“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:17-27
Today, we will begin the study of the letter of St. James, which we will hear from for the next three Sundays, as we have today.
This letter is attributed to James the Just, whom we hear from in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15.
There you can read about the first council of Jerusalem, where James was a strong voice in support of the Gentile converts to Christianity. James went on to be the first bishop of Jerusalem.
Some scholars think this letter was written shortly before his death in about 62 AD. This letter is one of the “Catholic Epistles” meaning it was written, not to a specific church, but to all the churches.
It is considered to be an example of Christian Wisdom literature, meaning it has teaching for all Christians for daily living, touching on various themes, like the value of suffering, detachment from riches, the value of prayer, and its most prominent theme, the value of good works being the fruit of a lively faith.
Todays lesson begins in chapter 1, verse 17, so I urge you to open your Bibles at home and read the entire first chapter to hear some more of what James has to say to us.
Verse 17 begins,
“Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
The Father of lights speaks about God being the creator of the universe, how he created the sun, the moon, and the stars, and that he does not change his character, but remains the same always.
James then writes that we are the perfect first fruits of creation. Sometimes the question comes up, why are we here? Why did God create us? Some say he created us to worship him, and serve him, or simply for our own sakes.
I believe that we were created simply because of the love of the Creator, our Father in heaven. Creation is a natural part of love, as evidenced by the procreation of a man and a woman, whose love for each other naturally produces offspring. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I believe, from reading the Bible, that this is God’s plan for his creation.
And just as every child is created in the image of his or her parents, we are created in the image of our heavenly Father.
The next few verses lay out a code of conduct for us, that we may act in accordance with our being children of the heavenly Father.
James says we should be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. This is quite the opposite of what we hear from most people today. Most people are rather quick to judge and to speak and to get angry at any perceived slight to their dignity. This is not the way of a Christian.
Verse 21 says, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted Word, which is able to save your souls.”
The implanted word is the Logos, the Spirit of Christ, given to you at your baptism and confirmation. You have the Spirit of Christ in you and he is able to save your souls.
Be doers of the Logos and not hearers only. In other words, practice your faith doing good things. St. James is often criticized by those who think he says you must do good works to be saved. Instead, James is saying that the good things you do is evidence of the Spirit of Christ within you.
Some might be tempted to say, well, I was saved on this particular date, so I don’t really have to do anything else. James is saying that if you do not do good things for others, then your faith is dead.
This is not really a contradiction of what St. Paul teaches that our justification does not depend on works of the Law of Moses. It simply says that if you have faith, act like it. Practice good behavior, do good things, be good to people.
Verse 25 says, “But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets, but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.”
You will be blessed when you are a blessing to others. The perfect law of liberty, is not the Mosaic Law of “Thou shalt not,” but the law of love, as in “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, your mind, your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The last part of our reading today is about religion. Religion is the worship of God, especially the act of worship.
James’ teaching is that religion is not something that is done for its own sake. The outward appearance of worship might be called religiosity, which if done to be seen by others, is empty.
Jesus told a parable about this in the Gospel according to St. Luke, chapter 18:
“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector.”
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This is true religion, true worship, which James wrote about in this letter:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
True worship of God involves your values and your behavior. False religion is living in contradiction to the values of Jesus, while trying to appear pious.
James is urging us to practice true religion, which is worship of God in words and in deeds, and to keep ourselves from being dragged through the mud of sin of bad behavior. Talk the talk, and walk the walk, in other words. This is the true religion that our Father desires from us, his children.
Please read the letter of James on your own time for the next three weeks, and find what the Lord lays on your hearts. Let his Word, the Spirit of Christ dwell within you, and lead you to holiness for his Name’s sake. Amen.