True Religion

“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

You can find many blogs and books written against religion from Christians and skeptics alike. What I find strange is the self-professed Christians who rail against religion and even claim Jesus came to do away with religion. I understand their sentiment in some respects. Many have used religion in order to divide people instead of bringing people together. Jesus came against such religionists in his own time in the sect of the Pharisees.

No matter their sentiment I am frustrated they have thrown out the word “religion” along with the traditions of those who would abuse it. They’ve thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

The reason it frustrates me is the Bible itself uses the word religion, and even gives us what the Lord calls true religion.

James gives us two marks that we can use to determine if our religion is true religion and not a tradition made up by humans. First, we are to visit orphans and widows. Second, we are to keep one’s self unstained from the world.

The second mark, keeping one’s self unstained from the world, is the one many anti-religionists would rail against. It smells too much like what the religionist was preaching. Jesus was consistently preaching against the “holier-than-thou” mentality of the Pharisees. They were more concerned about their holiness, and their traditions than they were about the poor and needy.

That is Jesus’ point in his preaching against the Pharisees. It wasn’t they were too religious; it was that their religion was too one-sided. Jesus said to them, “You… neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These [religious things] you ought to have done, without neglecting the [weightier matters],” (Mt. 23:23).

This is why James, who famously said “Faith without works is dead,” brings together both holiness and charity. What we would consider “religious” (doing holy things) should be coupled with loving our neighbors.

Religion is not bad, in fact, it is encouraged in our Scriptures as defined by our Scriptures.

Mistreating The Poor

If you mistreat the poor, you insult your Creator; if you are kind to them, you show him respect.

Proverbs 14:31

Can God be insulted? How often do you think he is insulted? An insult is a cold deliberate act of mistreating someone in action or dead. How can mistreating the less fortunate in our society bring disrespect to the Creator?

God created all of humanity. He knit together each person inside their mother’s womb. Each of us is wonderfully made. The poor and the rich; the good and the bad. When you mistreat someone who God has handmade you’ve disrespected that Creator.

The poor have a special place in God’s heart. He is especially protective of the poor and needy. Usually, it is due to oppression from systems and governments that make people poor and keep them there by oppression. Often, there is no way out.

You’ll find verse after verse in the Bible, both Old, and New Testaments, encouraging the poor. They call out to God in their distress and he hears. He protects the poor and he lifts them up. He loves them with tender love.

If you have children, imagine someone mistreating your child. How would you feel? Do you feel insulted? Imagine if they were kind to your child, how would you feel? Would you feel respected? This is how our heavenly Father feels for his children.

Sell Everything?

“There’s one thing you still need to do. Go sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come with me.”

Jesus in Mark 10:21

Mark tells the story about a rich young man who ran up to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to have eternal life. Jesus told the young man that he already knew the commandments of God. Yet the man said, “Teacher, I have obeyed all these commandments since I was a young man.”

Jesus looked closely at the man and said, “There’s one thing you still need to do. Go sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come with me.”

The question often asked is if Christians need to sell all their possessions in order to follow Jesus? Do Christians really need to sell everything, their houses, cars, clothes… and give all the money to the poor?

Western church folk would say, “Absolutely not!” Jesus never meant for anyone to sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus was only speaking to the heart of this one young man and addressing his idolatry. This is not an absolute command for every Christian.

Sometimes I wonder, though, maybe Jesus really is talking to Christians today. Especially Christians in the Western world – this author and the reader.

The Western world is the top 1-percent of the wealthiest people in the world. We Christians are among them. But many of us Christians would be quick to protect our properties and strongly resist the teaching in this passage.

Perhaps Jesus is looking at us closely as we sit in our pews on Sunday morning calling upon God to give us eternal life. Perhaps Jesus is saying to us, “There’s one thing you still need to do…”

Jesus goes on to say later, “It’s hard for rich people to get into God’s kingdom!” Perhaps this is why we have seen a decline of people professing to be Christian in the West. Perhaps this is why many churches are in decline, many church buildings are empty. Long ago the West has turned away from God to follow a new god. We’ve plastered our motto upon the very god we serve, “In God We Trust.”

Jesus may not have commanded every Christian to sell ALL their possessions and give to the poor. But he did say, “Sell what you have and give the money to the poor,” (Luke 12:33). This is a direct command given to his followers. It is a command to you and me.

Least of These

Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, “When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?” The king will answer, “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.”

Matthew 25:37-40

One thing I love about Jesus is he identifies with the poor: the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.

What can make one uneasy is Jesus equates how you treat the poor with how you treat him personally. In other words, when you are good to the poor you are being good to Jesus. When you are being bad to the poor, you are being bad to Jesus, the king of the universe, the Lord of all.

My forthcoming book will discuss Jesus’ scathing woes he pronounces over the religious leaders of his day. He calls them show-offs and blind fools. He says the religious leaders are greedy and selfish withholding food and drink from those who need it most. I believe much of the Church today has turned into these religious leaders.

We’ve lost sight of exactly who we are to be seeking after. Jesus identified himself with the poor time and again in the gospels. He was born poor, lived poor, and died a poor man. The apostle said, “He became poor so that we could become rich…”

Jesus now asks the Church to live like he lived – helping the ministering to the poor. He calls upon us to feed the hungry and thirsty, give shelter to the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. He promises here that when we do these things we are doing it for him.

Really, if you want to see Jesus, experience Jesus in a way you’ve never have before, seek out the poor. You’ll find him already there ministering in ways you do not know. Imagine what the Church could do to this world if only we’d be his hands and feet.