One of my favorite Bible verses is James 1:27, which says, “Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” As religions go, this list of requirements seems extraordinarily short. Yet there’s so much to discover in this little verse.
Jesus didn’t come to instill a new religious order on earth. Rather, He came to establish a way of life. All Jesus wanted, and still wants, is for people to seek God with all their hearts (Matthew 6:33). Everything else falls into place once we get that part down. Why then does James call out requirements for religion God will accept, a true religion?
Taken at face value, we see our attitude about orphans and widows probably needs to change. We certainly still have widows, but orphans are not so much a part of our modern society. What if we expanded the definitions a little bit, keeping the spirit of the command and not adhere so strictly to the letter?
In the day it was written, widows faced extreme hardships because they had lost their source of provision. They were disadvantaged in every way. Without discounting or diminishing the needs of the modern widow, I also include single mothers as I read this commandment to look after their needs. Today’s single mother faces many of the same difficulties as first century widows. They often have little income and virtually no support system.
In the same way, orphans can be expanded to include the mentally challenged, homeless, and even refugees. These people have no one to care for them. Our level of compassion must never be tempered by the circumstances into which one has gotten themselves. James didn’t qualify the circumstances around which we should care for the needs of the marginalized; he simply said to do it.
Keeping ourselves unstained from the world means not complying with societal norms. We are called to be different, a separated people who infiltrate the world with the love and light of Jesus. The sad truth is many of us have become so stained by the world it seems impossible to get clean. Take courage in the fact there is no stain the blood of Jesus cannot erase.
I might be so bold as to say if you would simply live your life according to James 1:27, you would need to do little else to mark yourself as a true disciple of Jesus. Widows and orphans were the most marginalized members of their society. It is to this same segment of our modern-day population we are commanded to go. We must stand with those who have been cast aside. The only way we can effectively do so is if we lead pure and humble lives, keeping ourselves away from the political and social conceits of our culture. We must not bow to the temptations of selfishness. When we are inward focused, we will be distracted from the needs outside ourselves. True religion is to look after the marginalized of our society and to be focused on God’s love and will. It’s simple and pure, just like Jesus.