James 1:27 (ESV) … “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.”
From a religion easily capable of rationalizing any behavior, James now turns to a relationship where God is allowed to direct the terms of behavior— Religion … pure and undefiled. James explains religion in terms of practical service and personal purity. Rituals done with reverence are not wrong; but if a person still refuses to obey God in daily life, his “religion” is not accepted by God. What is accepted by God? Acceptable religion is practical. Outward rituals cannot substitute for outward righteousness. Church services are no substitute for our service to God. Inward rationalizations are no substitute for inward righteousness either. Telling ourselves that God is not aware of our real attitude towards him and his Word is, as James keeps reminding us, self-deception.
Pure and faultless religion is not perfect observance of rules and observances; instead, it is a spirit that pervades our hearts and lives (Leviticus 19:18; Isaiah 1:16–17). Like Jesus, James explains religion in terms of a vital inner faith that acts itself out in daily life. Our conduct must be in keeping with our faith (1 Corinthians 5:8). This verse is not intended to be an exhaustive definition of Christianity. Instead, it characterizes conduct that is important to Christianity. It contrasts with mere acts of worship that are commonly called “religion.” In fact, the point becomes clear that the more obviously “religious” a behavior is, the more easily it becomes meaningless, while some of the most humble and common actions are the greatest opportunities for worshipful obedience. These are acts that we probably would not do except out of obedience to God. Jesus’ touching lepers when he healed them is a vivid example of this type of action. James presents two simple and practical actions of obedient faith that almost anyone can take.
To care for orphans and widows in their distress. This is an illustration of how our Christian conduct should look. Orphans and widows are often mentioned in the concerns of the early church because these were the most obviously “poor” in first-century Israel. The widows, because they had no access to inheritances in Jewish circles, were very much on the outskirts of society. This is why Paul had to develop an entire order concerning widows in his own churches, as in 1 Timothy 5. The widows could not get jobs, and their inheritances went to their oldest sons. It was expected that the widows would be taken care of by their own families, and so the Jews left them with very little economic support. Unless a family member was willing to care for them, they were reduced to begging, selling themselves as slaves, or starving. By caring for these powerless people, the church put God’s Word into practice. When we give with no hope of receiving in return, we show what it means to serve others.
Even today, the presence of widows and orphans in our communities and cities makes this directive of James very contemporary. To this group we can also add those who have become de facto widows and orphans through the death of families in divorce. These people have complicated lives. The needs always threaten to overwhelm our human resources. Looking after hurting people is stressful work. Yet we are called to be involved. James balances the command to be concerned about others with the command to be concerned about our own life.
To keep oneself unstained by the world. This is a picture of how our Christian character should look. To keep ourselves from being polluted by the world, we need to commit ourselves to Christ’s ethical and moral system, not the world’s. We are not to adapt to the world’s value system based on money, power, and pleasure. True faith means nothing if we are contaminated with such values. James was simply echoing the words of Jesus in what has been called his “high priestly” prayer (John 17), where Jesus emphasized sending his disciples into the world but expecting them not to be of the world. The heart of Jesus’ prayer was, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15 niv). As we make ourselves available to serve Christ in the world, we must keep putting ourselves under the protection of this prayer. It helps to replace the two “them” words with our name as we visualize Jesus praying for us. The prayer makes two important points: (1) we remain in the world because that is where Christ wants us; and (2) we will have God’s protection.