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From Wikipedia:

Matthew 5:41 is the forty-first verse of the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament and is part of the Sermon on the Mount. This is the third verse of the antithesis on the commandment: "Eye for an eye".

In the King James Version of the Bible the text reads:

And whosoever shall compel
thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

What did Jesus really mean by this instruction, "go with him twain"?

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I view this in the context of being required, say, to perform Jury duty, or some such civic duty. If compelled, in this way (not just a matter of some unlawful bully demanding an unreasonable service without any proper warrant) then one is to be generous and to go 'the extra mile' as has become part of English idiom.

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I like what I found a Mr. Meredith-Bramwell said online:

Jesus was speaking to people who were living under an occupation army and did not have the privilege of a free society and in this instance was referring to Roman Legionary Law which allows a Roman soldier to force a civilian to carry his kit for one kilometer but no further. During His discourse on the mount He made reference to the occupation to be helpful to the Jews.

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Matthew 5:38-45 (KJV)

38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. 41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. 42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. 43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

In Matthew 5:38-45, Christ is providing information on the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven and the character of God. In these verses He shows that His kingdom in not a kingdom of retribution and forced equity based on physical laws. Instead, He shows that His kingdom is spiritual based on mercy and unconditional love. Under the law driven culture in Israel, seeking equity of your enemy through the law was extremely important. Jesus however, is telling us to love our enemies and do good to those who despitefully use us for this is the character of God. For God does not seek equity for our breaking the law but rather is merciful and forgives based on His love for the world through the sacrifice of Christ.

In verses 39-41, He gives three examples. In each of these instances, the “enemy” is forcing his will upon the other person, ie striking, suing and impressing into service. Per the law, the injured party has a right to recover what ever has been taken from him (Deuteronomy 19:21 – see below) to the point of recovering the “intention” of the enemy in the case of false witness. However, in these verses in Matthew, Christ says not to resist the evil and attempt to recover damages through the law but to go above and beyond the law to mercy for in doing so you identify yourself as a child of God who blesses all men equally.

With respect to your specific question on Matthew 5:41, Jesus is telling us not to resist if we are compelled to do something against our will. In that verse, the word “compel” is the Greek word angareuo, which means to impress into service. So, instead of resisting having to be required to walk a mile, show your willingness to comply by going an extra mile. So again, in all three cases, the “enemy” has done something evil with respect to the recipient. Jesus tells us not to resist the evil but only to meet evil with good for in doing so we reflect the character of our God and the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Deuteronomy 19:16-20 (KJV)

16 If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; 17 Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; 18 And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; 19 Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. 20 And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. 21 And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

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This is a classic use of hyperbole.

Hyperbole is a form of rhetoric characterized by exaggeration, the purpose of which exaggeration is not to nullify the truth of the thing said, but to impress it firmly on the hearer.

One of the best example of this can be found in the same chapter, a mere 10 verses prior:

Matthew 5:29-30 (DRB) And if thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell. 30 And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell.

The lesson is true—we must "cut off" occasions of sin in our life, at all costs ("hell"). And yet He doesn't want us to literally mutilate ourselves, but to recognize the seriousness of sin, that we should consider severing even part of our very selves (something in our daily life—a job, certain people of bad example, certain places or environments conducive to sin) if it causes us to sin, "for it is better," He says, than going to hell—a very real threat: hence the hyperbole employed to convey the seriousness of the point.

If you were only asked to go a mile with someone, and you treat it as the completion of a contract once you reach the one mile mark, you have merited nothing, and exercised no virtue whatsoever. While if you have the attitude, "Why yes, and I'll go two with you," the motivation of your going isn't to win favor with the person, but to offer your time and effort so that someone else can benefit—you have shown real love.

Ephesians 5:2 (DRB) And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath delivered himself for us, an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odour of sweetness.

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The saying goes hand in hand with the previous command:

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away the tunic, let him have thy cloak also.

This command relates to surrendering one's possessions to those who demand it, if needs be. Verse 41 extends this to surrendering one's body as well. Theophylact writes:

"Why should I speak of cloaks and tunics?" the Lord is saying. Give even your body to him who wrongfully compels you, and do more than he wants you to do.1

Earlier, John Chrysostom (4th c.) had written:

If any one shall compel you to go one mile, go with him two.

Do you see the height of self-denial? In this at least, that after giving your coat, and your cloak, not even if your enemy should wish to use your naked body for hardships and labors, not even so (says He), must thou forbid him. For He would have us possess all things in common, both our bodies and our goods, as with them that are in need, so with them that insult us: for the latter comes of manliness, the former of mercifulness.

Because of this, He said, If any one shall compel you to go one mile, go with him two: again leading you higher up, and commanding you to show forth the same kind of ambition.

For if the things of which He spoke at the beginning, being far less than these, have so great blessings pronounced on them; consider what sort of portion awaits them, who duly perform these, and what they become even before their rewards, in a human and passible body winning entire freedom from passion. Since when neither insult, nor blows, nor the spoiling of their property, galls them; while they give way to no such thing, but rather add in large measure to their endurance; reflect what kind of training their soul is undergoing.2


1. Explanation of the Gospel According to St. Matthew (tr. from Greek; Chrysostom Press, 2008), p.54
2. Homily XVIII on Matthew

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