August 30, 2009
Pure and Genuine Religion
17 Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. 18 He chose to give birth to us by giving us his true word. And we, out of all creation, became his prized possession.
19 Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. 20 Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. 21 So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls.
22 But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. 23 For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. 24 You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. 25 But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.
26 If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. 27 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.
This is one of those passages — if you’re like me — that you need to put on those steel toed shoes to read. James gets to the heart of what religion is all about. He has just finished writing to the church about trials vs. temptations. (Sounds like a good topic for Saturday.) James reminds his readers or his hearers — since this was meant to be read aloud — that what is good and perfect comes from the God. God doesn’t change. James is explaining what each believer needs to live a life that is pleasing to God. Verse 19 is especially tough. How many of us (including myself) like to speak first and listen later? We get our priorities all out of order when we do that. I’ve paraphrased it this way: Be very quick to listen — be quiet when listening — don’t work up your reply while you are listening — be slow to speak — and be slower still to get angry. James reminds us that we cannot listen if we are speaking. This applies to our spiritual relationship with God and also applies to our relationship with those around us — family, friends, and enemies. He goes on to explain that when we get angry, we are not living the life that God has called us to live. I think he is especially addressing (again, me included) those who have a short fuse. But there is a second thing here and that is when we have stuff that doesn’t belong — the things James says get rid of (like filth and evil) in our lives, it typically manifests itself in anger. Perhaps it is because we are under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and we are upset at ourselves for getting into that position. Perhaps the evil and filth is reason we are angry.
James tells us to accept the word of God, humbly, because the word of God has the power to save your soul. One of the Wesleyan ideas on the Bible is that it contains all things necessary for salvation — it has the power to save your soul. I think that’s pretty cool. But we are reminded that if we simply listen — if we simply read God’s word and don’t act on it, it goes to waste. I love the word picture James paints. It is like going into the bathroom in the morning — looking at your face — seeing that scruffy beard — seeing all the hair out of place and not doing anything with it. If we look carefully into God’s word — we look carefully in the mirror — and do what it tells us — God will set us on the right path.
James connects the controlling of the tongue to religion that is of worth and if you can’t control your tongue — he says your religion is worthless. How many times has each one of us said something we regretted in a moment of anger — instead of listening — instead of speaking slowly? We can tell when our heart is right — out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
What is the secret to pure and genuine (or as another translation puts it — lasting) religion? It’s very simple — it echoes other passages in the Bible. The secret is to take care of the widows and orphans in their distress and to refuse to let the world corrupt you. In Deuteronomy 6:5, Israel is given this command: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one…love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength.” When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God will all of your heart, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength and the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This sums up all of the law and the prophets.”
Even the Ten Commandments speak to this dual nature of loving God and loving people. Commands one through four are about our relationship with God, while commands 5 through 10 are about our relationship with those around us. It is a theme that runs throughout God’s Word. Here again it comes up in James — to take care of the widows and orphans in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. This is what it means to live a life that is pleasing to God. Our desire to help people comes from the love that God has lavished on us. We follow Christ’s example — he loved people — he loved us so much that He went to the cross — died for us — rose again for us — and is coming back again for those who are living according to His way.
O Father of lights,
from whose word of truth
we have been born as firstfruits of your creatures:
make us quick to listen and slow to speak,
that the word implanted in us
may take root to nourish all our living,
and that we may be blessed in our doing and fruitful in action. Amen.