Faith, Widows & Orphans
January 31, 2016
There is a book that I have relied on fairly heavily in preparing for our time together in James over the course of January. I have used it regularly as I have prepared for worship as well as preparing for our in-depth study of James for the Wednesday night bible study time. It really does a nice job of providing good commentary on the text as well as some nice, engaging stories at times that help bring the passages to life. In fact, several of the points from this book and a couple of the stories have made their way into my notes and have been a part of what I have shared with you.
This past week, I was eager to see what this writer in this very book had to say about our text for today related to the care of widows and orphans. Truth be told, it was the first book that I opened this week in preparation. What I discovered there surprised me because what I found was next to nothing. Our verses for today had been ignored by and large by this author.
Now, it is impossible for any author to spend time on every verse in any Biblical book. But, the book of James is five chapters long and occupies less than half a dozen pages in most modern translations. The book that I have been using devotes 176 pages to these five chapters. To say the least it is thorough and thus for it to skip a verse is very telling.
So, why the lack of attention to this section of the text? Well, the truth is that I don’t know for sure. But… I have a guess. My guess is that this particular author simply didn’t see these two verses as all that important. Unfortunately, this response is more typical than unusual. In my opinion, this author illustrates the fact that faith as we describe it in 2016 is mainly about how God wants to work in our lives. So often, we describe Christianity as a faith devoted to what God wants to do for us. In turn, our modern version of a supposed orthodox Christianity is not so much about how God wants to work through us in order to make a difference in the lives of others as simply being about God becoming a divine genie in a bottle who simply waits to respond to our own requests.
In spite of all of this, James says it this way in vs. 27; “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this; that we care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” This verse is crystal clear. A lived out faith that demonstrates with the behavior of one’s life a deep commitment to God is seen in how we care for orphans and widows who in the Biblical day were the two primary groups of people in that time who were unable to care for themselves. In that male dominated society women without a husband had no voice and no one to care for their needs. They were on their own with no way of supporting themselves and with no one to look out for them. That is why it is common for us to see family members or next of kin in the Bible marrying the widow of a recently deceased brother or relative. They did so not only as a way of carrying on the family name but also to ensure that the widow had someone to care for them. Think of the classic example in the Old Testament of Boaz marrying the widowed Ruth. That story illustrates this model perfectly.
At the same time, orphans also had no social standing and no one to help them meet the most basic of human needs. Like widows, they lived completely dependent on the goodwill and assistance of others.
Widows and orphans never go away. They may take on different names in different cultures and at different times but there are always those in our midst who are unable to meet their own needs and this reality is not always as simple as being the result of laziness or an unwillingness to help ones’ own self.
At the same time, what is also always in our midst is a temptation for you and I as believers to ignore, avoid and fail to see the poor and the powerless as worthy recipients of our love and the love of God. But why? Why is it so easy for our lives to mimic what I discovered in this book of flat out overlooking the basic Biblical call to care for widows and orphans in our own day.
First and foremost, I think it is the result of the self-centered nature of our faith. Do you remember the Greek story of Narcissus? Narcissus is the tragic figure who saw his reflection in a pool and became so enamored with himself that he lost sight of all else. Narcissus simply could not stop staring at his image in that pool of water. In fact, he lost his will for anything else and ultimately died because all he could bring himself to do was to sit and continually look at himself.
Now, that sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But, think about it for a moment – how much of our faith and how much of our lives is spent thinking and talking about ourselves? How much of our ministries and resources as a church are spent on us and our facility? How much of our prayer life is spent on what we want God to do for us? How much of faith in 2016 is nothing more than a glorified, spiritual self-help program rather than a call from God for us to make a real difference in the world and in the lives of others?
Yes, this is twofold. On the one hand, we are here to help each other, to care for each other and to allow the gospel to speak to and guide who we are as business people, as parents and as husbands and wives. But, on the other hand, there is also a profound Biblical call to recognize that through the Holy Spirit God invites us to take his love and his offer of salvation to any place and to anyone who will receive it. And, as we do, to bring the kingdom of God to earth through meeting basic needs such as food, shelter, education and hope in places like Laurens, Marfa, Haiti and lots of places in between.
