‘If You Are Impressed Into Service’
“HEY you! Stop what you’re doing right now, and get over here to carry this pack for me.” How do you think a busy Jew in the first century might have reacted if a Roman soldier had said that to him? In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus recommended: “If someone under authority impresses you into service for a mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:41) How would Jesus’ listeners understand that counsel? And what should it mean for us today?
To get the answers, we need to know about compulsory service in ancient times. That practice was all too familiar to the inhabitants of Israel in Jesus’ day.
Evidence of compulsory service (or, corvée) in the Near East dates back as far as the 18th century B.C.E. Administrative texts from the ancient Syrian city of Alalakh refer to corvée gangs conscripted by the government for personal service. In Ugarit, on the Syrian coast, tenant farmers were subject to similar duties unless granted immunity by the king.
Of course, conquered or subjugated peoples were frequently set to forced labor. Egyptian taskmasters obliged the Israelites to slave for them in making bricks. Later, the Israelites put Canaanite inhabitants of the Promised Land to slavish labor, and similar practices were continued by David and Solomon.
When the Israelites asked for a king, Samuel explained what the king’s rightful due would be. He would take his subjects to serve as charioteers and horsemen, to do plowing and harvesting, to make weapons, and so on. (1 Samuel 8:4-17) However, during the construction of Jehovah’s temple, while foreigners were subjected to slavish forced labor, “there were none of the sons of Israel that Solomon constituted slaves; for they were the warriors and his servants and his princes and his adjutants and chiefs of his charioteers and of his horsemen.”
As for the Israelites employed in building projects, 1 Kings 5:13, 14 says: “King Solomon kept bringing up those conscripted for forced labor out of all Israel; and those conscripted for forced labor amounted to thirty thousand men. And he would send them to Lebanon in shifts of ten thousand a month. For a month they would continue in Lebanon, for two months at their homes.” “There can be no doubt,” says one scholar, “that the Israelite and Judean kings made use of the corvée as a means of securing unpaid labor for their building activities as well as for work on the crown-lands.”
The burden was heavy under Solomon. So grievous was it that when Rehoboam threatened to increase such loads, all Israel revolted and stoned the official appointed over those conscripted for forced labor. (1 Kings 12:12-18) However, the institution was not abolished. Asa, Rehoboam’s grandson, summoned people of Judah to construct the cities of Geba and Mizpah, and “there was none exempt.”
Under Roman Domination
The Sermon on the Mount shows that first-century Jews were familiar with the possibility of being ‘impressed into service.’ The expression translates the Greek word ag·ga·reuʹo, which originally related to the activity of Persian couriers. They had authority to press into service men, horses, ships, or anything else needed to expedite public business.
In Jesus’ day, Israel was occupied by the Romans, who had adopted a comparable system. In the Oriental provinces, in addition to normal taxes, compulsory work could be demanded from the population on a regular or an exceptional basis. Such duties would be unpopular at best. Furthermore, unauthorized seizure of animals, drivers, or wagons for State transport was commonplace. According to historian Michael Rostovtzeff, administrators “tried to regulate and to systematize [the institution], but without success, for so long as the practice existed, it was bound to produce evil effects. Edict after edict was issued by the prefects, who honestly endeavoured to stop the arbitrariness and the oppression inherent in the system . . . But the institution remained oppressive.”
“Anyone could be impressed to carry the baggage of the army for a certain distance,” says one Greek scholar, and “anyone could be compelled to perform any service that the occupiers chose to lay upon him.” That happened to Simon of Cyrene, whom Roman soldiers “impressed into service” to carry Jesus’ torture stake.
Rabbinic texts too refer to this unpopular institution. For example, one rabbi was seized to transport myrtles to a palace. Laborers could be taken from employers and set to other tasks, while employers still had to pay their wages. Pack animals or oxen could be commandeered. If they were returned at all, they were unlikely to be in a condition fit for further work. You can see why seizure was synonymous with confiscation. Thus, a Jewish proverb affirmed: “Angareia is like death.” Says one historian: “A village could be reduced to ruin by the seizure of ploughing oxen for angareia instead of authorized draught animals.”
