Go the Extra Mile

Go the Extra Mile

UK’s most common misquote

I hear this phrase often in my profession; ‘people who go the extra mile’. It expresses a very worthy sentiment, describing those people who do much more than they are obliged to. The teaching profession in this country is full of caring individuals who regularly go well beyond the call of duty – who go the extra mile.

In my last blog, I discussed Jesus’ teaching on turning the other cheek. To go the extra mile comes from the same section of Jesus’ teaching. Here is the passage from Matthew 5 vs 38-41:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

To resist or not to resist?

‘Do not resist an evil person.’ Really? When we see evil taking place is Jesus really telling us to do nothing? How does that fit in with the writer of James telling us to resist the devil? Are Christians expected to resist the devil, as a personification of evil, but not resist people who are acting in an evil way? It doesn’t make sense!

When we read a word in the Bible we naturally think that this word had exactly the same meaning as the word in the original language. This is rarely the case. Biblical scholar, Walter Wink, in his book ‘Jesus and Nonviolence’, helpfully points out that the word translated ‘resist’ was typically used as a military word (armed resistance). It is a word that implies violence. For example, it gets translated as ‘insurrection’ when describing Barabbas (Luke 23:13-25).

The Apostle Paul, when writing to the Ephesians describes how our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the spiritual powers of this dark world. He goes on to exhort the Ephesian Christians to put on the full armour of God, so they can stand their ground. The word translated as ‘stand’ is the same word.

Paul said ‘resist’ when the enemy is the devil’s schemes and dark spiritual forces. Jesus says do not resist because there is a ‘flesh and blood’ person in view. A better translation of this phrase is “Don’t use violence to resist evil” 1 Jesus gives three examples of how to oppose evil without violence; ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘give your cloak as well’ and ‘go the extra mile’. (For more about ‘turn the other cheek’, look at my previous blog). The next two examples refer to two of the most outrageous social injustices of the time.

Give me your underwear!

“If someone wants to sue you for your shirt, give them your coat as well”. This under garment and over garment would be the last two things owned by the poorest of the poor. For someone to be suing to get them is clearly extremely exploitative.

Yelin-bergpredigt-ca1912

Ever wondered why so many of Jesus’ parables are about debt and debtors and rich estate owners? It’s because this was such a prevalent social injustice of the time. Large estates were owned by absentee landlords, managed by stewards and worked by servants and labourers. The law, supported by the power of Rome, was used by the rich to ensure they stayed rich, despite Roman taxation, at the expense of the poor.

Imagine the injustice then of someone being sued for his shirt, the second last thing he owns. So when Jesus says give him your coat as well, he is picturing returning home from the courthouse stark naked, with the wealthy plaintiff standing with your shirt in one hand and your underwear in the other! Some spectacle! And the subsequent public outrage exonerates you and exposes him as the ruthless b****** he is.

Going the extra mile

The image in question is clear. Roman soldiers were permitted to force a resident of an occupied land to carry his bag for a mile. Again imagine the outrage of being forced by a smelly, foul mouthed, common soldier to carry his bag. (Teachers may recognise a similar outrage, when we ask a student to pick up their litter!!) It’s fairly obvious to see how unpopular and degrading this law was. Mile markers were placed on roads to support the practice. There were, however, severe penalties under military law for soldiers who abused their position and forced locals to go more than one mile.

Again there is a degree of comedy in what Jesus is saying. By offering to go the second mile, the soldier is put in an impossible position. He can’t let you go the extra mile, or else he risks being in severe trouble. The power play is reversed. Instead of forcing you to carry his bag, he is now begging you not to! The evil has not been ignored, but has been exposed and ridiculed in a non-violent way.

To summarise this passage Jesus is encouraging his followers to find creative and effective ways to oppose injustice and evil, without violence or the threat of violence.

Mosque Tea Party

(c) Tim Buss, 2014, flickr.com

Here is a good example of what this might look like today. A few months ago the English Defence League planned a demonstration in Birmingham. These racist, xenophobic marches are often marked with violence, as anti-fascist groups come out and oppose the march. The biggest mosques in Birmingham decided to respond in a different way. They opened their doors and organised a big British tea party to coincide with the march. Rather than the news be dominated by the racist agenda of the march, it was the tea party that made the headlines, beautifully countering the marchers in a more powerful way than could ever be achieved if they had physically gone to oppose the march. The tea party neutralised the acid of hate engendered by the march.

Outrageously the Christian symbol of the cross is often seen at these marches even though they are so diametrically opposed to what Jesus actually taught and stood for.

Donald Trump’s tweet from August 2017: “The US has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!”

Missile from Flickr via Wylio
© 2011 Martin, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

I don’t think I am alone in being nervous about the sabre rattling between Trump and Kim Jong-un. I know I am dreaming, but what if the largest Christian nation took Jesus’ words seriously, and looked for creative and effective ways to counter the evil of nuclear proliferation, without violence or the threat of violence?

So next time you hear the phrase “go the extra mile”, you can be thankful for people who genuinely go beyond the call of duty. Schools and hospitals run in our country because of people like this. But you can also think to yourself, actually Jesus meant something very different when he said to go the extra mile – so what ‘tea party’ could I be helping with that will neutralise the acid of hate and injustice in my community?

Footnote:

This is taken from Tom Wright’s translation in ‘Matthew for Everyone’, SPCK 2002. The translation produced by the Jesus Seminar called the Scholars Version is very similar.

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