Sunday, January 6, 2008

Thoughts On God's Heart for Orphans and Widows- Part 1

Part 1- The Mandate of James
Christians today know that it is a good thing to care for orphans and widows. Because of the church’s commitment to provide both missionaries and funding in needy cross-cultural and urban settings, ministries to orphans like New Hope Uganda can exist. The global AIDS pandemic has created more awareness and more compassionate care for the growing “orphan” problem all over the world. Yet, when asked if there is any biblical responsibility to care for orphans, many Christians can not get beyond Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The only New Testament verse that speaks directly of the church’s responsibility to care for orphans is James 1:27, which says: “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.”1 Though this verse is very powerful, it is often “passed over” without grasping the full implication of what James is saying.
If we are going to understand James 1:27 and its implications for us today, then we need to have a good context of the book as a whole. James was writing to mainly Jewish Christians scattered among the nations (1:1) who were facing trials of different kinds (1:2-8, 12-15; 5:7-12). There were Christians who claimed to have faith, but in their very deeds denied the faith they claimed, either through lack of action (1:22; 2:15-16), or through mistreatment of the poor, needy, and each other (2:2-4; 4:1-2). This is why James’ argument about faith and works in 2:14-26 is so central to the book, as James is very concerned that Christians live out the very faith they profess.
In the immediate context of James 1:27, he explains that “true” religion, or genuine living out of the faith, consists of being a doer who acts on the word of God! This is contrasted with those who hear the word and do nothing. These are deceptive hearers and their religion is “worthless”(1:22-25).
James writes in verse 26, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” The emphasis here is on the external speech as it relates to deception in the heart. This is because the tongue reveals the inner heart (cf. Mt. 12:34), so it would be foolish to think one was a Christian when the speech of that person demonstrates the contrary. This is worthless religion.
This picture of Christianity lived out in regards to the heart and tongue leads to verse 27 where James gives the second picture of “true religion,” only this time it is pictured as “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father.” He is in essence saying, “Here’s what Christianity lived out should really look like!” What is this “pure and undefiled” living out of the faith? James says it is “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
The second of these makes logical sense, as to be unstained from the world is to cease to carry on in the ways and practices of the world, i.e. all that he will address in the chapters ahead. But the first seems to catch the reader off guard. As a reader of the context of the book would expect, James doesn’t say that pure religion is “to care for the poor and needy in your midst,” though he could have. In the next chapter he is going to state the believers’ need to treat the poor with equal standing as the rich and to provide food and clothing to the needy (2:1-16). Here in 1:27, James mentions a specific group of needy people- orphans and widows. Why does caring for this specific group of needy people embody “pure and undefiled” living out of the Christian faith for James? To get the answer to this question we would need to survey through the Old Testament passages that talk specifically about the orphan and the widow and what they reveal about God Himself (and if the Lord wills, we will do this). But for now, let it suffice to be said that James considered the church’s role in caring for orphans and widows “in their distress” to be of utmost importance!
Another clue can be found in James’ use of the Word “Father” to refer to God. He never uses “Father” simply as a title for God, but to emphasize the relationship of this Father to His people. This can be seen in 1:16-18 where James emphasized the “begetting” relationship of the Father to us and the good and perfect gifts that this Father gives to us. James says that it is the Father who “brought us forth” of His own will by the word of truth (1:18). He is our Father simply because of His mercy in “bringing us forth.”
The title “Father” for God is also strategically used in 1:27. Notice he says that caring for orphans and widows is pure religion before “the God and Father” (literal translation). It is this aspect of the Fatherhood of God to those of us who were fatherless that provides the foundation of our own calling to reflect His fatherhood in our own care of the fatherless and the widow.
Finally, James told the Christians that pure religion was to “visit” orphans and widows in their affliction. This does not mean a casual passing by to check up on orphans and widows. The NIV translates the word “visit” with “look after.” Other translations have used the term “care for”. Each translation is trying to get to heart of the Greek word episkeptomai, which carries the idea of visiting, looking after, and being concerned about someone (see Mt. 25:35). One book helpfully points out that even when episkeptomai means “to seek out someone” in the NT, it never implies merely “to visit” them in the usual sense, or for selfish ends, but always “to be concerned” about them, with a sense of responsibility for others.2 This is quite penetrating for the readers of the book of James, as he makes it clear that they themselves have a responsibility to compassionately care for needy orphans and widows! This is “true” religion lived out!
The challenge remains for us today. The Father has placed each of us in a situation where we are surrounded by orphans and widows, fatherless children and single moms. In Uganda, there are so many fatherless children that most families consist of birth children and children of relatives who have died. For various reasons many of these families are not able to care for the children entrusted to them, thus there is a great place for the church’s role in taking these children in and giving care to such needy families.
In the West, the need is the same, even if the situation looks differently. Though the government controls the care of full-orphans, the family continues to break down, meaning that more and more children are growing up fatherless and many mothers are left functioning in desperation akin to the Biblical widow. How can the church respond to this desperate need?
One obvious way is for Christians to get involved in foster-care or to pursue adopting children into their families. This adoption can be a legal adoption or it can be a “relational adoption,” which is a commitment to providing long term care and fatherhood or motherhood to fatherless or motherless children in your midst. This should be happening especially in our churches today! Even busy Christians can single out a fatherless child in their church or in their neighborhood (or both!) and begin to build a relationship with him or her. It might take some time (and patience!), but over time God will give opportunities to father/mother this child on an increasingly open basis. Another easy thing to do is to go out for a Sunday meal together, or have the mother and/or child/children into your home on a regular basis. Let the children see what Biblical fatherhood/motherhood played out in your own family looks like. Visit the children in their home and seek to build relationships with the mother or family members. Go out for a coke together and just talk about life. Be strategic. Look for opportunities to lovingly speak into the heart of that child or to offer the gift of touch and see God use you as a vessel to bring His Fatherhood to the fatherless. Finally, pray! Pray that God would powerfully break down the walls that naturally form around the heart of a fatherless child, and pray that our God and Father would powerfully bring His own Fatherhood to this child through you and through the Body of Christ!
In whatever situation God has placed you in may we, as men and women of God seeking to live “pure and undefiled” lives of faith before our God and Father, strive to reflect and bring His Fatherhood to the fatherless and widow through our own compassionate care for the fatherless and widows in our own midst, as well as across the globe.

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