Religion suffers from a bad press. People often see religion as a negative influence in the development of mankind! As followers of Jesus Christ we are fond of saying, “This is not a religion, it is about following Jesus and knowing God”. But the fact is, although we may not regard ourselves as religious, people still label us as religious.
But there is, according to James, a form of religion which is pure, faultless, good and acceptable to God. Pure religion is to look after the disadvantaged in society, and to be involved with our communities without being corrupted by them.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”.
(James 1:27 New International Version)
The bible does not write off religion but redefines it. Pure religion, it says, is not about observing rules, religious practices or liturgy. It is about the way we love our neighbour, and care for people – without being affected by any negative aspects of the way other people live their lives.
A fast, acceptable to God
In Isaiah’s day the people of Israel were trying hard to please God by their religious practices. They would fast, but they wondered why God didn’t seem to hear or answer them. The prophet Isaiah said,
“Is that what you call a fast, the day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with a hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter?”
(Isaiah 58: 5-7)
The people of Israel thought that there was a short-cut to receiving God’s blessing. They thought that they could please God by religious observance, in particular by fasting. But God had made it abundantly clear, through the Prophets and Psalm-writers that He cared deeply for the disadvantaged in society, and He expected His people to do the same.
It is so often the same today. People think that they can please God by following religious rules, practices or liturgy. But the fact is, that God is a lot more interested in the way we treat our fellow human beings. The two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. The fact is, that the we prove our love for God by loving our neighbour.
Orphans and widows
James says that we must look after the orphans and widows. They are the disadvantaged in our communities. They are the people who cannot provide for themselves.
In Western countries an orphan is considered to be a child with no parents at all. In many countries of the world an orphan would normally be defined as a child with at least one parent missing. Because of war and violence the child with only one parent would probably be fatherless.
Throughout most of history, and throughout much of the world today, there is no “welfare state” system for people to fall back on when times get hard. The fact is that a child could starve to death unless somebody intervenes on their behalf. A widow, particularly an elderly widow, would suffer greatly unless family members, or other people help.
- Does the presence of a state system to care for the disadvantaged mean that there is no responsibility on us to care or to get involved?
- Should the presence of a good political policy, to look after the disadvantaged in society, affect the way we vote?
- How should we balance the roles of the state, the families and society at large in caring for the disadvantaged?
- Who are the disadvantaged in our society, or our particular country in which we live?
- Does the responsibility stop at our national borders, or does it extend to the whole world?
So who are the disadvantaged – the people who cannot reasonably be expected to look after themselves?
- Orphans. Children without at least one parent.
- Widows (or widowers) who because of their circumstances or age cannot earn enough for their needs.
- People with physical disabilities which make it impossible for them to earn money in our society.
- Single parent families where the mother, because of her circumstances, cannot get a job.
- People whose mental capabilities make them unemployable in our community.
- Refugees from war and disasters living amongst us who cannot (yet) adequately provide for themselves or their families.
- Anyone else, who in our country or our community cannot reasonably be expected to earn a living for themselves.
Keeping ourselves pure
If we were a hermit with no contact to society it would be comparatively easy to be unpolluted by the system. If we were to mix only with people with the same faith as ourselves, again it could be relatively easy to remain pure. But if we are to be involved with our communities then it is important to remember the second half of this verse and be sure we remain uncorrupted.
I remember, years ago, when I joined a political party and stood in the local elections that this verse was particularly relevant to me. I joined local government because I had a concern for the disadvantaged in society. But I needed to be aware that working with others in a political system inevitably increased the chances of being polluted by any negative effects of that system.
To be true to the Word of God I cannot just quote the first half of the verse, talking about looking after orphans and widows, and leave the second half of the verse alone. But there is an important word between the two halves of the verse. It is the word “AND“. James is not saying that there are two ways that our religion can be pure and acceptable to God. It is not a question of care for the disadvantaged, OR keeping yourself pure. We are meant to look after the orphans and widows, AND keep our own lives pure.
So what are we meant to do about it? We can look for ways that we can be involved in a practical way with our communities, seek to bring relief to the disadvantaged, look after the orphans and widows in their distress, and, at the same time, keep our own lives pure and unpolluted by the world we live in.