When James 1:27 was written, James wasn’t resorting to hyperbole for mere effect. He meant what he said, which is: “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.” James didn’t choose his example haphazardly and he didn’t make such a strong statement just as a nice sentiment for a Hallmark card. But what does he mean?
Because Jesus said that to love God and to love your neighbor were the greatest commandments, the highest form of religion, James is probably using “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” as the purest, most undefiled form of love. In James’ time, these were the people genuinely unloved by the world – the ones who fell through the cracks of society. Not only were they without a husband or parents, but society was not providing for them either and they were truly abandoned “in their affliction.” Anyone caring for them would get no credit or recognition for it. Therefore, the only motive for visiting them is love for them. Pure love, with no impurity or stain from a desire to get something in return.
James specifically refers to “God the Father,” who has always taken His own, and His peoples, responsibility to widows and orphans seriously. He wants to take care of them, but Psalm 94:6-7 says about the rulers of the nations, including Israel: “They kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless; and they say, ‘The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.’” They preyed on those nobody cared about, and also boasted that not even God cared.
When any group of people – even one with God’s institutions of His law, temple, priests, prophets, and kings ruling the promised land – neglects the oppressed, their religion is impure and defiled. All institutions – including ones provided by God – are useless outside of God’s purpose for them. The temple was a way to approach God by sacrifice, foreshadowing Jesus’ death on the cross, but Judah used it as a way to appease Him so they could do their own thing. Jeremiah criticized the religious leaders of his day, who thought they were free from judgement because “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD,” treating the temple as more important than God Himself and a reason God would always bless them. However, God doesn’t want us to follow a checklist of religious observance – He wants us to be His loving family.
Because they replaced love with empty religion, Israel was cast into exile under the Babylonians, and Jeremiah cries in Lamentations 5:3 that “We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows.” Perhaps God would teach compassion to His people through painful discipline and experience, living like those they ignored.
Visiting widows and orphans keeps one unstained from the world when it thinks that it’s ok to leave some behind. That it’s ok to think we can’t do any better and that God doesn’t see, and that He doesn’t have an answer for it. That if we follow the letter of the law, or rely on institutions, but not on the spirit of love, God will just look the other way because we tried our best.
Therefore, don’t visit widows and orphans because its popular, because a law tells you to, or for any reason besides Godly love, because when we mix in worldly motives, we risk loving only those who are popular to love or who our government and culture have put in favored positions. Maybe we even reduce love to a comment about distant people trending on social media at the time, and not those individuals who are actually suffering the most. These people are often right in front of us.
It is by ministering to specific widows and orphans in their need that the Christian retains the preservative power of salt and the illuminating power of light to the world. It’s not the idea, but the actual visiting that is pure and undefiled. Me writing this and you reading this is only an idea. But it is a beginning.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Heaven is for people who love when there’s nothing more at stake than the person being loved. Only Jesus has met this standard, but He has made a Way to Life for those willing to accept His Truth. Jesus willingly takes our stain on the cross, and gives us His righteousness as a free gift, but only if we actually want His righteousness more than we want our stained world. In Christ, the Father will change His people into people who care for widows and orphans. People like that don’t need anything else to make a perfect society. It’s loving people that make a perfect society, not rules and institutions, and certainly not good intentions that leave people behind. Paradise will be a society that is pure, undefiled, and unstained, and where the only Institution needed is Jesus, our Prophet, Priest, and King.
No better solution exists than God the Father’s plan to build a family where everyone loves Him and loves their neighbor as themselves, and when we visit widows and orphans, we illustrate the truth that God sees them and cares for them, even when nobody else does.
Visiting widows and orphans is an ethic that epitomizes love for God and neighbor.
Look for more posts based on James 1:27 in the coming Saturdays. The more I think about the verse, the more implications of it I see. Next Up: An Ethic That Applies in all Places and Times. There are always widows and orphans. Also, this series is part of the ongoing Beatitudes series but this one skips to Matthew 5:8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”