When I first studied English in High School one of my teachers helpfully pointed out that a great number of very common phrases and sayings in everyday language are lifted lock, stock and barrel from the KJV Bible. I am enough of a dinosaur to remember a time when there were only two translations of the Bible generally available for ordinary folks — the King James Authorized Version used by Anglicans and Protestants in general, and the Jerusalem Bible which is essentially an English version of the Latin Vulgate Bible used by Roman Catholics. Phrases like, “the shirt off his back”, “mote in a brother’s eye”, “go the extra mile” come straight out of the teachings of Jesus.
Today we view civic duties such as jury duty, speed limits, parking restrictions, income taxes, and licenses of all kinds, as impositions on our personal freedoms, but overall we grudgingly admit them to be beneficial to society. But in the first century things were much, much worse in the Roman occupied Middle East.
We get a fascinating insight into Jewish legal practices in a parable that Jesus told to illustrate the characteristics of his Kingdom.
Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt. “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt. “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full. “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.” Matthew 18:23-35 NLT
I will leave the lessons of forgiveness, justice, the effects on other witnesses, etc…, for another time, but notice that in the Jewish Legal System you could be thrown in prison until your family came up with the money, or even worse, you and your family could be sold into slavery to pay the debt! Harsh times indeed, but at least everyone knew what the system was and could adjust their behavior to avoid running afoul of it.
The Romans, however, were a different story. There were two Roman laws that were particularly odious to Jews — the law of requisition and the law of impressment. Neither of these laws applied to Roman citizens, only to those who were not.
The law of requisition said that if a Roman soldier wanted your donkey for military purposes you had to give it to him (without compensation). He was supposed to give back after it had fulfilled its purpose, but you can imagine that that might have been the exception rather than the rule. If the soldier thought he needed it, he could quite literally requisition the shirt off your back.
Similarly, under the law of impressment, he could not just requisition your stuff, but press you into service to carry his stuff wherever he wanted to go. You became essentially his pack-mule for the next one thousand steps. As an aside, one thousand in Latin is “mille”, the Roman soldiers pace was 1.76 yards long, and a thousand paces would be 1,760 yards from which we get our distance measurement of a “mile”. To say that Jewish people absolutely loathed being treated as animals in this way might grossly underestimate their emotion.
As He so often did, Jesus turns these lemon-flavored laws into lemonade by turning everything on its head!
If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. Matthew 5:40 NLT If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Matthew 5:41 NLT
The (un)common sense in Jesus’ plan is echoed by early Christian writers:
If there is a requisition and a soldier seizes your donkey, let it go. Do not resist or complain; otherwise you will be beaten first, and lose your donkey besides. (Epictetus, Dissertationes 4.1.79)
If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. If someone takes away what is yours, do not demand it back, for you are not even able to get it back. (Didache 1:4)
In this current age a disciple of Jesus can expect to experience injustices at the hands of others, but he should not let the loss of material things perturb him, for he lives not for this current world and its things, but rather for the kingdom that is coming.
Paul carries this ethic to the extreme suggesting that we can set our enemies’ hair on fire:
If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads. Romans 12:20 NLT
This kind of radical obedience is startling and attention getting and when we say that we do so because Jesus told us to, we further the cause of the kingdom.
Let me end with a very obvious, but oft omitted thought: In order to go the second mile, you must first have gone the first!
I understand the motives behind much of the confrontational disobedience and protest prevalent in some Christian circles, but in doing so I feel we miss an opportunity to let Jesus’ sublime tactics work out. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar!
Let’s get some extra mileage out of this!
Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black
P.S. if you’d like to read previous ruminations of mine they can be found at https://www.salvationarmyconcordca.org/chronicle/?category=Bible%20Study