Visiting the Orphan & the Widow: Reimagining James 1:27
“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
It would be easy to tell you that this verse means that if you visit orphans and widows, you’re a good Christian. After all, plenty of us have been on short-term mission trips or volunteered at women's shelters. The verse says, of course, that true religion is to visit orphans and widows.
But in the same way that the terms widow and orphan aren’t quite what they seem (see last week’s blog post here), the term “visit” isn’t either.
See, the definition of “visit” is “to pay a call on as an act of friendship or courtesy.” But in this verse, “visit” is replacing the Greek word “ergon,” which doesn’t actually mean “visit” at all. Ergon means good works, like the kind mentioned in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The word denotes purposeful work as a social or ethical task.
So with this definition, James 1:27 comes to say, “Do good works with (or for) the widow and orphan.”
Alright. This meaning is also easy to get behind. Rarely is our ministry ever just to go pay a visit and leave. We build houses or give food or babysit - all good works.
But that’s not the only place this form of “visit” is used in Scripture.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” Luke 1:68
This verse comes from a passage in Luke in which Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy. And as a part of this prophecy, he mentions God visiting the earth. This, of course, is Jesus Christ.
And visiting orphans and widows in the same way that Christ visited the earth is radical.
As Tim Keller said, “Christianity. . . teaches that God hates the suffering and oppression of this material world so much, he was willing to get involved in it and to fight against it.”
Nothing about what Christ did on earth was temporary. Nothing about what He did was fueled by courtesy or duty. Nothing about what He did was superficial, and none of it had an end. No, what Christ did in his time on earth was love-fueled, never-ending labor. It was the truest of good works and the closest of partnerships. It still hasn’t ended, even if his physical presence on earth has. It cost him his life, and even in and after death he continues his good work.
The world would look a lot different if Christ had served communities without knowing them. God changed his very form to most effectively minister to humans, and walked alongside those he came to save. He drank water from the same wells and worshipped in the same temples. If Christ had not come alongside us, partnered with us, gotten to know our needs and desires and weaknesses and strengths, his ministry would have been short-lived and ineffective.
So if we take “visit” in the context of both “ergon” and all that Christ has done for us, James 1:27 becomes a little different:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to constantly work alongside and for orphans and widows in their affliction, despite any costs, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
Practically, this verse goes beyond short-term mission trips and child sponsorships. This looks like seeking out the best places to help, and giving more of ourselves over more time than we’re probably accustomed to. This means forming relationships and then acting on the resulting love. This means becoming a part of a widow’s or an orphan’s world, and letting them be a part of yours. This looks like hating the suffering and oppression of widows and orphans so much that we can’t help but fight against it.
So what does this look like for you?
Maybe it looks like babysitting for a single mom while she’s at work. Maybe it looks like mentoring a young adult who’s aged out of institutional care, or a father who’s recently been released from prison. Maybe it looks like inviting the young couple from next door over to eat once a week. Maybe it looks like calling and writing letters to your congressmen as they vote for laws that will influence vulnerable families and children, or holding workshops within your church to educate others on what they can do to help.
It could be continuing a relationship with the pastor you met on your short-term mission trip, and partnering your church with his to better serve his community. It could look like praying, consistently and relentlessly, for the child you sponsor, and researching the organization through which you sponsor them to ensure they aren’t unintentionally perpetuating negative cycles in the communities they serve. It could be opening your home to a foster child. It could be adopting.
Whatever it looks like for you to visit widows and orphans, that is religion pure and undefiled before God the Father. It’s also what we were made for.
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” -Ephesians 2:10