Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James turns now from that form of religion which is worthless and empty, to that “religion which is pure and undefiled before God, the Father” (thrēskeia kathara kai amiantos para tō theō kai patri). The language calls to mind the vison of purity in the Old Testament, and indicates as McKnight (168) notes, the condition and aptness of those who may live in the land or enter the temple, and whose lives exhibit utter fidelity to God and the Torah. In this case, however, it is the religious observance itself rather than the religious person which is described as pure and undefiled. What James has in mind is not the excellence, exuberance or expressiveness of the worship service. Pure religion is not found in flawless performance of religious duties or rituals, but in a life of faithful devotion to God in which God’s values are enacted in our lives. It is wrong to assume that James would do away with religious services of worship, or with formal expressions of devotion. What he insists upon is religious conviction that issues in moral goodness. Here James stands in a direct line deriving from the prophets:
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies … Take away from me the noise of your songs; … But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord; “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts.… I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moon and your appointed feasts, my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. … Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:11-17; cf. Isaiah 58:1-14; Micah 6:1-8).
James identifies the particular kind of religious practice that God values, desires and accepts in terms of two aspects of God’s righteousness which are to be integrated into the believing community: God’s compassion, and God’s holiness. Or we might say that God’s righteousness and holiness has a social dimension as well as a personal dimension. Some Christian groups emphasise the one side at the expense of the other, but James insists that both sides must be emphasised and nurtured in the Christian community, for both aspects are constitutive of true righteousness and hence of true religious devotion.
Therefore, true religion “is this” (hautē estin): “to visit orphans and widows in their distress” (episkeptesthai orphanous kai chēras en tē thlipsis). Orphans and widows are regularly mentioned in Scripture as those particularly in need of assistance, and God’s people are commanded to care for them not only in view of their need, but in order to embody and enact God’s own care for the vulnerable (see, for example, Exodus 22:22 and Deuteronomy 10:17-18; cf. Deuteronomy 24:17-22; 27:19). God cares for the vulnerable through the care expressed and enacted by his people. In the Old Testament, the basis for this requirement was twofold. Because God cares for the orphan and the widow, so God’s people are to do likewise. Because God had redeemed his people from their own slavery and suffering, now they were to do likewise on behalf of others who suffer and are afflicted. In both testaments “orphans and widows” are a paired category, and exemplify more generally those in need of care (Vlachos, 64), including others who may be vulnerable, or socially and economically marginalised, such as the homeless, the unemployed, the refugee, the frail aged, or the chronically ill.
The particular action James prescribes is that the believer “visit” (episkeptesthai) the afflicted. Here again Vlachos (64) is helpful, noting that the word is used in both testaments of God “visiting” his people in order to rescue them (e.g. Genesis 50:24; Ruth 1:6; Acts 15:14; cf. Luke 1:68, 78; 7:16), and in the New Testament of visiting the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:36). Jesus not only taught his followers to visit those in need but also practised such care himself, buttressing his teaching with his example (e.g. Mark 1:29-30; 2:15-17; 5:21-24). Visitation requires personal engagement with the afflicted on their turf, and so also involves a degree of commitment and risk on the part of those who visit, who may be required to leave their own comforts and the safety of their own environment for a time. Note, too, that visitation which pleases the Father is not confined to the community of the believers, although it must also include those within the community. James has already shown that God, the “father of lights” is the universal father and creator, and so God’s compassion extends to all. Finally, Scot McKnight (168-169) notes that episkeptesthai is a cognate of episkopos, the New Testament word for overseer or bishop, and comments on the “sad irony” that so much scholarship concerning church leadership and governance is focussed on issues of authority rather than the pastoral ministry of visitation.
True religion is also characterised as “to keep oneself unstained by the world” (aspilon heauton tērein apo tou kosmou). The apostle Peter uses aspilon to refer to Christ as a “spotless” sacrifice (1 Peter 1:19), where the term is paired with amōmos (“without blemish”) which is used often in the Old Testament with reference to sacrificial offerings (Davids, 103). Though the term can have a cultic reference, here James uses it with a moral sense. Indeed it is arguable that this is what it also means in 1 Peter; that is, Jesus is “without blemish and without spot” in the sense that he is without sin. So, too, the believing community is to remain unstained or unspotted in and despite its interactions with the world. The ministry of visitation will invariably involve the congregation in the life and conditions of the world. So, too, will the responsibilities and engagements of everyday life. The community is not to withdraw or become isolated from the world. But neither can it become the “friend” of the world (James 4:4).
Although the New Testament knows nothing of a metaphysical dualism between God and the world, the sense of a moral dualism is thorough-going, being found especially in Paul and John, as well as here in James. That is, although the world as a natural creation is good and belongs to God the creator, the “world” as a system of human culture and activity is often organised in opposition to the will of God, betraying a disposition toward that which is evil (Davids, 103; cf. Vlachos, 65). It is on this basis that James denies that one can simultaneously be a friend both of God and of the world (4:4). Thus although the community exists in active engagement with the world, there is also an inevitable distance from the world in terms of its cultural values and priorities. This tension surfaces often and in many different forms in the life of the Christian community. In James, it is likely that the kinds of “worldliness” he has in mind concern envy, covetousness and greed which issue in strife, conflict, division and malice (see 1:9-11; 2:1-13; 3:13-16; 4:1-3; 13-17). Nevertheless, all kinds of sin bring forth death (1:14-15), and there can be no doubt that James called his listeners to moral purity in all its forms. True religion involves both generous compassion and moral cleanliness. To keep oneself unstained from the world means to avoid its patterns of thought, and to refrain thinking and acting in accordance with its value system and priorities (Moo, 87).
In verses 26-27, then, James describes true religion in terms of (a) bridling one’s tongue, (b) caring for the afflicted, and (c) maintaining holiness in the midst of the world. In some respects, each of these characteristics is necessary for those who would be “friends of God” (James 4:4). These three aspects of true religion will become his main focus in the remainder of his letter, with chapter three picking up the theme of the tongue, chapter two the necessity of active compassion for the poor, while chapter four calls for humble repentance and holiness.