The Meaning of Words

“In the beginning” is a phrase that a lot of people have problems with; perhaps not with the words themselves but with how long ago it was. The physical evidence tells me that this world began several million years ago and the universe began even further back in time. But there are those who will tell me the beginning of the universe, this solar system, and humanity in general began over a period of seven days less than 10,000 years ago.

The purpose of this piece is not to debate the age of the earth or the cosmos but to point out that the words that we often use can have different meanings to different people and depending on the frame of reference in which they are used.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.” (Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

The discussion about health care essentially revolves around who can better decide what is right for the people of this country and it goes back to the writers of the Constitution, what they wrote and what we think they meant.

The Preamble to the Constitution

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

When I studied the constitution in high school, I was given the impression that the writers framed their words in such a way as to allow for a variety of interpretations. The discussion that has recently taken place with the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice-nominee Sotomayor and which has taken place for every justice nominated to serve on the Supreme Course tells us that this may have been their intention.

So, do the words “secure the blessings of liberty” mean that a President can authorize the tapping of phones of unnamed individuals just because someone thinks that it might provide information that will lead to the arrest of terrorists?

Are the words “promote the general welfare” sufficient justification for the government to establish welfare programs or even suggest that healthcare should not be solely for those who can afford it? Should the government, in other words, provide the wherewithal so that people have enough to eat and don’t have to worry about getting sick?

Or do these words mean that the government should stay out of healthcare and let businesses do their own thing. After all, businesses have an understanding of how to manage money and it costs money to have insurance and good healthcare.

But the goal of business is to make a profit and if you have to spend money on things like medical bills for the insured, then the size of the profit is reduced. There is enough evidence to suggest that healthcare companies do not hold the welfare of the people who have the insurance in their best interests but rather the interests of those who have invested in the company. And all the words that fill the media today from the healthcare companies, their advertising gurus, and their political supporters twist the situation so much so that it is almost analogous to Winston Smith’s acceptance that “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.” (From George Orwell’s 1984; see in regards to what is being said about the healthcare debate)

Now, the one thing that got my attention (and it wasn’t any e-mail dealing with healthcare scares) was the thought that many of the insurance companies want me to accept the idea that some government bureaucrat would be making my healthcare decisions. What exactly are the people in the insurance companies who are already making such decisions if they are not bureaucrats?

The question should not be about who is responsible for healthcare but rather why the healthcare in this country does not apply to everyone and why we are even having this debate. Yes, it is going to cost money but it seems to me that it costs more money right now because not everyone is covered and the profit motive is the driving force. As a Christian I have a very hard time accepting the notion that people seek to profit on the misery and illnesses of other people.

As a United Methodist, I am reminded of a dictum that John Wesley used to use:

  • Earn as much as you can.
  • Save as much as you can.
  • Give as much as you can.

John Wesley had no problems with earning a large salary; after all, he had one of the higher salaries in England. But don’t earn the money through the oppression of others – a fact that is often lost on many today.

And while encouraging each person to save as much as they could (again, something lost on many today), he also insisted that you give away as much as you can. The British tax authorities could never figure out how he could be earning so much money but yet have nothing in the way of possessions. Wesley would be anachronistic in today’s society with very few ministers matching him deed for deed; just how many private jets or thousand dollar suits does a pastor need?

Within the framework of Christianity, we have to also ask “what is our role in all of this?” Too often we think our role as Christians is phrased by the Great Commission,

The Great Commission – Matthew 28: 16 – 20 (King James Version)

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

But if we examine how others have translated this, we read

The Great Commission – Matthew 28: 16 – 20 (The Message)

Meanwhile, the eleven disciples were on their way to Galilee, headed for the mountain Jesus had set for their reunion. The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally.

Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”


The Great Commission – Matthew 28: 16 – 20 (Cotton Patch Gospel)

Well, the eleven students traveled to Alabama, to the mountain which Jesus had selected for them. When they saw him they accepted him as their Lord, but some couldn’t make up their minds. Jesus came over to them and said, “Every right to rule in both the spiritual and physical realms has been given to me. As you travel, then, make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you. And you know I am right in there with you — all the time –– until the last inning.

If we look at the later translations and know that the Cotton Patch translation came from the Greek, we see that we, as Christians, have been instructed to teach others in the way we were taught.

And what have we been taught?

Jesus sent his twelve harvest hands out with this charge:

“Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously. (Matthew 10: 5 -8 – The Message)

This was the same message that Jesus first proclaimed in the Nazareth synagogue some two thousand years ago.

To Set the Burdened Free

He came to Nazareth where he had been reared. As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written,

God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.” (Luke 4: 16 – 21)

It would seem to me that healthcare has been a part of the Christian message from the very beginning; it was part of the first mission of the disciples and it was part of what we are to do in this world today. To discuss healthcare without that context, it would then seem to me, to be a violation of what we as Christians are to do in this world.

The words we use can mean many things so let us choose the meaning that brings out the best and allows each one of us to seek the best.


Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

1 thought on “The Meaning of Words

  1. Pingback: RedBlueChristian » Blog Archive » The Meaning of Words

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