ANNUAL THEME 2018-2019: Faith Seeking Action, Believing in Hope for a "Pure Religion" (James 1:27)
In his letter to the Colossians (2:16-23), Paul seems to pit faith against religion. Those of us, hopefully, who still believe in religion, are curious about that religion being opposed to the faith. Paul actually refers to an impure religion which consists in superstitious prohibitions regarding the body, self-imposed worship, false humility, harsh treatment of the body, and putting no value in restraining sensual indulgence. Paul is correct in considering as impure a religion that views the body as evil. In the category of “impure” is a religion thatis enforced by those in power in an attempt to maintain or abuse their power over others, designed only for the gain of its human creators. P. Yancey takes note of C.S. Lewis’ observation about crimes in Christian history coming about when “religion is confused with politics.” “Politics, which always runs by the rules of ungrace, allures us to trade away grace for power, a temptation the church has often been unable to resist.” A religion, associated with imperial Rome, which was used to justify its burden of taxation and control was an impure religion. This is covered by the Pauline opposition of true faith to impure religion.
So, where do we find this true and pure religion? Let us try the letter of James. “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” (1:27). This echoes a very strong warning from Exodus 22:, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry” (21-22). These two verses seem mild enough and reasonable but let us hear from the two verses that immediately follow: “And my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless” (22-24). Had we not read straight from the bible, we would not have believed God would be that angry on the oppression against widows and orphans!
Why would James present the orphans and widows as persons in the pure and genuine religion? That was because they were the poorest of the poor, the defenseless; to oppress them, then, was to enjoy impunity. This is one of the sins, according to Catechism of the Catholic Church, that cry to heaven for justice, or, if you want it more strongly said, sins that cry to heaven for vengeance! (Cf. Dt 32:35)
James, in specifying the widows and the orphans, is only reflecting an advice from Jesus: “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Lk 14:13-14).This is summed up by a popular axiom: “Character is how you treat those who can do nothing for you.” Jesus warns us about having ulterior motives in relating to others, like using people for our own glory or the gratification of our own needs. First-century Christians would have us believe:“it will be the poor who will welcome us at the doors of heaven.” Will they know us well enough to let us in?
If we go back to Colossians, then, yes, true faith is against religion if this religion proves itself to be impure. In the same vein, faith that is alive is pure religion.The book of James, according to an evangelical preacher, is all about “Hands-on Christianity.”There is no opposition between faith and good works, after all, good works are the results of true faith. James cannot be more explicit in his statement, “Faith without good works is dead” (2:17). If Christianity is a crime and you will be tried, how would you get acquittal? Simple, if it can be proven that your faith is dead because you are a Christian in name only. How can you be convicted of being a Christian? Easy, if you show evidences of good works that flow from your faith.
There is a well-known person, to cite an example, convicted of being a Christian; her name is Mother Theresa. This is her statement: “Jesus has said ‘come blessed of my Father, take the seat in the kingdom prepared for you, because I was hungry you gave me food. I was thirsty you have me drink. I was naked you clothed me. I was homeless you took me home and I was sick you visited me. ‘ And we are just doing that.”
How about you? Can you be convicted of being a Christian? Or put in another way? If Christianity is a crime, would you be found guilty? Yes, you would be, if a witness comes along, let’s say, a poor widow, who testifies to the court for you by her statement that she was hungry and thirsty and you came along to give her something to eat and drink. Yes, in a world with an ungodly system, you are a convict, but in the Father’s kingdom, you will be called God’s child and heir of the Kingdom and your reward will be great in heaven. So is true what the early Christians said that it will be the poor who will receive you at heaven’s gate. And as Rev. J. Forbes said: “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” Why so? “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven!”
St. Vincent School of Theology
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