Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
Certain things go together to such a degree that when they are separated, the individual parts lose all their significance. Examples: macaroni and cheese, Simon and Garfunkle, Laurel and Hardy. Today’s passage presents us with a number of such “dynamic duos”.
As we examine this verse, one of the things that jumps out at us is how many times the word “and” appears, indicating an inseparable pair:
pure AND undefiled
God AND the Father
orphans AND widows
visiting AND keeping
Except, well, in the original, that last “and” does not exist. Here is a more literal rendering of the text: “to take an active interest in (visit) orphans and widows in their distress, to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
Now, what is interesting here is that all the conjunction-connected couplets (say that ten times fast) are so similar as to be indistinguishable. The words “pure” and “undefiled” are synonyms. The Father is God, and inseparable from His divine essence. Orphans and widows, while different people, have both been deprived of the presence of the man who should be responsible for them, and where you find one you often find the other.
So when the conjunction is used three times to connect things that are so closely identified one with the other, its absence in the fourth instance is interesting, to say the least.
Here’s what I think James is doing: in insisting on using the conjunction in the first three instances, then not using it in the last, he is emphasizing the fact that charity to the needy and purity from the world are so intertwined as to need no distinguishing conjunction.
Let’s unpack this a little, shall we?
The common perception of this passage is that James is telling us there are two important things to pay attention to when it comes to religion: taking care of the needy, and avoiding the corruptions of the world. They are like two sides of a scale that need to be balanced out if we are to be pleasing to God.
But that it not what he is saying, at all. Rather he is making the very important point that care for the needy is purity from the world.
Answer this: why don’t we care for the needy? Is it not because of our selfishness, our materialism, our carnality? What are these? Sins, of course. The presence of such sins precludes purity – they are, by definition, corruptions that come from this world system. When they are removed, care for the needy will necessarily follow.
The message of the verse is not that we need to make sure we don’t have one without the other. Rather, it is that it is impossible to have one without the other.
So the question remains: in what ways am I personally, actively involved in care for the needy? If the answer is “none”, then that is an indication of a need to repent of sin, of the spots from this corrupt world system that contaminate us. Any other response is just “another fine mess.”
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