Here is the “transcript” of a recent chapel talk of mine. This is a combination of something I worked on for my Theological Hermeneutics final using part of Dr. Hicks’ structure for theological reflection, some thinking I was already doing on this material, and some impetus from Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination. I have said that this is the kind of religion I hope our team takes to Peru. It’s the only kind of religion I have the will to give my life for.
James 1:27 Religion
Think about the religion that you know—what you grew up with. Think about the things that mark it as a religion. Imagine what an outsider experiencing your church life would say if you asked her to define your religion. Hold those images in your mind.
Have you ever let your imagination have free reign?
Have you ever imagined what God’s people could be like?
I imagine sometimes. I imagine what the people of God could look like in Arequipa, Peru. I imagine what could be if even a small number of leaders in a small movement were dedicated to the same vision.It’s a funny thing, the imagination. It lets you think of all kinds of unlikelihoods; things that are outright fantastic in fact.
Now, I realize, no everyone is a fan of the fantastic. I’m sure there are some realists here. There are indeed those who mostly find imagination to be a waist. And those who find it to be a placebo, a deceptive distraction that, in the end, does more harm than good. There are even those who find imagination to be a threat—and here is where it gets interesting.
When someone is threatened by imagination, you see, the truth comes out. The truth is that so much of what we imagine—even the most unlikely things—are a vision of what can be. And what can be is always a threat to what is.
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.
Now, I have to ask myself: is James really trying to draw a balanced conclusion here? Nah. More likely “pure and undefiled religion” would have some other components if his audience were erring in some other direction. The principle of genre tells me that much. And the commentators are quick to point out that this is not meant to be a comprehensive statement. So it seems I’ve put my eggs in the wrong basket if I’m looking for a good definition of religion in God’s sight. For that one I would need a much longer list and, certainly, a more balanced one.
But then I hear an echo in James 1:27, and I start listening more closely.
Contextualized Significance: What did the text call them to do? Christians should (1) “visit” (episkeptomai) orphans and widows in their distress and (2) keep themselves unstained by the world. The context is probably congregational life wherein worldly values of wealth and social estimation are affecting Christian conduct.
Contextualized Meaning: Why did the text call for this behavior? Because demonstrations of religiosity disconnected from the ethic and morality of Christ are empty. The Christian needs to fulfill the “royal law according to the Scripture” (Js. 2:8, cf. “law of Christ” Gal. 5:14; 6:2) in order to be religious in God’s estimation.
Theological Principles: What principles inhere in the text’s meaning? (1) Religion is a matter of what is pleasing in God’s sight rather than the wolrd’s sight. (2) God is ultimately concerned with his people’s treatment of others, especially those in need.
Redemptive-History: How are they reflected in biblical history? Moving backward chronologically, Js. 1:27 resonates beautifully with an episode in Jesus’ ministry recorded in Lk. 7:11-17. Here Jesus raises the son of a widow in her distress. The pronouncement of the people is twofold: “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited (episkeptomai) his people!” James’ use of the word from the latter quotation indicates the way the Christian ethic is informed by God’s own incarnational ministry to the poor and needy. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is now appropriately called the “law of Christ” in light of the Christ-event. The first pronouncement of the people points to the point that Luke seems intent on making thematically in this section, which provides a strong connection with the rest of redemptive history. Elisha raised a boy from the dead in Shunem (2 Kings 4), only three miles from Nain, where Jesus performed his miracle. As Elisha’s ministry often echos Elijah’s, this brings to mind Elijah’s raising of a widow’s son in Zarephath (1 Kings 17). Both are likely intended connections given Luke’s point about Jesus’ prophetic ministry. The call to care for “widows and orphans” was a common prophetic theme (Isa. 1:17; Jer. 7:5-7; 22:3; Zech. 7:10; Mal. 3:5).
Isa. 1:17 (ESV)
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
Jer. 7:5-7 “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.
Zech. 7:8-10 And the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
Mal. 3:5 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
Moreover, such ethical priorities are often specifically contrasted with cultic religiosity (e.g. Isa. 1:10-16; Jer. 7:21-23). The idea is most poignantly summed up in Hos. 6:6 and Mic. 6:6-8.
Hos. 6:6 For I desire steadfast love[a] and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
Micah 6:6-8 “With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with[a] thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,[b]
and to walk humbly with your God?
