We continue this morning in our series on “Love in Action”.
In Jesus’ day, eating with people was a big deal. That’s because if you ate with someone, it meant that you were interested in being friends with him or her. It meant that you accepted that person, and it was a sign to everyone else in the community about how you felt.
Based on this, you would think that Jesus would have picked all the morally upright, virtuous people to eat with. After all, those were the folks who had been “getting it right” and showing everyone else how it was done. It only makes sense that Jesus would want to recognize them by having lunch with them.
But that’s not what he did at all. Instead of always eating with the rule-following religious people, Jesus often ate with the wrong kinds of people, the people who had blown it, the people who were not respected, the people who were seen as the worst examples of godly living. And it absolutely drove the religious people nuts.
One time, when these folks asked Jesus why he did this, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32)
Now, of course. Jesus knew that what opens people up to an authentic relationship with God is their need. If you think that sounds familiar (as in, “didn’t last week’s sermon open making the same point?”), you’d be right. It’s a major theme in Jesus’ ministry. But here’s where this lesson goes in a different direction from the last one: opening up to God is not just about recognizing your own need but it’s also about moving toward other needy people.
Jesus said, “The reason that I’m here is because these are the people who are needy.” And you see this throughout the ministry of Jesus. He was always around people who were in need. Sometimes there were spiritual needs. Sometimes there were physical needs. There were some people in need of healing, others in need of friendship, others in need of comfort, others in need of affirmation, others in need of forgiveness. But, wherever there was a need, that’s where Jesus wanted to be. Because that’s what love does.
In fact, one of the definitions of agape love is “a willingness to meet the needs of others.” We see this in I John 3:17 where John said, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” If you see someone who has a need and you don’t do anything to meet that need, then John says you don’t love that person, because love always involves meeting a person’s needs.
And what that means is that it is the people with the most needs are the ones who are most in need of our love. And it helps to explain why Jesus spent so much time with people in need, because it gave him more and more opportunities to show love. And it also means that if we are going to be a loving people, then we are going to have to seek out and spend time with those who are most in need.
In the book of James, James’s message is that we need to put our faith into action. And so it’s not surprising that one of the things he talks about in this letter is how we should deal with people who are needy.
I’m sure most of you know what cubic zirconia is. Cubic zirconia is something that looks very much like a real diamond, but it’s not real. It’s a fake diamond. And it’s possible that you may have something made of cubic zirconia on right now, and not even realize it.
There’s another product available that you may not be quite as familiar with – spray-on mud. This product is designed for all those owners of SUVs who live in the city, but who want that Duck Dynasty look. They can spray this stuff all over their SUVs and make people think they spent the weekend out in the country on muddy roads. Fake mud!
We live in a culture of cubic zirconia and spray-on mud. And the truth is, there’s a lot of cubic zirconia faith out there. So how do you tell the difference between faith that is real and faith that is fake?
And here’s what James says about telling the difference: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 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 1:26-27)
James tells us that there is some religion which is “worthless”. And, then, there is some religion which is “pure and undefiled”, or what the New Living Translation calls “genuine religion”.
James says, “if anyone among you thinks he is religious.” There are a lot of Christians who think that they are religious. They’re not trying to be hypocrites. In their own minds, they don’t see themselves as phonies. They’re out there doing a lot of religious stuff — they’re going to church, going through the motions. They think they’re religious, but James says they’re wrong.
James wants us to know that it’s very easy for a religious person to deceive himself into believing that he has a genuine religion when he actually has a worthless religion.
Jesus gave several examples of this in Matthew 6. He said there were some of the Jews who prayed beautiful prayers in front of everyone, they dropped lots of money into the collection basket, they fasted every week. And everybody said, “Look how religious they are!” But Jesus said, “They’ve got religion, but they don’t have a genuine religion.”
And it’s easy for us to make the same mistake. We might look at someone who is in church every time the doors are opened, and puts a lot in the collection basket, and he speaks up every now and then in Bible class and makes a comment. And so we see all these things and we might conclude that he is deeply religious. Maybe. Maybe not.
Because there’s a difference between religion and genuine religion. And for James, the test of genuine religion is visible evidence of spiritual fruit. There has developed in America this crazy notion that faith is a private thing and in fact, we will often even encourage people to “keep your faith to yourself”. And so, we love to say, “Well he’s deeply religious, but he just keeps it to himself.”
But let me ask you — Have you ever eaten invisible fruit? Of course you haven’t, because there’s no such thing as invisible fruit. Either it’s real fruit or it’s nothing at all. James says that we have been born again by the word of God. And God’s Spirit has filled our lives. And that Spirit must manifest itself in fruit. Not invisible fruit, but real fruit.
Because what comes out of a tree is going to be a reflection of what’s going on underground. If the roots are deep and strong, there’s going to be some fruit.
