“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 1:27, ESV).
The call came to the administrators of Khulna Bible College. “Mrs. Baidya has had a stroke and would very much appreciate a visit from Mike Brooks.” This elderly lady is one of the original members of a rural congregation almost three hours drive from the college campus. She and her late husband had provided the land on which the small tin and wood church building which the church used for about 25 years had stood. One son and at least two daughters still live in the village and are members of the congregation. I was happy to comply with her request and, accompanied by several men from KBC, made the trip a few days later.
I understood from the very beginning that the invitation to visit entailed more than just a few minutes of sympathy and encouragement. This is a very poor family without the means for providing serious medical care, even in a country where such care is very inexpensive by first world standards. It was understood that “visiting” her included helping her and the family in their distress. I went prepared to offer such help.
Most Bible students understand that James’ description of pure religion involves the same rather broad definition of “visit.” This is made explicit by the addition of the phrase, “in their affliction.” Widows and orphans are by definition afflicted. They (with a few exceptions, 1 Timothy 5:3-8) belong to the have-nots or the underprivileged. This is especially true in societies where no provisions are made for the poor and women rarely own property or have skills which enable them to work productively, even if they are physically able. The Church is charged with their care, as are individual Christians.
Doing good to those in need is described by the writer of Hebrews as sacrifices that are pleasing to God. They complement the praise and worship which Christians offer as “sacrifice(s) of praise, … the fruit of our lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15-16).
When we today think and speak of religious activity we seem to mostly focus on formal acts of worship such as prayer, singing, and Bible study. Giving to the needy is taken care of by the collective efforts of the church. We don’t necessarily connect the personal gift of a few dollars to a sick person or an hour spent raking leaves or fixing a problem for the elderly as religious acts. James reminds us that such activities are at the very heart of our Christianity. They don’t replace worship – they complement it and make our worship real and meaningful.
To put it in modern phraseology, helping the needy is what our religion is all about. Or at least it is a major element. And it is a very personal thing. Jesus taught us to let our lights shine so that people would see our good works and give glory to God (Matthew 5:16). We may assume that since the church has benevolent programs to help others that we therefore are doing all that is necessary. The passages cited above (and many others) demonstrate that we also have personal obligations to help as opportunity presents itself. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).