Of all of Aristole’s 12 virtues, liberality was one I had to look up to understand. It’s not a word that is used anymore, at least not in the way it originally meant. Perhaps a more familiar term would be generosity, which is practiced faithfully by many followers of Jesus. However there is a component of wisdom in liberality that is not captured by the use of “generosity.”
Liberality is “the virtue disposing a person to the observance of a reasonable mean between the opposite extremes of prodigality and stinginess in making expenditures intended for the benefit of others.”[i] In other words, liberality is the disposition of a person towards giving for the benefit of others while avoiding two erroneous extremes of wasteful spending and miserliness. Aristotle explains in his Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, Chapter 1, that liberality also incorporates the discernment of giving to “the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time.”[ii]
Much discussion has gone into the economics and ethics of liberality in terms of wealth and wealth management. When it comes to the spiritual life, liberality has its place precisely because it has to do with money. A wise man once said, “No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matt 6:24) Serving God frees us from being slaves to the want of wealth and enables us to bless others with our wealth. Thomas Aquinas calls liberality “open-handedness” towards others with the goods one possesses. When one’s quits their hold on something, they free it from their keeping and ownership.[iii]
For my immigrant grandparents and parents, stinginess was a way of life. They were not educated professionals. Their lot was to do laborious work in a small working-class city. That meant time away from their children, and lost opportunities for self-improvement. Miserliness was a weight that they would shoulder for the sake of the next generation. Every penny earned meant a penny saved for food, shelter, and children’s education. Education meant opportunities for better work and ultimately a better life for their local-born children.
In this way, working class Chinese Canadians prided themselves. They earned their wealth and success, and they have professionally educated children to prove it. Why give to those who will squander gifts on drugs and drink? Better to invest in your own family for they can one day return the favor; others must learn to defend for themselves.
This mentality didn’t seem to fade in the immigrant Chinese church I came to faith in. Giving to God meant giving to the church and to denominational projects. Not once did I hear about giving up one’s wealth to clothe the poor. Or to open doors to house the homeless. One must take care of one’s own first. But are these the only “right” people that Aristotle was referring to? Or are we also to give to those who have faced misfortune, whoever they might be?
The heart of God is a generous one. God is always lavishing His care on His creation from Eden to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. We know this because while we were still sinners, Christ gave his life for us. The call to Christ’s followers then, is to walk in this way of grace, mercy and sacrificial love: to love one’s neighbor as oneself (or one’s own).
According to Aristotle, the wisdom to give rightly (taking from the right resource, and giving to the right people in the right amounts) is meant to keep one from either excessively spending or severely withholding. We see this in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who showed mercy to a mugged traveler. The Samaritan stops to help, pays out of his own pocket to house the man until he is well, and then continues on his way.
For Asian women in the church, this is an encouraging thought. The invitation isn’t simply to give everything you’ve got (though that certainly may be an invitation for some), but to give freely and rightly. Giving frees you from the fear of scarcity and from the fear of others. Giving “rightly” involves both what is limiting and what is just. You don’t have to give to the point of destitution or resentment, but you ought to give when mercy requires it. So one can give to the hurting stranger because it is the compassionate thing to do. One can give, because it is the right thing to do.
Still, it is difficult to lead with open hands. As a woman I fear being harmed. As a visible minority I fear being taken advantage of. Some would argue that Aristotle’s take on liberality is meant for the privileged and elite, but Thomas Aquinas said that, “liberality depends not on the quantity given, but on the heart of the giver.”[iv] In a time of confession and prayer not so long ago, I told God all my rationale for withholding love and I had many good reasons to do so. His answer was to show me His nail-pierced hands and said, “Love me anyways.”
It is difficult to lead with open hands, but impossible to follow Christ with closed ones. May His liberality, His generosity, kindle ours. May His heart bless yours.
This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.