One of the great 19th century artists in Europe was Gustave Dore. One time, when he was traveling in Europe, he lost his passport and he came through the border crossing into France. He was stopped by the guard who demanded to see his passport. Dore explained that he had lost it, but he was the famous artist Gustave Dore. The border guard said, “Somebody else came through claiming to be Gustave Dore and you don’t look like him.”
Dore insisted that he was the real Gustave Dore. So, the guard handed him a pencil and a piece of paper and he said, “Make me a sketch.” Dore took the pencil, sketched out a picture in his characteristic style. The guard took one look at it and said, “Pass, Monsieur Dore. All of France knows you by your work.”
James would have loved that story because all throughout his letter he hammers away at this point – what we do demonstrates who we are.
In James 2:14, he says, “Brothers and sisters, what’s the use of saying you have faith if you don’t prove it by your actions?” I don’t know who coined the phrase, “walk the talk”, but it could have been James because that pretty much sums up his letter. Show me your faith by the way you live. And he would also say, as the apostle John did, “Show me your love by the way you live.”
And what a lot of Christians don’t seem to understand is that the way we behave can often contradict what we profess to believe. So, James, tell us, what kind of actions characterize genuine religion? If I have a true religion, how is that going to manifest itself?
And James says here in this passage, “I’ve got three tests for you.” Now, I don’t think these are the only three tests of true religion. But I do think this list illustrates the kind of fruit that shows up in a life that has genuine religion.
One of the things James mentions has to do with how we control our tongue. A second thing has to do with how we keep ourselves pure and unspotted from the world. But it’s the third thing he mentions that I want to focus on this morning.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…” (James 1:27)
If we have a genuine religion, it will manifest itself by the way we take care of people who are in need. Now, James specifically mentions orphans and widows. I don’t think they’re mentioned because they are the only ones in need that we should care about. Rather, those were the people in that society who were most in need, the ones who had no one else to take care of them, and they were almost always destitute.
It’s interesting to me that James makes specific mention here that God is our Father. And I think he does that intentionally, because as children of God, we are called to resemble our Father. And our God has a long history of paying attention to widows and orphans.
Exodus 22:22-24 says, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn…”
In Deuteronomy 24, God made an arrangement for the orphans and widows to be cared for out of the harvest in the fields.
But it wasn’t just the widows and orphans. Throughout scripture, God has made it abundantly clear that he wants his people to help all those who are in need. In Deuteronomy 15, beginning in verse 7, God said to the Israelites, “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor…you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. … For there will never cease to be poor in the land.’” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8,11)
It’s easy for us to take a cynical view of what Moses says here. Moses says, “You will always have poor people in your land.” And I don’t think any of us would dispute that. Despite all of the concerns about poverty in this country and the efforts to eliminate it, we still have people who are poor. In fact, approximately one out of every 7 people in this country live below the poverty line. There are more than 55,000 people in Cumberland County alone who live below the poverty line. What Moses said is true — “You will always have poor people in your land.”
And so it’s easy for us to be cynical and say, “Well, if there’s that much poverty, there’s nothing I can do to even begin to make a dent in it.” But Moses said, “There will always be poor people in the land, and what that means is that you will always have opportunities to give. You will always have opportunities to serve God by serving others. You will always have opportunities to show love.”
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” (Deuteronomy 15:11)
In Leviticus 25:35, Moses said, “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you”.
And it wasn’t just fellow Israelites that they were commanded to help. In Deuteronomy 14:28-29, Moses said, “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.”
Moses says, “Make sure you take care of the Levite because he doesn’t have any land he can use to take care of himself. And take care of the orphans, take care of the widows, because they don’t have anyone else to take care of them. But you also take care of the sojourner. A sojourner was a Gentile who was living in their land. God said, you take care of them as well. If there is a need around you, use what you have to meet that need.
In the New Testament, we find the same emphasis. When John the Baptist was asked how people’s lives should change in order to show that they are bearing good fruit, he said, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” (Luke 3:11)
In Galatians 2:10, Paul was sent to preach to the Gentiles, with only one condition: “They asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.”
In Ephesians 4:28, Paul tells us that one of the primary reasons why we hold jobs and work and make money is this: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Think about that! In the eyes of God, the reason you hold whatever job you hold is so that you can have something to give to the person who has a need.
Someone might ask, “Why is this so important? Why is this such a big deal in the scriptures?” And I think the answer is this. Because it is when we give help to those who are in need that we showing love. Which means that it is when we give to those who are in need that we are most like God! Don’t ever forget that is God’s intention for all of us to imitate him. We were made in the image of God. We are designed to be like him. And God is most pleased when we are living in a way that reflects His image.
And, more than anything else, God is love, and love wants to help others. Psalm 72:12 says, “For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper.”
God helps those who are in need, and any time we are in need, we are very quick to turn to God and take advantage of that. But, because we are to live in a way that reflects his nature, God calls on us to do the same thing. In Jeremiah 22, there’s a passage that’s talking about the great king of Judah, Josiah. And God says, “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” (Jeremiah 22:16, NIV)
What we as Christians want more than anything else is to know God. And God says, “This is what it means to know me – when you take care of the poor and the needy.” Because when we do those things, we are imitating our heavenly Father.
