Greetings, Reader! We are going to talk today about a specific area in which you can spread hope to the world around you. If you haven’t read my first post on the subject, go check it out. It’s okay, I’ll wait for you… Alright, got it? Good, now we can move on.
So, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot lately. Even if you don’t, stick with me, because I think you will agree with what it has to say here. The specific book I’ve been focused on is the book of James, which is historically accepted as being written by the brother of Jesus. I mention that to point out that he would have been very familiar with the teachings of Jesus, who is recognized by Christians and non-Christians alike as having quite a bit to say regarding the right way to treat other people (He was pretty big on caring for “the least” among us). Here’s what James has to say: “Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles.” Other translators have used the words “undefiled” and “unblemished” instead of “lasting”. Let’s focus in on what the author is saying here. He’s assuming that there are kinds of religion, and a multitude of ways that people express their religion. James makes the unequivocal statement that none of those things matter if they don’t put a high priority on caring for the disadvantaged and socially oppressed. I think we can all agree that a lot of religion has historically been defiled and blemished by its adherents. Crusades, ethnic cleansing, suicide bombers, forced conversions…the list could go on and on.
Why do religious people get caught up in defiling their religion? Because they have lost the focus of what “pure and lasting religion” is really about. It is not about power, it is not about mandating any form of belief or behavior, it is not about earning a better place in heaven. It’s about love. Jesus, that famous brother of James, put it pretty clearly: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Not a lot of wiggle room there. And I can’t think of a single religion or a belief system that would disagree, except for perhaps Utilitarianism, which is not real popular… Caring for those who cannot care for themselves is a universal moral imperative. We innately know that it is the right thing. And yet, we often do a pretty abysmal job of following this imperative.
Not that we don’t want to do it. Organizations and movements which at the very least claim to help the “orphan and widow” abound. Many of us are content to let them do the actual work, while we send them some money. Isn’t it nice that we can help out these “poor folks” without ever having to interact with them? (Note the sarcasm.) Our governments are also have a finger in the pie. With this being an election year, we are going to continue hearing a lot of very strong opinions as to how much the government can and should be doing to help the “least of these” in our society. There are some valid reasons to be having that debate, but that’s really not what I’m concerned with. Because the imperative we’re talking about today didn’t say anything about pure and undefiled government (as if!) being characterized by caring for the financially and socially downcast. It was about religion, and religion is about people. James (and Jesus) mean us. I see you there, looking at the person next to you. Cut it out. I mean you. You need to be caring for the orphan and the widow. Sure, it’s not what you were planning on when you got up this morning, but it’s where we’re headed now.
Still with me? Good. Let’s make this practical. So you don’t have an orphanage right down the street from you?No streetchildren wandering in front of the bus stop on your way to work today? Sorry, you’re not off the hook just like that. The fact is, there are orphans and widows in your town, and there are lots of ways to find them. Community services centers, churches, synagogues, mosques, and a whole variety of non-profits in your community can all direct you to those in need.
But even more than just looking for the actual orphans and widows around us, let’s think about what James really meant by calling our attention to those two specific groups of people. In the first century, your position in society was tied to the position of the men in your family. Your father, your husband – they determined where you stood in the eyes of the community. So to be without that father or husband practically meant that you had no place in society. You were totally at the mercy of others. Often, those others didn’t feel very compelled to care for you. They had enough to do to take care of themselves, or so they thought. James said this wasn’t the case. Not only did people have the ability to care for others, they had no choice – he says we “must” care for the orphans and widows.
In our society today, there is a much wider variety of people who are what we might call financially disadvantaged or socially oppressed. Race, geography, education, religion and politics are all contributing factors. All of those factors need to be addressed. But that’s not the imperative we are talking about here. What did James say? He said we much care for the oppressed “in their troubles”. Not in the socio-historical background of their troubles. Not in the generational cycle of their troubles. He said in their troubles. Where they are right now. The care we are to give is immediate, obvious, and effective.
What does this mean for us? It means giving up our free evening and babysitting to give a single parent a night off to have fun or pursue a hobby or work on his or her degree. It means mentoring children who do not have adequate parental involvement. It means sitting and listening to a friend who has just lost her husband for hours even if you have other things that “should” be done. It means welcoming a refugee or immigrant and making them feel like a part of the community. It means visiting the elderly lady on your block that hardly ever gets out of her house. It means loving and helping those around you without expecting to get anything in return.
Trust me, Reader, in writing this I was just as challenged as you are right now. I know I’m not anywhere near close to perfect. But I’m trying. Because when I come to my last days, I want to have been part of something pure and lasting.
Peace Be With You