Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
What does it mean to be “religious”? It is a word some people are proud of. It is a word some people are terrified of. And here, for those of us in the Christian tradition, the Bible offers a clear definition. A definition that does not mention going to church, participating in sacraments, studying the Bible, praying, or any number of (arguably very lovely and important) things that we would usually think of us as “religious.”
James says pure, undefiled religion, or in other words, religion in its most perfect, cleanest, best sense is to care for widows and orphans. In James’ time and world, for a woman to be without a husband or for children to be without parents was a nearly inescapable sentence to a lifetime of poverty. Of struggling. And of struggling alone. Now, today, maybe we think we have come a long way. To be a widow or an orphan may not mean to be quite so doomed as it used to. But, but, but it would be very wrong and naive to think we have changed since the first century entirely. The financial reality, even in wealthy countries even today, for single parents, for children in foster care, is still serious. We can take James’ advice more broadly: pure religion is to take care of those who do not have enough; those who are too alone. We should. But we still need to take it quite literally, too.
James also mentions staying “unstained” or “clean” from the world. The idea of purity, or cleanliness, in a religious sense often makes people think immediately of sex or drinking or swearing, or maybe more of not doing those things. Being responsible and compassionate with our own and others’ bodies and our words is important, of course, but I think it is implicit in what James is saying here, though, that the “stain” of the world he has up front and centre in his mind is selfishness.
Take care of other people. If you have financial resources to help those who do not have enough, give them generously. If you have extra food, extra clothes, share. If you have extra time, sit down and talk to someone. Make them less alone.
James did not say pure religion is us solving. He said “caring.”
Generous God, thank you for everything I have. Thank you for everyone I have. Help me stay unstained from my own desire to be selfish. Help me remember those who do not have enough. Help me love those who are alone. Amen.
The Reflectionary is a series of short reflections based on one or two verses of each Sunday’s lectionary readings (the lectionary is a calendar of Bible passages used in Sunday services by hundreds of millions of Christians around the world) by the Rev’d Jean-Daniel Williams, the youth and young adult minister for the Montréal-Ottawa Conference of the United Church of Canada and the Anglican-United Christian Chaplain at McGill University in Montréal, Québec, Canada.