In Sunday morning’s Adult Ed class this fall, we have been working through Adam Hamilton’s DVD series, “The Call” on the life of the Apostle Paul. In this Sunday’s study, Hamilton highlighted Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians,
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Preparing for Sunday’s discussion, I researched this passage from Philippians, and was struck by the issues in translating the Greek word, epieikeia, which the NIV translates as “gentleness.” William Barclay comments on this translation issue,
“The word (epieikeia) translated moderation is one of the most untranslatable of all Greek words. … The Greeks themselves explained this word as “justice and something better than justice.” They said that epieikeia ought to come in when strict justice became unjust because of its generality. There may be individual instances where a perfectly just law becomes unjust or where justice is not the same thing as equity. A man has the quality of epieikeia if he knows when not to apply the strict letter of the law, when to relax justice and introduce mercy.”
With some further research, the word epieikeia appears three times in the New Testament – all in relation to Paul. Its first occurrence is in Acts 24:4, where the Jerusalem leaders have hired a lawyer to present a precarious case against Paul before a Roman governor. The lawyer, Tertullus, appeals to the governor’s “epieikeia” in hearing the case. One might imagine the lawyer arguing, “we don’t really have the facts in this case, but you still have it in your power to deliver a verdict in our favor, and we would be appreciative if you would do so.” One might further imagine the feelings this argument would trigger in Paul.
Its second occurrence is in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, likely written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome, reminding the Philippians to rejoice, and to make their quality of “justice, and something beyond justice” known to all. Paul has taken the word used by Tertullus in Caesarea, and turned its meaning around. What might have been a vice is now a virtue.
Its third occurrence is in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where in chapter 10 verse 1, Paul lists epieikeia as a virtue of Christ, and exhorts the Corinthians to adopt this virtue for themselves. Not only is epieikeia a virtue, it is a Christian virtue, and one which Christ himself displayed.
Barclay further comments on this,
“The Christian, as Paul sees it, is the man who knows that there is something beyond justice. When the woman taken in adultery was brought before him, Jesus could have applied the letter of the Law according to which she should have been stoned to death; but he went beyond justice. As far as justice goes, there is not one of us who deserves anything other than the condemnation of God, but he goes far beyond justice. Paul lays it down that the mark of a Christian in his personal relationships with his fellow-men must be that he knows when to insist on justice and when to remember that there is something beyond justice.”
While it is a Christian virtue, and I think perhaps a virtue which is unique to Christianity, it is also a virtue which must be cultivated. Knowing justice, and knowing when to go beyond to “something more than justice,” comes from a lifetime of experiences. For the Christian, it also comes from prayer and study of the Bible.
In this election season of unusual bitterness, let the cultivation of the virtue of “epieikeia” become a personal goal of ours. Perhaps that will allow us to keep our sanity in the years which will follow which ever candidates should prevail in November.