Helping the Needy
A positive test of true religion
In the last verse, James confronts a professing Christian who cannot control his tongue and brands his religion as vain. Now, after exposing hypocrisy, he goes on in verse 27 to give the two marks of genuine religion.
As we remarked in our introductory lesson, verse 27 provides the term "godliness" with a formal definition. "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." In other words, the positive side of pure religion has two components. It combines personal devotion to good works with personal separation from every evil work.
As we said before, James obviously does not mean to limit good works to the one he chooses as an example. Rather, he means that one mark of an authentic Christian is commitment to helping the needy, whether they be widows or orphans or anyone else. But lest we think that good works alone are genuine religion, James adds the requirement to remain unsoiled by the world. Generous charity without separation from worldly sin is pointless, for nothing in a sinful life can win the approval of a righteous God or advance His program. If a church is dominated by unseparated lifestyles, any of its attempts to help the needy will be wasted effort, gaining no eternal results. God will not pour power and blessing on a church that fails to draw its spiritual babes out of sin's bondage.
Yet, although personal separation is the second mark of true religion, the first mark is to practice good works. A religion bearing the second mark but not the first is sterile, because good works are a visible expression of love for those who receive the benefit. Therefore, neglect of good works on behalf of fellow believers suppresses an atmosphere of love within the church, and neglect of good works on behalf of unbelievers chokes off a vibrant testimony of the love that can only be found among God's people (John 13:34–35). A church void of this unique love soon becomes a dead church, for a loveless religion is not the religion of Christ.
Widows and orphans
As chief examples of the needy, James mentions widows and orphans. In Bible times, a widow was helpless to support herself. She could not take a job. Unless she was a trained craftsman she could not make anything to sell. As a result, she was completely dependent on relatives. Since relatives can be stingy, it was common for widows to be extremely poor. Likewise, orphans had no means of support apart from relatives, who might give them very little or neglect them completely. James’s own concern for these bereaved members of society won him the admiration of the poorer class in Jerusalem. Touched by that concern, James says that our duty as believers to widows and orphans is to "visit" them. No doubt the word "visit" is referring mainly to visits for the purpose of taking them material assistance. Yet also within the compass of this phrase are visits for the purpose of showing sympathy and relieving loneliness.
The poor brother
Yet if we are animated by the kind of compassion that pleases God, we will not restrict our charity to widows and orphans. We will help anyone who is going through difficulties. One common case is a brother trapped in poverty. Throughout the Bible we are commanded to supply his needs (James 2:15-6; 1 John 3:17; Acts 20:35; Rom. 12:13; Gal. 6:10; Eph. 4:28; 1 Tim. 6:18; Heb. 13:16; Matt. 5:42; Lev. 25:35). From these texts we learn three principles:
- Charity of this kind is the most basic and indispensable obligation of brotherly love.
- Charity is a special obligation of the rich.
- Brothers in Christ have first claim upon charity. In other words, they should always be the first to receive it.
Giving to the poor does not exhaust our duty to help others. The Bible urges us also to visit the sick and those in prison (Matt. 25:34-36), to bear one another's burdens (Gal. 6:2), and to share the sorrow of any who are grieving (Rom. 12:15). Such forms of charity may involve material assistance, but the greater need is usually emotional support. Of course, the greatest need wherever trouble strikes is prayer, but true Christian love always combines prayer with down-to-earth ways of giving help.