“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. ” – James 1:26-27 ESV
As I’m thinking over the text that I’m going to be using for my upcoming James sermon I found that I had this delightful verse within context. I have often heard the evils of religions spouted out by my friends and yet I can help but smile when I think that while there is certainly a lot of worthless religion, religion isn’t bad when it is pure and undefiled. But upon seeing something defiled we so often jump to conclusions that therefore it all must be bad, (that wonderful part of being human I suppose).
Religion, the Greek word threskeia (θρησκεία), Vine’s NT defines it as signifying ““religion” in its external aspect…, “religious worship,” especially the ceremonial service of “religion”;”
In the New Testament this word appears in Acts 26.5 in connection with the Pharisee sect (being the Strictest Part of the Jewish “religion”). But here Paul doesn’t mention in a bad context per say, it is instead of what his background was. Moreover before Jesus came wouldn’t this Jewish religion have been a good thing (Judaism being the only way to God before Christ?) Again the word appears in Colossian 2.18, this time speaking of no, no “Worship,” of the angels. Something which John the Revelator was about to do in Revelation 22.8, but is instead told to “Worship” God, not “Worship” the angel.
Ah the fun thing with translations when we have our multiple English words for that one Greek/Hebrew word. In essences I get the idea that while there are a lot ways to be religious, being religious for man, for angels we should instead be religious for God. Part of True Religion is the right man in view, i.e. God.
Thus as look at these words of James I see one’s perceived religion against the backdrop of real religion. James tells us what considers should be a part of this whole external way the world looks at. That is in opposition of the way one who is usually called religious (in the negative sense) wants the world to look at him. One’s perceived piety over one’s real working within the body of Christ. Pure religion, pure worship if you will is about loving the people around you. Instead of having the people around you thinking you look good. (Not that we should be all right being Sinful bums because we help people).
James isn’t very new to this concept of what he considers to be true religion. Read any of the prophets and you’ll see that yes the perceived religious people were most often the bad guys. The ones who were doing what Yahweh had commanded of them, burnt offerings and all that stuff. They had missed the point, as evidenced by their treatment of the outcast. Religion at the core of the Old Testament was about relationships, among all the external things of God. Firstly True Love for God and Secondly true love for people. Leviticus 19.18b in the midst of all the law does say “but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am Yahweh.” Leviticus that wonderful book of law which is so concern with Holiness expresses that that part of Holiness, and part of the Israelite religion is Love.
“”Revere the Lord all your days, my son, and refuse to sin or to transgress his commandments. Live uprightly all the days of your life, and do not walk in the ways of wrongdoing; 6 for those who act in accordance with truth will prosper in all their activities. To all those who practice righteousness 7 give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. 8 If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. 9 So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. 10 For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness. 11 Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High.” – Tobit 4.5-11 NRSV (Only for Tobit, I’m too lazy to type the ESV version…)
Moreover I am reminded of my favored book of Tobit. Specifically the actions of Tobit and the words of advice he gives to Tobiah. Tobit is Religious. Back when he could he burnt the animals, attended every worship service so to speak. The difference between him and other people of his time is the sacrifices come from the heart in Tobit’s case; they weren’t just something done because he was told to. Tobit’s Religion is that Pure and Undefiled kind of James. After all Tobit of his saved up money says: “A third tenth I would give to the orphans and widows and to the converts who had attached themselves to Israel. I would bring it and give it to them in the third year” – Tobit 1.8b. Even in exile Tobit continued this: “I would give my food to the hungry and my clothing to the naked; and if I saw the dead body of any of my people thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury it.” Tobit 1.17
Tobit had the right the idea. He knew that part of Yahweh’s command of being Holy is loving your neighbor. In his prayer in chapter three, Tobit could have held his head up high and prayed to Yahweh calling out all the good things he had done, but instead Tobit pleads for Yahweh’s in-spite-of-ness. “Do not punish me for my sins,” instead “Deal with me as you will.” This prayer which of course leads into Tobit’s wonderful words of wisdom to his son, Tobiah. In the midst of all the wisdom teaching we see that Tobit centers on giving, on showing concern to the poor. To Tobit the importance things of Life were being Holy, by not sinning and showing love to his neighbors.
Religion involves actions of love. James speaks of it, Tobit shows it, we too need to strive for it. Speak all you want that Christianity isn’t a religion it’s a relationship with God, but don’t miss the fact that we need to show that relationship. We need Religion that is pure and undefiled.
So often I hear the complaints of what Christianity has become, but why complain? Tobit could have complained “See what your Chosen People have become Yahweh,” instead he strives for right actions. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t point out sin, James and Tobit both point to a sin and say don’t do, and Tobit does bewail the sins of his people as is proper. But these men aren’t sitting around complaining and doing nothing. Tobit gives alms, shows concern for the poor, James was writing. (By the way James showing action by his letter is okay for him, he had authority, so his letter matter to people unlike us vast nobodies who bewail on blogs and forums and in our churches, etc.). Even as I write this I realize that I’m no authority, hence I will choose action instead.
I want Tobit’s and James’ religion, pure and undefiled. I want to do right actions instead of wrong ones. Lip service can’t be an option; instead I need my hands to be used in whatever service Jesus’ wants. Simply put I want to be religious in good sense and strive against the bad sense.
– Le Bel Inconnu