Getting to know about ‘epikeia’

By Fr. Roy Cimagala

IT’S a term we have to be familiar with, since we cannot avoid its use in some occasions when the letter of the law cannot cope with the reality on the ground. It’s a Greek term that means reasonableness or suitability.

We are reminded of this phenomenon in that gospel episode where Christ again was accused by some leading Jews of violating the Sabbath law because he cured a man of his dropsy on the Sabbath. (cfr. Lk 14,1-6)

But Christ justified his action by saying: “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath or not?…Who among you, if your son or ox falls into cistern, would not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” With these words, the leading Jews were silenced.

Yes, there are times when we have to go beyond the law in its literal sense, without contradicting the spirit behind that law. This is what the practice of ‘epikeia’ means. A Catholic dictionary defines it in this way:

“A liberal interpretation of law in instances not provided by the letter of the law. It presupposes sincerity in wanting to observe the law, and interprets the mind of the lawgiver in supplying his presumed intent to include a situation that is not covered by the law. It favors the liberty of the interpreter without contradicting the express will of the lawgiver.”

It’s obvious that we need laws. We should respect and follow them as faithfully as possible as long as they are just laws. But we have to understand that laws, which in the end come from God, are formulated and articulated by us and therefore are subject to varying human conditions, such as the prevailing culture at the time the laws were made, etc. It’s for this reason why some exceptions can be made in obeying these laws literally.

We have to be wary of a certain tendency to absolutize our laws as if they are the ultimate purpose in our life. They can be so rigidly and indiscriminatingly applied to all cases when there can be exceptions or even exemptions that can be made. We fall into some kind of legalism. We have to realize that our human laws have certain limitations. They cannot fully capture all conditions of men.

The prudent practice of ‘epikeia’ can only take place when we truly have the spirit of Christ who embodies the ultimate spirit of justice that always goes together with truth, charity and mercy.

More than that, Christ shows us that perfect justice can never be achieved here on earth, given our wounded human condition. It can only be achieved in a supernatural way, the way Christ achieved our salvation through his passion, death and resurrection, which in the end is not just a purely human act, but mainly a divine, supernatural act.

We need to understand then that Christ is the fulfillment of our laws. Laws made, interpreted and applied without Christ as the principle, end and spirit, would lead us sooner or later to some forms of injustice. We would not know how to practice ‘epikeia’ on those occasions when it is applicable.

We really should strengthen our relation with Christ, with God, because that is what is proper to us as we go through all the aspects of our life—personal, social, professional, legal, etc. Without Christ, we would be at the mercy of all kinds of evil predators, some of whom can be very subtle and tricky.