The reference to the extra mile can be found in Matthew 5:41, which quoted the words of Jesus as follows: “‘And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two…’” In Wikipedia, there are interesting comments about the practice that was extant in the Roman Empire:
“The idiom to go the extra mile means to do more than is required. The expression probably comes from the Bible, when Jesus declares, “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two’ (Matthew 5:41 (NASB). The verse is reference to the practice of ‘impressment’ which, among other things, allowed a Roman soldier to conscript a Jewish native to carry his equipment for the Roman mile (million = 1,000 paces, about 1,611 yards or 1,473 meters)—no easy task considering a Roman soldier’s backpack could weigh upwards to 100 pounds (45.4 kg).”
We can see from these observations that the instruction at that time could be seen to be extremely onerous, not only regarding the seemingly “unfairness” of such a task, but also what went with it—a very heavy burden to carry for two miles and not just one. With this background and understanding of what Jesus said, we realize that it was not an easy physical thing to accomplish by any stretch of the imagination. However, Jesus was well aware of what it involved and still gave this instruction of going the extra mile and not resorting to violent resistance.
Shortly after coming into the Church and prior to being baptized, one of the writers of this Q&A had quit his government job because it conflicted with the Sabbath. He did not have permanent employment for a few months and was working at the time out of the Teamsters Union Hall in Vancouver, Canada. One day, he was sent to a company where they were unloading heavy bags of flour out of boxcars. They weighed over seventy pounds. The writer was working with a man from Alberta about his age who was about 27 at the time, and they both worked hard. They put their backs to it as the saying goes. They emptied the boxcar way sooner than the foreman had anticipated and not wanting to send them home early, he took them to a warehouse to remove wood and old pallets from the floor and pile them outside to be picked up later by the forklift driver.
It wasn’t too long before they got that job completed and they looked at one another and said, “What do we do now?” The writer suggested picking up brooms and sweeping the floor so while in the process of sweeping up, the foreman showed up, totally flabbergasted that they were not just sitting down, waiting for their next assignment. Once they finished sweeping, he almost reluctantly permitted them to go home even though it was a few hours short of the agreed-upon 8 hours for the day, but there was nothing more to do. He instructed them to come back the next day which was unusual because they were usually dispatched from the Union Hall in the morning. This shows what can be achieved when we go “the extra mile.”
Interestingly, following the instruction to go the second mile, we read about loving our enemies, which is not a natural thing to do in any age. This is found in verses 43-48, which read:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
This instruction would include the willingness to forgive our enemies and others, upon their repentance. In Matthew 18:21-22, Jesus answers Peter who asked about forgiveness to others: “Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’”
Seven times seventy is 490, but this does not mean that we stop forgiving the offending person, once we have reached 490 times, but implies that to the extent the person repents, we don’t keep score but rather forgive ungrudgingly. Unfortunately, some cannot even get to first base on this when they carry a grudge, let alone forgiving someone seventy times seven. Some have a mental offense list that they bring forth during an argument, raising the offenses of the last ten years and just won’t let go and forgive and forget.
Stephen did not retaliate when he was being killed, and he is a great example for us today. He simply asked that those who were stoning him were not charged with this sin; in other words, he asked God to forgive them once they came to repentance. There was no sign whatsoever of any willingness to “pay them back” (compare Acts 7:59-60).
The greatest example of all, Jesus Christ, did not resort to violence and did not retaliate in any way when He was killed in the most barbaric manner imaginable. He could have called upon God to send a legion of angels for rescue and avenge the crimes committed against Him, but He knew that this was not the purpose of God’s plan. He asked God to forgive them, once they came to repentance, for they did not know what they were doing (Luke 23:34) nor understood whom they were putting to death. Stephen and Jesus both forgave and went the extra mile in the sense that they had that attitude of forgiveness at the time they were losing their own lives. For a thorough explanation of the statements by Stephen and Christ, please see our Q&A .
What about the general areas of life? Today we are not usually compelled to carry the equipment (heavy or otherwise) for another human being, even though we may offer to do so if this need became apparent, nor are we compelled to do this for a specific distance; again we could evaluate what was necessary and how much we could help.
The Collins English Dictionary gave examples from other publications, using the phrase “going the extra mile”:
“‘People who know where they are going are more willing to go the extra mile.’ CHRISTIANITY TODAY (2000).
“‘This is why 54 per cent of bosses look for employees who are willing to go the extra mile.’ THE SUN (2014).
“‘When management puts in a great effort, those on your team are more than willing to go the extra mile.’ SUNDAY TIMES (2009).
“‘It’s about willing to go the extra mile, adding things to your game and having a work ethic.’ SUNDAY TIMES (2009).
“‘Be willing to go the extra mile to show your enthusiasm, and it won’t take long to stand out!’ SUNDAY TIMES (2011).”
Jesus gave the example of going the extra mile in His ministry and He would expect His original disciples to display this same attitude wherever possible. They had the greatest example for 3 ½ years when witnessing how Jesus manifested His words by His action.
We could give a list of situations where we could do more than is expected of us, avoiding being “unprofitable servants” (Luke 17:10), but the principle is clear at all times. Let us look for things to do for others, and when we have done whatever it is, let us see if anything further needs to be done. A little help can raise the spirit of a person, particularly since they may not see such an example very often. The onus is on us to be aware of the need of others.
Someone wrote this about the extra mile:
“As Jesus went the ‘extra mile’ for us [that] we might have forgiveness of our sins and life eternal through faith in Him, so are we called to ‘go the extra mile with Jesus’ for one another and others who don’t yet know His love and forgiveness.”
Jesus’ example of “going the extra mile” encourages us to do needed acts of selfless love and compassion toward the welfare and service of others, regardless of how “nice” or how much “like us” they may be. Whenever we “go the extra mile” in service to others, we are doing so in service to God.
We have to remember that God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, went more than the extra mile, as we read in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
That is the definitive example of the “going the extra mile” injunction!
Lead Writers: Rene Messier (Canada) and Brian Gale (United Kingdom)