It’s common to think that the point of religion is to have the right laws and to follow them. However, James 1:27 says “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” This is a different definition of religion than we often think of. Today continues a series based on this verse, focusing on the insufficiency of laws as a way to salvation. Only by Christ’s fulfillment of the laws of God through His life, death and resurrection can we achieve salvation, or a restoration of a right relationship with God and with each other.
Which laws do I mean? In the Old Testament, there are three types, which include what many people think of as “religion”: moral laws of what is right and what is wrong, civil laws about what to do when those laws are broken, and ceremonial laws that explain requirements for restoring relationship with God. But also in the Bible are signs that all civil and ceremonial laws are provisional, or temporary and incomplete, even if they are designed by God. They exist because man cannot keep the moral laws, which is where this post begins…
The Poor Among You
Consider these verses from the same chapter in Deuteronomy:
“But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess— if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” – Deuteronomy 15:4-5
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” – Deuteronomy 15:11
Just a few verses apart, it says that “there will be no poor among you”, but then that “there will never cease to be poor in the land.” It seems like a contradiction, but the two thoughts can coexist because the first one is conditional on full obedience of the law – “if only you will strictly obey…” God knows His moral law is perfect, but also that our obedience is imperfect, which will lead to poor in the land. So, He further commands that His people take care of the poor. This second command shows that He provides additional moral and civil laws to help those who are hurt by the failures of people to follow moral law. Every failure of His people throughout time was known to Him when He gave the law, but He gave it anyway because it was not intended as an ultimate solution.
Jesus also recognized that poverty would not be solved until we reach Paradise, after He comes a second time. In Mark 14:7, He said “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.” He said this because His disciples were criticizing Mary of Bethany, who decided to use ointment worth a years’ wages to anoint Jesus rather than to sell it and help the poor. The gospel of John singles out Judas as the accuser of Mary, but also says that Judas “said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” Elsewhere, Jesus quoted Isaiah, who said “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.” What we now call “virtue signaling” is not new. Throughout history, people have been better at promoting virtue in concept than in practice, and in others rather than in themselves. Therefore, even if the law we have is perfect, we will never achieve its ends.
Ruth and the Civil Law
Second, the Old Testament story of Ruth shows that even a perfect moral law, perfectly followed, cannot solve every problem – specifically the problem of “orphans and widows in their affliction.” In addition, civil law can only limit the impact of some problems, not eliminate them. The civil laws for gleaning and levirate marriage are key to Ruth’s story, while providing examples of faithfulness in a broken society, are also reminders that society is broken in ways laws can’t fix.
Gleaning, provided for in Leviticus 19:9, 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24:19, is necessary because “there will never cease to be poor in the land.” God commanded His people to leave the edges of their fields unharvested, so the poor could eat what was there. Levirate marriage, defined in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, is necessary because there are widows and orphans in the world. It gives provision for widows by obligating relatives of the deceased husbands to care for, or even marry, the widow to preserve the family line and inheritance. However, these laws didn’t prevent Naomi and Ruth from becoming poor, or from losing their husbands.
One aspect of Ruth’s story is that people of faith can rely on God’s provision, both through His civil law and through others who follow it, to make a tangible difference in a world where many ignore God’s law. Good civil law can improve the conditions of the poor, the orphan, and the widow, if people also follow the eternal moral law of love.
Another aspect of the story of Ruth is how it keeps us “unstained from the world.” The world wants us to believe that with enough time, effort, resources, cultural revival, laws, coercion, or whatever, that we can produce a widow, orphan, and poverty-free utopia. But whatever its source, civil law is a provision for a fallen world, not a pathway to a perfect world. There will always be widows and orphans as long as there is death, and no law can overcome death.
Jesus, Our Religion
For me, the power of thinking about James 1:27 this way is not that I come away thinking, “now I know what to do! Let’s go!” but that I come away knowing there is no way any of us could possibly measure up to the standard God requires. Every time we see someone left behind it is a reminder of our collective failure, evidence that we really don’t have the answer even to our own individual problems, much less a path to perfection for the world.
Fortunately for us, the book of Ruth ends with hope, in the form of a genealogy showing her as an ancestor of King David, and therefore an ancestor of Jesus Himself. Through His life, death, and resurrection, He overcomes both death and the cause of death – our inability to generate religion that is acceptable to God the Father on our own. Only Jesus, in a perfectly lived life, seeking out and loving “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” fulfilled the requirements of “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father.” He offered His perfect record to the Father in our place, so we could be accepted based upon His religion, not ours. He fulfilled the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws in our place, providing a way to a world with no poor, no orphans, and no widows.
For many in the world, civil law is their false gospel, their hope of salvation. But the Bible lets us know that in this world, we will always have poverty. There will always be widows and orphans here. However, because we cannot follow moral law perfectly, we need temporary civil law as a provision for a fallen world. To keep society from falling apart until Christ returns and molds us into new creations that follow the moral law of love naturally, with no need for civil or ceremonial law.
Until that day, Christ rejects both the tyranny of, and freedom from, law as the answer for His people. Any civil law – even that of the Old Testament – can only mitigate the damage of sin, but in many cases, the wrong laws can make the damage worse. However, absence of, or rejection of, all law is not the answer because the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of a Kingdom. Jesus said in John 8:31-32: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This freedom is from the failed kingdoms of this world, but not license to reject His righteousness as our personal standard of behavior.
Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” His righteousness brings us into a Kingdom like no other, where to “Visit orphans and widows in their affliction” is the freely offered sacrifice acceptable to our Lord, and an example of what James refers to later in his letter: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
This is the 3rd post in a series on James 1:27, which began here
Next Up in This Series: An Ethic That Puts People First and Issues Second