You can just imagine how unpopular such services were, especially since they were often imposed with arrogance and injustice. Given the hatred they nurtured for the Gentile powers that dominated them, the Jews bitterly resented the humiliation of being forced into such vexatious labor. No extant law informs us just how far a citizen could be compelled to carry a load. It is likely that many would not be willing to go one step further than the law required.
Yet, this was the institution Jesus referred to when he said: “If someone under authority impresses you into service for a mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:41) On hearing that, some must have thought him unreasonable. Just what did he mean?
How Christians Should React
Put simply, Jesus was telling his listeners that if an authority compelled them into some kind of legitimate service, they should perform it willingly and without resentment. They were thus to pay “Caesar’s things to Caesar” but not overlook the obligation to pay “God’s things to God.”
Moreover, the apostle Paul exhorted Christians: “Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except by God; the existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God. Therefore he who opposes the authority has taken a stand against the arrangement of God . . . If you are doing what is bad, be in fear: for it is not without purpose that it bears the sword.”
Jesus and Paul thus acknowledged the right of a king or a government to mete out punishment to those who violated their demands. What kind of punishment? Greek philosopher Epictetus, of the first and second centuries C.E., provides one answer: “If an unforeseen requisition arises and a soldier takes your young ass, let it go. Do not resist, do not murmur, lest you receive blows as well as lose the ass.”
Yet, on occasion, both in ancient and in modern times, Christians have felt that they could not in good conscience comply with government demands. Sometimes the consequences have been serious. Some Christians have been sentenced to death. Others have spent many years in prison for refusing to participate in what they considered to be nonneutral activities. (Isaiah 2:4; John 17:16; 18:36) On other occasions, Christians have felt that they could comply with what was asked of them. For example, some Christians feel that they can in good conscience perform services under a civilian administration involving general work useful to the community. That might mean assisting the elderly or disabled, serving as firefighters, cleaning beaches, working in parks, forests, or libraries, and so on.
Naturally, situations vary from land to land. Therefore, in order to decide whether to comply with demands or not, each Christian must follow his Bible-trained conscience.
Going the Second Mile
The principle Jesus taught, that of being willing to carry out legitimate requests, is valid not only for governmental requirements but also in everyday human relations. It may be, for instance, that a person with authority over you asks you to do something that you would prefer not to do but that is not contrary to God’s law. How will you react? You may feel that unreasonable demands are being made on your time and energies, and you may therefore react indignantly. The result may be ill will. On the other hand, if you comply sullenly, you may lose your inner peace. The solution? Do as Jesus recommended
“Many people go through life doing only those things they are compelled to do,” notes one author. “For them life is a hard experience, and they are constantly tired. Others go beyond the call of duty and freely give themselves.” In effect, many situations present the choice of going just one mile under compulsion
And what if you are a person with authority? Clearly, it is neither loving nor Christian to use authority to force others to do unwillingly what you ask of them. “The rulers of the nations lord it over them and the great men wield authority over them,” said Jesus. But that is not the Christian way. (Matthew 20:25, 26) While an authoritarian approach may get results, how much better relations will be among all involved if kind and appropriate requests are met by respectful and cheerful compliance! Yes, a readiness to go two miles instead of just one can truly enrich your life.
For a full discussion of what it means for Christians to “pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God,” see The Watchtower, May 1, 1996, pages 15-20.
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ANCIENT MISUSE OF IMPRESSMENT
That impressment was often used as a pretext to extort services is seen from regulations to curb such abuses. In 118 B.C.E., Ptolemy Euergetes II of Egypt decreed that his officials “shall not impress any of the inhabitants of the country for private services, nor requisition (aggareuein) their cattle for any purpose of their own.” Additionally: “No one shall requisition . . . boats for his own use on any pretext whatsoever.” In an inscription dated 49 C.E., in the Temple of the Great Oasis, Egypt, Roman prefect Vergilius Capito acknowledged that soldiers had made illegal requisitions, and he established that “no one shall take or requisition . . . anything, unless he has a written authorization from me.”
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Simon of Cyrene was impressed into service
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Many Witnesses have spent time in prison for maintaining their Christian stand