If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.
Most of us talk more about our faith than about our religion. In some ways, religion has become sort of a negative word, standing for rituals or ceremonies that may seem devoid of genuine spiritual meaning. It’s also common for people outside the church to criticize “organized religion,” as if the gathering of people of faith in a structured way was a bad thing. Even James, writing 2,000 years ago, seems to have had a negative view of those who “claim to be religious,” going so far as to label some people’s religion as “worthless.”
Then again, James strongly advocated for “pure and genuine religion.” Throughout his letter, as we have already seen and will read again in the coming days, James expressed his conviction that faith must be put into practice, that faith without works is meaningless. In that sense, religion is the living out of faith, whether through rituals of worship in the corporate gathering of God’s people or by showing Christ’s love to those in distress. These were essential matters for James. He believed in the importance of moral righteousness and in doing the things Jesus commanded us to do. For James, actions spoke louder than words, especially actions of love motivated by compassion for those in need.
For us, the challenge in these verses is for our faith in Jesus to shape how we speak, behave and treat others. It’s not enough to believe the right things; we also need to act in right ways. It’s also not enough just to avoid doing bad things; we also need to actively engage in kindness and compassion toward people around us. “Orphans and widows” were particularly vulnerable in ancient culture, and there are still people in need around us today. How can you show God’s love to people struggling with mental health concerns? How can you bring the good news of Jesus to those facing financial distress? What can you do to care for people whose daily lives are full of challenges, like single parents, immigrants or people with disabilities? We should put our faith into practice in a variety of ways, including spiritual disciplines like prayer and worship, and we shouldn’t neglect the work of compassion that imitates Jesus’ love for others.
Jesus, You have shown me how to love and how to lay down my life for others. Fill my heart with faith and give me strength to follow Your example of compassion for those in need. May You use my life to make this world a better place as I share Your love and message. I pray this for Your glory and in Your gracious name. Amen.
Pastor Mike Mirakian