We can go deeper into this issue of blessing those who curse you. Not only does the presence of the Romans as the rulers of God’s covenant people and their land serve as a daily reminder that God’s curse is still upon them, but these words from Jesus would serve as a reminder of the curse of the Roman cross. Rome used the cross as a tool for execution and as a means of the expression of their power. Historical records indicate that Rome was not hesitant in employing crucifixion, sometimes crucifying thousands of people at one time. As if it was not enough that Jesus’ hearers would have seen or heard about fellow citizens in their day and throughout their recent history that had been crucified by Rome, there was also the words of Deuteronomy that indicated that anyone hanged on a tree was cursed by God.
The threat of this curse, under Rome’s dominion, was an ever-present reality hanging over the heads of all peoples that were subject to Rome, and owing to the words found in their books of the law, carried an even greater and more ominous weight for the people of God. With this two-fold examination of Jesus’ directive to “bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28a), and the rejoinder to “pray for those who mistreat you” (6:28b), the words that Jesus spoke while suffering through His execution become even more poignant and meaningful. Essentially, we find Jesus practicing what He preached when He says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (23:34a). Though this statement by Jesus is omitted by many important manuscripts, what it conveys fits very well with the message that He preached.
With such light cast upon the text, we are in a much better position to move forward in our quest to better comprehend what Jesus means when He says, “Give, and it will be given to you… For the measure you use will be the measure you receive” (6:38a,c) We must always resist the temptation to pull isolated verses out of their context in order to meet a perceived need or to pursue an ideological agenda. Remember, the Gospels are biographical, historical narratives that are designed to make a theological point. They are not merely collections of random sayings or high-minded teachings. If we treat them as such, we will most likely miss their connection to the Old Testament, which also functions as a grand, historical narrative that makes a theological point. By failing to adequately tackle statements in their social, historical, cultural, and literary context, we do ourselves a grave disservice.
With the points that have been made thus far (parts 1 &2), we are better positioned to become one of Jesus’ first-century hearers, and feel the full weight of His word when He says, “To the person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well, and from the person who takes away your coat, do not withhold your tunic either” (6:29-30). Though Luke does not make mention of it, it is worth mentioning Jesus’ directive, found in Matthew, in which He says, “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matthew 5:41). In Matthew’s “Sermon on the mount”, this follows Jesus’ statement about the tunic. Luke has Jesus offering this teaching on a plain rather than on a mountain. This is not to be perceived as a contradiction, as we must be realistic, understanding that Jesus would have repeated such things numerous times in numerous places. We need only think of a campaigning politician in order to make this connection.
Now, though we may hear such “second mile” talk as a principle of good-hearted, Christian service, those who heard it would not be thinking in that way. They would have immediately thought of the requirement of their subservience to Rome, that a Roman solider could requisition anybody into service to carry his gear, or his pack, for one mile. Jesus says to not only go that first mile, but to offer to go a second mile as well. Why? Well, numerous reasons come to mind. One reason would be that in doing so, that member of God’s people could make an impression on that soldier, becoming a light to him as God intended His people to be. Another reason would be the fact that, at the end of that one mile, the solider is likely to requisition another person for the next mile. Going the second mile would alleviate that necessity, and also enable the one doing the carrying to relieve one of his fellow brethren from having to be called into the task of bearing up under that burden. This fits quite well with the Apostle Paul’s instruction and exhortation to the Galatians to “Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Paul would have been very familiar with this practice, and apparently, also familiar with the words of Jesus (“the law of Christ”), as the word that he uses for burden there (unlike the one he will later use in the fifth verse), refers to a soldier’s pack.