Without question, we are doing this – in fact we have 11 members who just returned in the dark of night from Haiti where they worked with orphans, provided free dental care and helped build a basic home for a family who lived in a shack. Even today, we have two church members in Cambodia with the SC Baptist Nurses Fellowship. In January we supported the Thursday meal at Hanson Circle and we packed bags for children at Laurens Elementary. In January we paid power bills, rent and helped with medical expenses. We also gave to the work of local ministries who assist in countless ways. We give 10% of what we collect to support the work and ministry of others – this is our tithe as a church. Without question, we are not completely self focused as a church or as individuals and I thank for you for ensuring that this never becomes the case.
And, yet, I have a sneaky suspicion that we can do more and we must do more. We must always ask ourselves if we are looking more at the reflection of ourselves than we are looking into the faces of those who make up our world. Narcissus as a figure, which we have expanded to the term narcissism as a condition, is as rampant in the church as in the world and we must guard against it every day and be aware of its pull on us.
Second, I think our temptation to ignore widows and orphans is also a result of our recognition that this is among the messiest and most challenging of Christ-centered work. Eugene Peterson once said it this way – “what we hate as Christians is mystery and messiness.” We don’t like things we can’t explain or things that are not cut and dry. We like to avoid those two realities like the plague. Yet, when we truly open ourselves up to making a difference in the lives of those who live in the midst of poverty and who are disenfranchised, we put ourselves in harms way, we are forced to deal with situations that we wish were not there and we must make decisions that are not always easy or simplistic.
Last week when our group went to Haiti, they arrived in Port Au Prince on the day of what was to be the Presidential Election. The expectation was that the election would create riots. That seems to be the order of business in Haiti no matter who happens to be elected to office. For their safety, it was suggested that our team spend the night at a hotel at the airport rather than traveling on to the ministry site. Although unlikely, the thought of our group traveling on a bus in the vicinity of riots simply didn’t seem like a good idea.
Ultimately, the elections were postponed and the trip unfolded according to plan. But, it wasn’t a walk in the park, and that anticipated hurdle connected to the elections and potential riots was a strong reminder that there was a level of uneasiness and danger associated with what our group was doing.
I recall several years ago working with a gentleman for the better part of a day who claimed to have no money and who wanted a bus ticket. In the end, the ticket was secured and we sent him on his way grateful that we could help. Later that evening, I was able to check with the bus company to ensure that he had made it to the station on time. What I learned was that he didn’t make it – not because he was late but rather because he never went to the station at all. It was a tough moment – quite honestly I was angry about the wasted hours and money that had been thrown away.
A commitment to the poor, the disenfranchised and to those forgotten by the world is simply like this and quite frankly there is no way around it. Without question, it introduces us to elements of life that we don’t like. It puts us in harms way. And, sometimes it leads to our disappointment at the results that we see. But, while all of these are temptations for us not to engage in work with the very least of these; none of these are good reasons for us not to do this work. After all, this is what Jesus has called us to do and this is what the New Testament tells us is the measure of our faith. And, for every story where things didn’t go as one hoped there are three stories where a commitment to the least and lowly made a life changing difference.
In the end, what should compel us as much as anything is our ability to recognize the truth that before Christ’s coming into our lives, we were orphans too. Sure, we may have had good parents here on earth and we may have had a lot in the eyes of the world, but, in the end, we all needed a savior. We all needed someone to do for us what we could not and can not do for ourselves. Without Christ, like widows and orphans, we were helpless and we must never, ever, ever forget this.
Years ago, Albert Schweitzer was interviewed by the BBC toward the end of his life. Schweitzer, as you may know, was a world renowned scholar, doctor and person of privilege who left it all to go into the Belgian Congo to work at a mission hospital. The interviewer had one question for Schweitzer, “why did you do it?” Schweitzer replied in this way. He said, “I decided to make my life my argument”. (Hebrew – James; McKnight & Church, Smyth & Helwys Press, page 348, 2004.)
Rather than a bunch of hot air and a lot of Sunday amens – he decided that the most compelling argument he could make in the world was through what he did with his life. Today, we must wrestle with this same reality, “what kind of argument for the good and benefit of the Kingdom and its ability to transform the world are we making with our own lives? Today we only have to answer this question to ourselves, one day we must answer God. Amen.