This Mile’s for You

Dear Will:

Say you were a Jew living in Palestine in the days of Cæsar Augustus. On any given day, you could just be going about your business—heading to the market to pick up some fish, let’s say—and a Roman soldier could interrupt you mid-errand to compel you to do his bidding instead. If he felt like it, Roman law permitted him to hand you his heavy gear and force you to carry it for him a mile up the road. Even if your hands were full and you were headed in the opposite direction, it didn’t matter. You’d have to put down your stuff, hoist his load, and trudge off with him. Here’s guessing you’d be late for dinner.

Any self-respecting person would be understandably resistant to such state-sanctioned overreach. Think of the indignity and the public humiliation of being turned into a beast of burden by some young conscript on a power trip. If it were me, I imagine I’d be thinking: “It’s clear who the ass is in this situation, and it’s not me. Who are you to tell me what to do? If I comply, I’ll be acquiescing to illegitimate authority. This is an assault on my freedom.” At which point I’d have been faced with two options: swallow my dignity and comply, or defy authority and suffer the consequences. Given what we know about Roman soldiers, I imagine that “the consequences” in this case would be, shall we say, unpleasant.

Jesus was around in those days, so I suppose it’s reasonable to wonder what He might have done if one day He caught the attention of some indolent legionary looking for someone to carry his gear. Given the scrutiny under which He often found Himself, we might understand if Jesus had avoided this highly-charged political question altogether. But that wasn’t really Jesus’s style, now was it? In His Gospel-defining Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave explicit instructions on this very question: “Whoever compels you to go one mile,” He said, “go with him two” (Matthew 5:41).

Wait, what? Why would Jesus expect His followers to comply with an unjust order from a gentile oppressor? More to the point, why would He then add indignity to indignity by suggesting that His true followers would willingly go an additional mile beyond that which was required by law?

For starters, I imagine there was the whole “don’t get yourself beat up or killed” thing. At its most basic level, Jesus must have known that refusing the soldier’s order would put an indignant Jew in great personal danger. Beyond that, He would have also known that defiance could put an entire community at risk. The Romans were not above overreacting in order to keep their subjects under control. More than anything, they wanted peace and civility, and they weren’t averse to violence in order to enforce it.

That makes sense, right? As a purely practical act of self-preservation, complying with the law was the logical choice. But if that explanation satisfies you, you haven’t really understood the teachings of Jesus.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus emphasized the importance of putting the needs of others above your own. Time and again He urged His disciples to sacrifice self-interest and convenience in order to show love and compassion to those nearby—even (especially?) those who might seem unworthy of kindness and service. Wasn’t that, in fact, the whole point of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who went well out of his way to carry and care for a fallen stranger? At the very core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the expectation that our day-to-day choices will be informed by a desire to do what’s best for other people, even if it results in a little personal hardship.

So why go that extra, unrequired mile? Because in doing so, you spare your neighbor that selfsame humiliation. Every mile you go, carrying that Roman burden, is one mile someone else doesn’t have to. What’s more, doing so transforms an hour of oppression into an act of selfless service. For a Christian, the labor and inconvenience cannot be required when the miles are freely given. It’s one of the ultimate lessons of the cross: When I willingly do good on behalf of someone else, I don’t relinquish my free will; I celebrate it.

So next time someone asks you to do something you don’t really want to do, something truly inconvenient that may feel like an assault on your liberty, consider the teachings of Jesus. Surely He would urge you to surrender your pride, put aside personal preference and freely do what’s best for others—especially when doing so would ultimately be in your best interests as well. To me it’s worth a shot . . . or two, depending on the brand.

PW