Because of a situation that I’m not going to discuss on a public forum like this, I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and 6 about going the extra mile.
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also. If someone takes your cloak, give them your shirt also. And if someone forces you to walk with them one mile, walk with them two miles.”
“Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you; do good to those who spitefully use you.”
It’s easy to do good to someone you like. It’s no chore to walk two miles (present obesity and general unfitness crisis excepted) with someone you get on with. It’s a simple thing to pray blessing on your friends and those who agree with you.
But Jesus was talking to a conquered people. There were Roman soldiers out there that took advantage of their position as conquerors and overlords, and that wasn’t even considered particularly wrong. It was just the way it was; the conquered serve the conqueror.
When Jesus talks about someone striking you on the cheek, He’s talking about what we’d nowadays call unjustified police brutality. He’s talking about thugs with swords and armour taking out their frustrations on other people that had nothing to do with it.
When He talks about someone taking your cloak, He’s talking about the conquerors’ ongoing plunder of the conquered. He’s talking about extortion.
When He talks about someone forcing you to go one mile with them, He’s talking forced marches while being made to carry some soldier’s gear.
When He talks about loving enemies and praying for the persecutors, it has an agenda. It has names and faces, and it’s not pleasant.
We often tend to look at the Romans’ amazing works of architecture and engineering – the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the outflow channel for the baths at Bath (that still works over 2000 years later) – and forget that their other area of expertise was conquering.
Their soldiers were tough, disciplined, drilled until they bled, and encouraged to be brutal to subject peoples. The Pax Romana may have created an absence of major wars, but the essence of it was focused thuggery: Do not fight, or we will kill you.
The penalty for rebelling against Roman rule was unrelenting: they would slaughter rebel populations if necessary, down to the last woman and child. And the people who had to carry out the sentence were the soldiers. And among the soldiers, the ultimate sentence against a unit that refused to obey orders was called decimation: they would line up the men and count off by tens, and every tenth man was killed, whether or not he personally had anything to do with the trouble, whether or not he was a good soldier. It tended to encourage obedience.
Today, it’s easy as citizens of a free nation to miss the point, or at least, to have it made only weakly.
Loving your enemies is never easy, but at least we generally feel ourselves stronger than our enemies. It’s quite a different matter when they have all the power.
Going the extra mile means going out of your way to do nice things for the boss that you hate. It means doing good to the employer that blames you for their own problems. It means showing grace to the scheming no-goodnik that took credit for what you did and then bad-mouthed you to your superiors.
It’s not pleasant. It’s not easy. Now as then, there’s an agenda with names and faces.
It may mean going and doing something nice for a Muslim. It may mean doing good to that racist good-for-nothing, that nasty piece of work, that unpleasant character.
It isn’t easy, as I’m finding out again. But Jesus never promised an easy road; He just promised to walk with us on it.