The word hesed, upon which these passages center is variously translated as “compassion,” “mercy,” “kindness,” “loyalty,” and “love.” It is the faithful, merciful loving-kindness exemplified by Ruth in her redemptive action toward her widowed and childless mother-in-law. The redemptive quality of this action is, at last, firmly rooted in God’s redeeming love toward Israel. Thus, the prophets’ call to care for widows and orphans is a call back to reciprocal loving loyalty to the covenant made in the shadow of God’s redemptive action toward an impoverished and oppressed Israel (Ex. 22:22; Deut. 10:8 and passim).
Ex. 22:21-24 “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
Theological Framework: How do they fit with biblical theology? God’s value judgment flows from his own divine reality. The relational aspect of God’s nature is the foundation for our placement in community with “widows and orphans.” This is qualified by the righteousness and love of God’s nature that defines and characterizes our mutual treatment in that community. Like God, we “hear the groaning” (Ex 2:23-24) of those in distress and respond according to hesed. We do not do so because we are by nature loving and righteous as God is, but because he has “first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19) and redemptively entered covenant relationship with us. Our ethic is defined by his treatment of us and his expectations for our treatment of others as indicated by the covenant documents. Our tendency to be “stained by the world” interferes, thus we abandon God’s communal ethics and become preoccupied with the self, leading to sins of neglect and even oppression of those to whom we are indebted to love redemptively. The prophetic call back to the “visitation” of “widows and orphans” is clearest in the ministry of Jesus. He redeems us yet again, reveals that God loved us first, and models perfectly the communal love that is always good news to the poor. The redeemed community formed in his new act of creation is sanctified and bound to imitate his ethic of hesed, so it is unacceptable that those of the “twelve tribes dispersed abroad” should fail to obey the “law of Christ” in preference for worldly religiosity. In the church, of all places, there must be no preferential treatment. This will be a sharp contrast from the world that threatens to stain us, because we live in the inbreaking kingdom that is not yet fully realized. It is, however, already present among us when we care for the widow and the orphan. As we do so, we are reminded that “God has visited his people” and remains among us.
So I come back to James 1:27, and I become convicted that if I am going to imagine what the people of God could look like—what our religion should be—this is it.
Now, let me frame that within our own little corner of Christianity. Let me make this just about the Church of Christ, where you and I will be leading. We are all painfully aware—at least I hope it’s painful—that we are in lock step with all the people of God. We have consistently, and perhaps more persistently than some, defined our religion in cultic and institutional terms. And if you will be leaders in the Church of Christ, then I beg you, and I call you, I think in the name of God, to imagine a church where this defines our religion. Imagine a movement where the givens are incarnational ministry in the lives of the oppressed and profound holiness.
So what will those who don’t like imagination say?
Well, there are those who would rather lead realistically: That’s not the direction we’re going. You’re never going to reprioritize a whole denomination. Imagination is impractical, a waist of time, etc.
There are those who will believe that it can’t be that way: That religion, though it sounds good, it ultimately just, to borrow Marx’s line, an opiate to numb the reality.
Then there are those who are genuinely threatened. I can already hear the first line of defense, the same line that tried to forego this nonsense in the first place: What you want, Greg, is unbalancing. And the cultic and the institutional are important, even if we don’t want call them by those names, and don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Much better to be balanced and do the slow, faithful work of ministry. You know, to bring them along. After all, we don’t deny the importance of those benevolence things—they’re a part of the whole. A social gospel isn’t what God is after.
No it’s probably not. Then again, when have we ever erred on that side?
How is it, with this refrain running through all of Scripture, that the people of God always err in the institutional direction?
How is it that, at least at one time, if we had been asked what kind of religion is acceptable in the sight of God, we would have said “the New Testament pattern”?
How is it that before anything else, we make sure that we have those things settled, that we do those things right, as though that is the heart of our religion, and then after our time and energy is spent on the “priorities,” we turn to our people and begin to ask them to consider the possibility that care for the poor is important too.
When God says so often, making it clear that if it’s a choice between to two, he wants mercy, how is it that we argue conservatively in the other direction?
Is it even conceivable that God would say, “Your acts of mercy toward the widow and orphan are an abomination before me, because you have not practiced the Lord’s Supper weekly.” or “I despise your care for the alien and the oppressed, because you have formed the mission society”
(to pick far less inflammatory issues than I might).
Maybe it is conceivable, but if we are going to make sure we’ve got something right, I would rather err on the side of God’s revealed priorities.
The truth is, to argue out of fear of a social gospel or fear of forsaking other “important” things borders on the absurd.
Imagine. Have the courage to imagine with me a Church of Christ determined to restore this religion.