The Extra Mile

This coming Sunday is the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we moved beyond retribution and retaliation and considered the meaning of resistance as taught by Jesus. Today we consider whether Jesus is asking Christian discipleship to move beyond what the dominant culture anticipates and expects: If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. 

Again, Jesus returns to the legal setting of the courtroom. This time to describe more than what the law commands, but what God proposes as true righteousness. The Greek chitōna describes the undergarment or tunic worn either against the bare skin or over a linen shirt. The chitōna was made of linen or wool, reached to the ankles or knees, had long or half-sleeves, and was worn by both rich and poor.  The Greek himation is used of garments in general (and in the plural means “clothing”) and specifically the outer garment, i.e., the mantle or cloak with openings for the arms.  Dt 24:10-13 describes the himation being used to secure a loan; the cloak must be returned by sundown so that the person has something to keep him warm in the night. But notice that in Mt 5:40 the garment in question is the chitōna, the undergarment. In contrast with the eager litigation of his opponent, the disciple should not only willingly be deprived of his chitōna, but should add his himation (the more valuable outer garment) as a bonus. Jesus has made an absurd example in which the victim ends up naked in the courtroom.

Boring (194) offers that Jesus’ intention is not literal but teaches that “a disciple should be secure enough in one’s acceptance by God to enable one not to insist on one’s rights, legal or otherwise, but empowering one to renounce them in the interest of others.” France (2007, p.221) writes that the principle here is not primarily the avoidance of lawsuit since the other person had no legal rights in the court (Ex 22:25-27; Dt 24:10-13). Rather it teaches that what the opponent could not have dared to claim, the disciple is to offer freely – a radically unselfish attitude to one’s rights and property. Carter (152) insists that the purpose of Jesus’ teaching is literal and that in standing naked (non-violent resistance) in the courtroom one exposes the naked greed of the oppressor. Keener (198-99) agrees that Jesus’ words are hyperbole, but says that there are strong elements of honor/shame in play.  The ones who value honor and possession more than the kingdom will get what they desire. The ones who focus their desire on the kingdom will inherit eternal life.

In contemporary life often the expression “to go the extra mile” implies that if someone has asked you to volunteer, one should more than agree and do more than expected or asked.  But Jesus is referring to something that is clearly not voluntary service. The phrase “press you into service” uses the Greek word angareuō  which means to “press into compulsory service, or to compel.” This was a practice of Roman soldiers taken over from the Persians by which soldiers and government officials could compel citizens of the occupied country to carry load for a prescribed distance.  This same verb describes Simon being compelled to carry Jesus’ cross. Given the Roman occupation of Palestine, there was no choice but to comply, but the practice was deeply resented by the people.  Jesus’ suggestion is remarkable in itself, but to do it for the enemy is unheard of.

France (2007, p. 222) offers that this illustrates Jesus’ demand to renounce one’s rights and prepares the listener for the equally radical demand to love one’s enemies (v.44).  Keener (200) agrees in this basic assessment and goes so far as to say love commands such actions even if one’s contemporaries see your actions as collaboration with the enemy. Carter (152-3) points out that going the first mile can simply be the path of least resistance in the face of oppressing power whose intent is to humiliate. By going the second mile one shows a refusal to be humiliated and takes the imitative to assert human dignity. Given that Roman law limited the service to one mile, Carter suggests this was a strategy of non-violence to change the relationship: perhaps the Roman soldier is now worried that he will be reported as violating the law of occupation. Boring (194) agrees with France and Keener and places it in a broader context: doing more than the law demands. France also notes that the point is that the disciple is not to be a part of furthering the usual chain of evil action and reaction in this fallen world.

This last example is an ordinary, everyday occurrence: Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow – a request for goods or money from a neighbor or a poor person.  From Deuteronomy 15:

7 If one of your kinsmen in any community is in need in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand to him in his need. 8 Instead, you shall open your hand to him and freely lend him enough to meet his need. 9 Be on your guard lest, entertaining the mean thought that the seventh year, the year of relaxation, is near, you grudge help to your needy kinsman and give him nothing; else he will cry to the LORD against you and you will be held guilty. 10 When you give to him, give freely and not with ill will; for the LORD, your God, will bless you for this in all your works and undertakings. 11 The needy will never be lacking in the land; that is why I command you to open your hand to your poor and needy kinsman in your country.

Jesus’ injunction reflects the generosity envisioned in Dt 15:7-11 for helping a fellow Israelite in need, but is more open-ended (cf. Luke 6:30) – not limiting the injunction to a fellow Israelite. Luke is more far-reaching: ‘Give (regularly: present imperative) to everyone who asks of you.’ Matthew envisages a specific instance (give is aorist imperative, normally of a single act). Literal application of this verse as a rule of life would be self-defeating: there would soon be a class of saintly paupers, owning nothing, and another of prosperous idlers. But the principle is that the need of others comes before my convenience (cf. Deut. 15:7–11). The point being made is that in the kingdom of heaven self-interest does not rule – not our legal rights, nor our possessions – all give way to the interest of others.

Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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