As stated in James 1:27 (ASV): “Pure religion and undefiled before God our Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
If this weren’t such a familiar verse, wouldn’t this definition be surprising? What about keeping the commandments, going to church, praying to God, converting others to Christianity, reading the Bible? These things are important, of course, but according to James, they aren’t pure and undefiled religion.
It’s striking how many times in scripture widows and orphans are linked to relationship with God. For example, see Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18, 16:11-14, 27:19; Psalm 146:9; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 22:3-5; Ezekiel 22:7-8; Zechariah 7:9-10; Malachi 3:5; Acts 6:1; I Timothy 5:3-16. An exclamation point appears in Psalm 68:5 (NIV): “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”
While the “fatherless and widows” should be read literally, this category also represents all the downtrodden. In fact, in the scripture cited above, the poor, hungry, oppressed, and foreigners are sometimes included with widows and orphans. In some translations of James 1:27, “take care of” is substituted for “visit,” indicating that pure and undefiled religion is inherently active. James deals a blow to religion by proxy. Giving money to help the needy is a good thing, but it’s not a substitute for hands-on care of those in “affliction” or “distress.”
In Matthew 15:1-20 (NIV), Jesus takes on the Pharisees about their obsession with ceremonial defilement. He quotes Isaiah in verses 8-9: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” Jesus says that religious defilement and true devotion to God are matters of the heart. Perhaps when God’s heart and human hearts embrace, pure and undefiled religion begins.
Tomorrow, the second part of James’ definition.