The Third Mile

March 5, 2010

The Third Mile

One day a small group of disciples who had embraced the way of Jesus early in his ministry heard him preaching by the side of a dusty road. As they crowded around they heard Jesus say,

“The law requires that you carry a pack for one mile, but I say carry it freely for two.”

The disciples were deeply impressed by these words, for at that time a Roman soldier had the legal right to demand that a citizen carry his pack for a mile as a service to the Empire. This teaching not only allowed the disciples to turn this oppressive law into an opportunity to demonstrate kingdom values, but also presented them with an opportunity to suffer in some small way for their faith.

As it was common for soldiers to evoke this law, the small band of believers soon developed a reputation for their actions. Roman soldiers would often hope that the citizens they asked to carry their packs would be among these disciples, and often a small bond of friendship would develop between a solder and these followers of the Way.

After a year had passed this custom had become so established in the group that it became a defining characteristic of their shared life. The leaders would frequently refer to the teaching of Jesus and emphasize the need to carry a pack of the Roman soldier for two miles as a sign of one’s faith and commitment to God.

It so happened that Jesus heard about this community’s work, and, on his way to Jerusalem, took time to visit them. The leaders eagerly gathered all the members of the group to hear what Jesus would say. Once everyone had gathered, Jesus addressed them:

“Dear brothers and sisters, you are faithful and honest, but I have come to you with a second message, for you failed to understand the first. Your law says that you must carry a pack for two miles. My law says, ‘Carry it for three.'”


Pete tells a related story in one of his books. In this story, a rabbi’s teaching to his students is disrupted every day by a cat. In order to keep the peace, the rabbi takes to tying the cat to a tree while he is teaching. Eventually the rabbi dies, but the cat’s still around. This is a problem, because the cat is still a problem. So the students keep tying the cat to the tree. A few years later, the cat dies, so the students buy another cat and continue tying it to the tree. Several generations of cat later, the tree dies, so the school founded by the rabbi plants a new one. Hundreds of years, innumerable cats, and a fair few trees later, learned scholars write beautiful theological treatises on the significance that the cat to the tree holds for this group.

I’m not sure I need to spell out the point, but I’ll do so anyway: traditions, rules, laws, etc., are tricky things. The rabbi in the story took a pragmatic approach to a present problem. The students misunderstood and made it a law. This story is perhaps more relevant to discuss in terms of church tradition. (Veneration of icons, women in leadership positions, hymns, whatever) The story in the main parable for today, though, is about how we understand the teachings of Jesus.

Leave aside the fact that the disciples in this story seemed to have missed the fact that Jesus’ advice about carrying the pack was more for their own benefit: going the extra mile put the oppressed in a position of power, since the soldiers weren’t allowed to force someone to carry the pack for more than a mile. Picture it like this:

“Well, we’re at the end of the mile, I’ll take the pack back.”– Soldier

— Disciple keeps walking —

“No, really, give me the pack back.”

— Still walking —


Come on, that’s funny.

These disciples also missed a more fundamental point in all of Jesus’ teaching. Namely, that the attitude of God towards the world is that of an extravagance of grace. Grace beyond codification. Grace that pushes beyond boundaries and laws. If humanity is created in the image of God, to be images of God, then the position of people towards each other should also be that of an extravagance of grace.

The creation of a law or rule ends up restricting that flow of grace. I’ve talked about this extensively in previous posts. Laws, however in good faith they may be, put up boundaries that cannot help but fall short of abstract ideals. By going the extra mile– and presumably no further– these disciples are limiting the amount of grace they exhibit, and by binding each other to it they are limiting the grace they can give. This isn’t to say that spiritual rules and disciplines are bad; were that the case I wouldn’t be writing about parables for Lent. It is to say that letting the rule dictate action rather than an outpouring of God’s grace is a bad thing.

People often think that legalistic people are the kinds of folks who tally up sins and cast judgement on the less pious. Mightn’t it be time to think of ourselves as legalistic when we aren’t willing to go any further than our laws tell us to?


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