The Third Mile, or What It Means to Practice Hesed.

I recently read the chapter “Third Mile” out of Peter Rollin’s book, How (Not) to Speak of God. The thrust of the chapter is pertains to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:41, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”  Here Jesus makes reference to Roman law which allowed soldiers to have citizens carry his pack for one mile.  Jesus’ retelling of the law tells us that it is not by retaliation, or even compliance that we should perform the task at hand.  Instead, it is through love which exceeds that which is “required” or asked of us.  Rollins’ writes, “Ethical systems allow us to follow rules whether we love or not.  While ethics says, ‘What must I do to fulfill my responsibility?’ love says, ‘I will do more than is required.’”

Rollins elaborates on this by imagining that Jesus’ words in Mt 5:41 has become a law.  If asked to carry a pack one mile, you must carry it two.  Rollins asks, if Jesus were to return a few years later, would he say, “Well done good and faithful servants, for following the commandment” or would he say, “The law says carry the pack two miles, but I say to you, carry it three”?  Jesus’ concern here is not that we fulfill our obligation or duty by obeying the law.  Rather, it is that we willingly and humbly serve our brothers and sisters with love that is excessive and radical.

I cannot read these words of Jesus and Rollins’ interpretation of them without thinking about the book of Ruth.  Ruth, as I am learning, is a quite complex and complicated book; much more so than what is initially apparent.  But one theme that I have felt constantly drawn to is the relationship of the law and hesed (loyal, lovingkindness).  The author of Ruth constantly draws attention to the actions of the main characters, particularly Ruth and Boaz, as they exceed what is required of them in the law on behalf of the other.  (Ex., Law requires that landowners allow the poor to glean among the leftover grain/corn; Ruth asks and is granted permission to glean among the sheaves with the workers.)

The questions that come to mind as I think about these texts—Rollins’ book, Matthew 5, and Ruth—is what do acts of hesed look like in contemporary society?  What does it mean to give of ourselves in a way that looks to the greater good of the other?

The concept of hesed seems to be quite foreign in our culture.  We often neglect to extend ourselves to our neighbors in ways that are even required or asked of us, let alone in ways that radically exceed that duty.  What does it mean for us to walk that third mile?

Thoughts, comments, push-back?