Some time ago I was pondering the meaning of “2nd mile service”. It is a bit of a mantra in customer service circles. Companies are promising 2nd mile service. Employees are going to go the extra mile. It is used to express a desire to serve people, to exceed expectations, to express excellence in hospitality. But do we really know what it means?
The phrase comes from the bible. It is recorded in the book of Mathew. Chapter 5, verses 38-48 which reads:
“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 someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the un-righteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:40 reads “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” At first glance this verse could be translated “be willing to assume a burden for someone”. That sounds great. It seems reasonably hospitable. Be nice, help an old lady cross the street, share your jello with a friend, help a guest carry their luggage to their room, walk with a customer all-the-way to the back of the store to find an item. Assume a burden for someone… very admirable… but if you stop there… you miss the point entirely.
Jesus was speaking to a crowd of Jewish people. These were the Jews who detested the rule of Rome, the same Jews who hated the tax collectors, the same Jews who despised the roman soldiers; the same Jews who resented all things from and of Rome.
“If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” This one little verse taken by itself is a feel good suggestion that we help out someone in need… but when read in its context…. it is a far reaching command that gives Glory to God.
Jesus exhorts us with this command in the middle of some very strong teachings.
“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 someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
Revenge, restitution, humility, what do these things have to do with “a willingness to assume a burden?”
During the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, Persian Royal Officers were entitled, by the Roman government, to demand that a civilian, any civilian, carry any official correspondence on behalf of Rome. A Roman soldier could force a Jew to carry his military gear for him, usually limited to just under a mile. These soldiers were authorized to enlist unpaid laborers to build roads and government buildings. These Romans, these soldiers- they were loathed by the Jews. Often the Jewish people would place stakes along roadways measuring one mile, two miles, three miles, four. This way, wherever they were when they were enlisted, they would know exactly how far they would have to go before stopping.
It was these same people that Jesus spoke of when he spoke of the eye, the tooth, the evil person, the lawsuit, the heavy burden, the needy.
Jesus was saying; separate yourself from the tax collectors and the pagans who love only out of self interest, who greet and care for only those who they know. Even the most wretched of people, when required, will carry the soldiers gear for a mile. But, you, blessed one, after the first mile, when you are no longer obligated by the law to carry the gear of your enemy, continue on for a second mile and the soldier will be forced to wonder why.
Second mile service demands a response. Each person you serve: the royal officer, the roman soldier, the irate customer on the phone, the angry guy in the Library, the rude high school punks at the popcorn counter, the unannounced site visit, the last minute guest who is allergic to water, the couple with the crying baby in row 11, each one will ponder your intent, your heart, your compassion. They will be curious as to what compelled you to go out of your way for them. Why do you care so much? What is it about you that is so unique? They will know that there is something different about you. Because of the 2nd mile.
They will be captivated. Not by you, but by the Holy Spirit manifest in you. It is in that moment that God may choose to reveal himself in a very special way, causing His love to be seen in you.
Through your act of service, in your second mile, during your moment of humility, you give Glory to the One True God. This is what Jesus commands… this is “2nd mile service.”