Epieikes – “Sweet Reasonableness”

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.

(Philippians 4:5 ESV)

The political climate in America these days is not known for reasonableness.  I just read about two incidents that have led to court cases.  In the first, a couple of elderly women living in a government-run facility for seniors had some kids come through to visit.  One of them started to read “A Charlie Brown Christmas to the children, but a politically-correct supervisor realized that the reading would eventually reach the place where Linus quotes the Christmas story from Scripture.  So the reading was halted.

The second incident centers on a postage stamp.  On the Internet you can evidently pay to have the Post Office turn one of your family photos into a postage stamp.  Your smiling face can beam from all the envelopes when you send your Christmas cards.  However, one person sent in a family picture taken in front of Moscow’s famous St. Basil’s Cathedral.  An alert administrator informed him that the picture was rejected because it showed a religious building.

Are you shaking your head?

Some people will go to any extreme to ensure that everyone toes the legal line.  It’s not a pretty sight.

On the other hand, I vividly recall the time I ran a red light at the corner of 27th Avenue and Bethany Home Road in Phoenix, Arizona.  I did plow straight through the red light – no denying it!  As you might expect, I immediately saw flashing red lights in my rear-view mirror.

I handed my license to the officer and explained, “Sorry!  I must have gotten distracted.  My 5-week-old stopped breathing earlier today and they flew him to the hospital.  We just left him in the pediatric ICU, and that red light didn’t register with me.”

The policeman had every legal right to throw the book at me, but he chose to give me a warning, plus an admonition to be more careful the rest of the way home.

He used his judgment – and his sense of compassion – and chose not to push the letter of the law.

There’s a Greek word to describe that second incident: epieikēs.  It is often translated as “reasonableness, graciousness, gentleness, moderation.”  The 19th-century author Matthew Arnold called it “sweet reasonableness.”

Secular Greek writings use epieikēs to describe rulers who choose not to make life miserable for their subjects.  A judge with this character quality would display lenience when the situation called for it, rather than battering a person with the full rigor of the law.

Only a person with the power to make harsh demands has the ability to show epieikēs by easing up on others.  A Jewish lawyer, for instance, flattered the Roman governor Felix by applauding his “reasonableness” in making time for a hearing (Acts 24:4).  Similarly, Peter pointed out that slave masters could sometimes be cruel and twisted, but they could also be good and “reasonable” (1 Peter 2:18).

Jesus Christ, of course, holds all power in his hands.  But Paul tells us that He is the perfect example of meekness and patience.  After all, He told us that his burden is easy and his load is light (Matthew 11:28-30).  We can come to Him boldly because He is the high priest who has shared our testings; he knows what we face (Hebrews 4:16).  God Himself has compassion on His children.  “For he himself knows our frame; he is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14).

Church leaders must display this kind of considerate behavior.  It’s one of the requirements for an overseer (1 Timothy 3:3).

All of us are supposed to avoid contentiousness and refuse to push people unreasonably, even when we are dealing with the non-Christian community (Titus 3:2).  James says that the wisdom from above is “first pure, then peaceable, epieikēs, and reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits (James 3:17).

We may not be in a position of authority, but we all have opportunities to demand our rights . . . or to choose to forego them.

  • We have the right to go first at the stop sign.  But we can choose to let the other guy go . . . without honking.
  • We have the right to state our opinion.  But we can choose to let the other person state his position.
  • We can set the agenda.  But we can step back and allow the other person to speak.
  • We can demand perfect behavior from our kids.  Or we can cut them a little slack.

Paul sums it up for us:  Let your graciousness/reasonableness/gentleness/moderation be known to all men (Philippians 4:5).

Be honest: When people think about you, is epieikēs the word that comes to mind?

We can afford to be gracious and reasonable because, as the verse continues, “The Lord is near.” If He is around, we don’t have to battle for our rights.  We can let the other person off the hook.  God can take care of us.

© Ezra Project 2019