41 (NIV)
The issue addressed here is one of compelled service. For more than 600 years dating back to the Persians the idea of compulsory service has been reality of life for many people throughout the Middle east of the time. We have no specific knowledge of the forms in which this was practiced in Roman Palestine, but since Persian times impressing people and animals without notice for temporary service to the authorities had been customary and legal; the practice has been well documented. The Persians were the first to create a kind of Pony Express in which the mail-carrying rider simply “borrowed” horses along the way.
The hostility that the 1st Century Jews had for their Roman masters made this even more distasteful. Whenever a Roman official or soldier could ask (compel) anyone within the Empire to carry a burden a mile, that person had to do it regardless of who he was or what the circumstances were. Almost all Jews had been subject to this, and they hated the very mention of it. It is suggested that this compulsory service was the reason behind Simon of Cyrene being forced to carry Jesus cross to Golgotha.
This recommendation to generously and ungrudgingly comply with this law would have the power to turn an exaction into genuine public service, that was generously given to a representative of the government who has ‘need’ of it. Compulsory and often unpaid or poorly paid public service has not been uncommon in America. Think the draft that has plagued us as far back as the mid 1800’s. The Israelis require a couple of years of compulsory armed service and the Swiss do something similar. With tax season quickly coming upon us a case could be made for taxes being a form of compulsory service.
Does this mean that Jesus is endorsing the practice of impressments? No. In a situation in which changing the rules is not a possibility, the proposed response will have the capacity of turning the nature of the transaction from one in which both parties felt worse about each other after the encounter to one in which positive human interaction might become possible.
So how should we react when forced to serve our country? Well if we can’t affect a change via the polling booth we need to comply with good grace.
It has been suggested that this choice to rejoice even in the midst of discomfort, displeasure and duress was effective in the Gospel sweeping across the Roman Empire and ultimately bringing about the Christianizing of the Empire.
Learning to go the extra mile and liking it!