True Religion

by Pastor Anthony Pranno

At the very end of James 1, James switches gears with a second illustration of what it means to not only be hearers of God’s Word, but doers. In vv. 26-27, he writes about religion and people who consider themselves “religious.”

James 1:26-27

If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

When someone asks you if you are “religious,” what do they really mean?

  • Do you go to church?
  • Are you a spiritual person?
  • Are you one of those “born again” types, Bible beaters or fanatical Holy Rollers?
  • Do you read the Bible?

The words religion and religious come from the Greek word “threskos.” When describing a person, this word refers to someone who performs external acts of religion, like public worship, fasting, prayer, or giving to the needy. However, you and I both know that people use the words “religion” or “religious” in many other contexts today. For example…

  • He’s religious about his morning run
  • She’s religious about writing thank-you notes
  • Politics is his religion
  • He goes golfing religiously
James wants people to understand that considering oneself as a religious or godly person must coincide with godly actions and behavior. He presents and example about a person whose tongue is like an unbridled horse… a person who exerts no controlling restraint on his speech. His uncontrolled tongue actually reveals that his so-called religion is worthless, posing, meaningless, inauthentic… an external sham. That kind of person is just playing the part of a religious person… an actor… a hypocrite. He has convinced himself that he’s godly, but in so doing, he deceives himself.

Ouch. Remember that James is writing this letter to his “brothers and sisters” in the faith who have been scattered all over Judea and Samaria. These are all followers of Jesus who are being strongly admonished to let their faith, belief, and religion be real… authentic… genuine. Isn’t that one of the biggest problems we face as people of faith today? We are perceived by some to be disingenuous, fake, hypocritical. 2000 years ago, James knew we’d struggle to prove our faith by our actions.

Lastly, in James 1:27, James gives two additional examples… orphans and widows. He knew that encouraging people to show love and mercy to these marginalized people would be an excellent example of how we should put our faith into practice… so much so that he uses “looking after orphans and widows in their distress” as an example of pure and faultless religion.

The Bible is chalk-full of teaching regarding how we should treat the poor, helpless and marginalized, with several examples citing orphans and widows. Here are just a few…

Deuteronomy 14:28-29

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

Psalm 146:9

The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

Isaiah 1:16-17

Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

Here at the end of James 1, he uses two groups of people who everyone knew would be ostracized, marginalized, or simply ignored to illustrate his point. True religion is obviously more than just taking care of orphans and widows… it is putting our faith into action, loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, practicing what we preach, living out what we believe. This is the central theme of the entire letter and will pop up in each of the following chapters. It is the central theme of almost all of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels as well.

May we aspire to be people who imitate the life of Jesus Christ, putting our faith into practice at every turn. Whether that means we hold our tongue, fight against hypocrisy, love our neighbors, give generously or protect those who cannot protect themselves, let us not love with simply words or speech, but in action and truth (1 John 3:18).

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