A few days ago I was hanging out with one of my teenagers. We had a great time running errands, telling jokes, and enjoying a hamburger for lunch. One thing my son enjoys is talk radio, so during our time in the car we alternated between two political programs, one very right wing and the other very left leaning.
At some point the word “liberal” came out of the mouth of one of the radio personalities, only to hear him speak the word would make you think he was a cobra, and as the word slipped off his tongue I imagined venom being spit out as well. No doubt his face winced, his eyebrows furrowed, his wrinkles deepened as he spoke.
This led to a great discussion with my son. The word “liberal” has only become a weapon of insult in the hands of certain people in the last few decades. But I wonder if we could reclaim the truer meaning of this word? I think it’s worth it, because the Bible talks about being liberal often; in fact, Jesus was quite liberal, in a scandalous and beautiful way.
The truth is our English word “liberal” originates from French and Latin words that simply meant “generous” and “free to give.” The concept of liberty conveys a freedom from restraint. In the late 15th century this word came into use in our language, and soon after into our Bibles. When you see the word “liberal” in the Bible, it is translated accurately from words meaning “generous” or “free.”
Now that we’ve properly defined this word, what does the Bible say about being liberal?
Seven times in the New Testament we are encouraged to be liberal in our giving. Deeper study of the Greek word here reveals such liberal giving as done freely, as a gift, without payment. In some cases it even has the connotation of reckless and gratuitous charity.
In the famous sermon on the mount, Jesus taught us to give not just our shirt but our coat also. Later, when a woman poured costly perfume on his feet in an act of worship, he was questioned as to why it was not sold and the money given to the poor. The Bible is clear, the nard in question was worth around $50,000. Yet Jesus didn’t mind, but rather approved of, this lavish and seemingly feckless use of money.
Liberal Jesus preached that the greatest love a person could show was by paying the greatest price, giving their own life - and then he willingly went to the cross and practiced his own sermon.
How do we become a liberal person, one who gives freely and generously as Jesus does? There are many ways. Start by tithing to your church, every month, from your gross. That’s a baby step. Give to the poor, tip double what you would, take the undesirable parking space.
But before all of that, let something deep happen in your soul that makes it quite easy to give not only some of you but all of you. Realize that you are only giving back what was given to you. Your money, job, health and life are gifts from God. What do we have that we didn’t first receive? Well, nothing. Coming from that perspective makes giving things away pretty easy. None of it was yours in the first place, so stop being so stingy.
I leave you with this thought from Jesuit theologian John Haughey: “It is absolutely false to ever use the words ‘my wealth.’ It is not my wealth! This is a lie hot from hell! ‘My’ does not fit on the word ‘wealth.’ Whatever wealth I have disposition over is not my wealth. It is wealth of the Owner. If there is anything worth hearing, it is this statement: ‘My’ must never again be attached to the noun ‘wealth!’ ”
From such a heart may we be and act Jesus, the greatest liberal in the history of mankind.
The Rev. Jeffrey Miller is the pastor of Vineyard Community Church in Augusta.