God has a special heart for people who have great need, and genuine religion gives you a heart for the things that God has a heart for. Developing love in our lives means that we will love those people that God has a heart for.
And the early Christians demonstrated that heart. The early Christians were known for their compassion for those who were in need. They frequently rescued abandoned children, they fasted and used the money to feed the hungry, they sold property to provide for the destitute, and they dug into their own pockets to provide decent burials for the needy, even for strangers they didn’t know and who didn’t belong to their church. James says, “That’s what Christians do. It’s one of the marks of genuine religion.”
And when James says to “visit” orphans and widows in their trouble, the Greek word there means more than just “stop by to see how they’re doing.” It conveys the idea of meeting their needs. It’s the same word used in Matthew 25 where Jesus talks about the sheep and the goats and he says, “I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited me.” It doesn’t just mean you came by and waved. It means you came by, you nurtured, you cared, you loved, you provided whatever was needed.
I heard about a minister who preached a sermon about heaven one Sunday. The next morning, as he was going into town, he met one of his members. The man stopped the preacher and he said, “That was a good sermon on heaven you preached yesterday, but you didn’t tell me where heaven is.”
The preacher said, “I’m glad you asked. I’ve just come down from that hill over there. In that cottage, there’s a member of our church. She is a widow with two little children. She is sick in one bed and her two children are sick in the other bed. She doesn’t have anything in the house—no coal, no bread, no meat, and no milk. If you’ll go and buy a few groceries and then take them to her in the name of Jesus, and then ask for a Bible and read the 23rd Psalm, and then get down on your knees and pray for her and her children — and if you don’t see heaven before you get through, I’ll pay the bill.” The next morning the man said, “I did indeed see heaven.”
When was the last time you visited a needy family—not just to say hello, but to provide tangible help and assistance? I know that many of you have done recently. I know that many of you have a heart for our food pantry ministry. I know that there are many of you who reach out to those who are in the hospital and those who have lost loved ones.
True religion is demonstrating love and compassion. Isn’t that what Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this all will know that you are my disciples if you have” what? “Love one for another.” That’s what pure religion is. It isn’t what you do on the outside; it’s what comes out of your heart.
And of all the people that James could have mentioned that we need to help, I think he mentioned these two categories for one reason in particular – it is unlikely that widows and orphans will ever be able to do anything for you in return. And I think that’s the real test of our love – Are we willing to show our love to those who can never repay the favor?
Jesus put it this way. He said, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (Luke 14:12-14)
Now, we don’t like to admit it, but a lot of the nice stuff we do for other people is done because we know someone may be able to repay the favor later on. “I’ll help you move next weekend, and later on maybe you can help me if I need it.” The test of true love, though, is this: Are you willing to help people who can do absolutely nothing for you in return? That’s the purest kind of love.
One more thing I want you to notice in verse 27. James says to “visit the orphans and widows in their affliction” or “in their trouble”. Sometimes we have the attitude, “I’ve got enough troubles of my own, I don’t have time to worry about anyone else.” But notice how James started this chapter. He said to count it all joy when you encounter what? Troubles. And, now, he ends this chapter by saying that genuine religion is when you go help somebody else in their troubles.
James wants us to know that just because I’m going through difficult times doesn’t release me from my responsibility to minister to someone else. In fact, one of the marks of true love is when you’re not so preoccupied with your own struggles that you can’t be concerned for somebody else.
Sometimes we tend to think of benevolence as somewhat of a secondary activity to the church’s real business of evan¬gelism. But James didn’t consider helping those in need to be of secondary importance. Rather, to him, it was (and it is) a means of demonstrating God’s love. But, it’s interesting what happens when we are drawn toward those who are needy, and we reach out to show the love of God.
I mentioned earlier that the early Christians were known for helping people who were in need, both their brothers and sisters in Christ and people in the community. In fact, this was so much a part of the early church that it irritated one of the Roman emperors, Julian.
Julian was the emperor who followed the Constantine family. Constantine, of course, was the emperor who tried to make the Roman Empire as Christian as possible. But when Julian took the throne, he tried to undo everything that Constantine had done. He considered killing Christians, but he knew from history that martyrdom would only make the church grow stronger. So, what he did instead was to promote paganism. He tried to get everyone in the Roman Empire to worship with the pagans instead of with the Christians.
But he wasn’t successful, and here’s the reason. He wrote a letter in which he made this complaint: “These impious Galileans [he was talking about Christians] feed not only their own poor, but ours as well.”
Think about it – Julian couldn’t get anybody interested in being a pagan because the church was doing so much to take care of the poor people in the community! By meeting the needs of people, Christianity was drawing people to Christ and Julian didn’t like that.
Loving others will always draw people to God, especially when we show love to those who are most in need.