Faith Acts: The Widows and the Orphans

26 If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, his religion is useless and he deceives himself. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”— James 1:26-27

Mark 7 tells the story of a day when some Pharisees and teachers of the Law confronted Jesus, asking Him, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with ceremonially unclean hands?” (Mark 7:5).

Mark gives us a little insight into their question when he tells us that if a Pharisee went into the marketplace, he would make a big deal out of ceremonially washing his hands before eating because he might have become spiritually defiled by touching someone who was unclean. The tradition began centuries before when God first gave His people strict dietary laws to remind them that they were set apart and needed to keep themselves separate from the world. But the meaning behind the ritual had been long-since lost, and it had simply become a way for certain religious people to elevate themselves over those who they deemed of lesser value. The end result was that they were far more likely to avoid someone in need altogether rather than run the risk of becoming defiled by their uncleanness. (Thus, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus answered them by saying, “Why do you break God’s commandment because of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3). Then He called them hypocrites and said that Isaiah had been right when he said of them: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines human commands” (Matthew 15:8-9).

He then called the crowd to Him and said, “Listen and understand: It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth––this defiles a person…For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, slander” (Matthew 15:10-11,19).

James picks up on this same theme and draws a clear distinction between what God finds acceptable worship and what He finds intolerable. First, he tells us that religious ritual means nothing. If we go through the motions of man-made worship, but fail to control our tongues, then we are deceiving ourselves if we think our worship means anything to God. The tongue reveals what lies in the heart. If we regularly use impure speech, we force into the open the uncleanness that lies within.

On the contrary, we demonstrate true faith through our acts of compassion concerning those who are unable to fully take care of themselves. When Jesus looked out on the crowds that were following Him, He had compassion on them, and that compassion compelled Him into action. He didn’t just pray for the people; He acted on their behalf. Jesus said that whenever we help those in distress in His name, it is as if we are helping Jesus Himself.

God isn’t impressed with our church attendance. He isn’t in awe of our fantastic singing voices or ability to pray in public. None of that means anything to Him if our hearts are far from Him. He is much more interested in what we do in His name when no one is watching.

“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:40).

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible® and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.

This devotional was written and read by Leigh Ann Swords. Leigh Ann is the Missions Minister at the Church at Station Hill. You can read more about her here.