“Going the extra mile” is a common idiom today, but it comes from something Jesus said. Do we truly understand what He meant in the first century?
During the Sermon on the Mount, the disciples of Jesus sat listening to Him as He described how to approach God’s law. In each case, He spoke of going beyond the letter of the law to its intent, discussing the spiritual dimensions of commandments such as those prohibiting murder and adultery (Matthew 5:21-48).
At one point in this extensive discussion, Jesus told His followers that when someone “compels you to go one mile, go with him two” (verse 41). It is from this statement that we derive the modern English idiom of “going the extra mile.”
Merriam-Webster.com defines “go the extra mile” as “to do more than one is required to do.” The dictionary also provides this example of the idiom in a sentence: “She’s always willing to go the extra mile to help a friend.”
Our idiom, however, does not have the exact same meaning as the words of Jesus. We may not grasp His meaning today at first glance, but the people of first-century Galilee would have understood immediately. In fact, many of them would have been shocked. For us to understand, we need some historical context.
Going the extra mile under Roman rule
Galilee, where Jesus made His statement about going the extra mile, was under Roman occupation. The Roman Empire controlled much of the Mediterranean world, including all of the areas where Jesus lived and taught.
Rome had built its empire through the strength of its military machine, combined with its engineering genius. The empire was committed to building an infrastructure that allowed Roman armies to move quickly throughout lands it controlled. Roman roads were an engineering marvel during the first century.
Soldiers traversing these roads often carried equipment and supplies. Roman law, recognizing the importance of moving its troops quickly, included a provision that allowed soldiers to compel “civilians to carry the luggage of military personnel a prescribed distance, one Roman ‘mile’” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary).
Roman roads typically included mile markers. (A Roman mile was about 90 percent of a modern mile.) These stone markers, in conjunction with the law, “made it possible for a soldier to compel a civilian to carry his pack from one milestone to the next” (Ralph Gower, The New Manners & Customs of Bible Times, p. 232).
When Jesus told those listening to Him to “go with him two,” or go an extra mile, He was alluding to this Roman practice. For the Jews living under Roman dominion, this requirement was just one more source of anger and bitterness toward the empire.
An eye for an eye
As noted above, Jesus spoke about going an extra mile in the context of explaining the spiritual intent of the law. Before giving each of several example He first told His listeners that “you have heard” (verses 21, 27, 33, 38 and 43) or “it has been said” (verse 31), referring to some aspect of the law. He then introduced the spiritual dimension of the law by adding, “but I say” (verses 22, 28, 32, 34 and 44) or “but I tell you” (verse 39).
The “you have heard” statement that preceded Jesus’ words about going an extra mile was a reference to a law about justice: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (verse 38).
Those words seem strange to the modern mind, but they were a shortened form of an Old Testament passage discussing physical violence and its consequences: “But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25).
This law encapsulates the judicial principle scholars call lex talionis (Latin for the law of retaliation). In essence, this means that an offender, found guilty after a judicial proceeding, should face a punishment in proportion to the pain and suffering he inflicted on the victim.
It is important to understand that this law was not about seeking personal vengeance. It was not about an individual’s response to an offense. Rather, it was a law intended to establish justice among the tribes of Israel, prescribing the way that judges should mete out punishments to offenders. As such, it actually precludes personal vendettas.
When Jesus spoke of “an eye for an eye,” He was speaking of our human desire to seek justice after we have been wronged. This, of course, is quite natural. When we are hurt, we want those who have hurt us to suffer the consequences of their unjust acts.
Jesus, however, urged His disciples to move beyond the natural desire for vengeance. He wanted His followers to look at the big picture, and that means not always demanding strict justice without mercy. We are to consider the needs of others who have offended us or hurt us!
Using the “but I tell you” opening (verse 39), Christ provided three examples to make His point. The first is a call to forgo hitting back when struck by someone else (verse 39). These words do not mean a person should turn his other cheek provocatively (as if encouraging the person to hit it), but that he must not lash out in anger, hoping to inflict pain on the individual who struck first.
The second example is judicial. When sued for one’s tunic (an inner garment, but not an undergarment), that individual should offer his cloak (an outer garment) as well. Jewish law prohibited judges from taking and keeping cloaks, which the poor used as blankets when they slept.
This means Jesus was telling His disciples to go beyond what a judge could demand. Again, He was prompting His listeners to consider more than their own personal needs.
Going the extra mile in obedience to Christ
The third and final example is the appeal to go the extra mile. The Jews bristled at this requirement. Their nation, God’s chosen people, had lost its sovereignty to Rome. They lived under a regime that often showed little regard for their customs or their religious beliefs. And yet they were forced, at times, to serve the very army that oppressed them!
We must let go of any anger, resentment or bitterness in our hearts and focus instead on how we might love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). This is not easy. It often requires personal sacrifice.In telling His listeners to carry a soldier’s gear for 2 miles when legally required to do so for only 1 mile, Jesus was telling them to let go of their hostility toward their oppressors. More than that, He was telling them to consider how they might better serve. This would have been difficult for first-century Jews to accept—especially those who had strong messianic hopes. After all, the Messiah was to be the great liberator.
Jesus concluded this section of the Sermon on the Mount with a summary statement that puts everything into perspective: “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away” (verse 42).
This summary statement is not restricted to money. It is about what is in our hearts. To capture the spirit of the law, we must switch from focusing on our rights, our hopes and our desires to thinking about the needs, hopes and dreams of others—even those who have made themselves our enemies. (Read more in our article “Spirit of the Law.”)
How you can go the extra mile
What our modern idiom suggests is good—as far as it goes. It is good to do more than expected. In doing that, we may prove ourselves to be great friends and neighbors, or we may establish ourselves in the workplace as valuable employees. But as shown above, what the modern idiom calls for does not go far enough. It does not fulfill the standard Jesus established.
So what does this mean for us?
Each of us should think about the people in our lives, whether spouses, family members, neighbors, coworkers or strangers we encounter. As we consider them, we should ask, “Is there anyone against whom I harbor anger, resentment and bitterness?”
The answer for all of us is probably “yes.” We’ve all been wronged. Perhaps you have been a target of gossip or cheated by a sales representative. You may have been overlooked at work, or you may have had family or friends take you for granted. The point is, we have all experienced offenses.
But we must let go of any anger, resentment or bitterness in our hearts and focus instead on how we might love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). This is not easy. It often requires personal sacrifice.
It is in sacrifice, though, that we become more like Christ. Jesus set the ultimate example of sacrifice when He “humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).
None of this means that we should set ourselves up as targets and allow other people to take advantage of us repeatedly. Rather, it means that we should learn to think about those very people who hurt us, considering what they are lacking, and seeking to walk with them that extra mile.
Study more about the life-changing messages of Jesus’ famous discourse in our free booklet The Sermon on the Mount.