In biblical terms, to be religious does not necessarily mean you are godly. To be religious can mean simply that you’re involved in the trappings of religion, that you may be a member of a false religion. Yet, the Scriptures sometimes speak of religion in a positive sense, in the sense of practice that is the fruit of true faith in Christ and commitment to His Word.
The Apostle James focuses on religion as the practice of those who have true faith in Jesus, and he says that true religion demonstrates the presence of saving trust in the Lord (James 2:14–26). What true godliness looks like, he tells us, is not a matter of merely holding to right doctrine with our minds, though that is essential. No, true godliness means that doctrine shapes our lives to such a degree that we manifest the kind of life God wants us to live. And James gives us a succinct definition of true religion, of true godliness: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: To visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” James elevates the activity of caring for widows and orphans as the very essence of pure and undefiled religion. That strikes me as being very significant, and it’s an idea that is neglected in the church today.
In this article, I want to focus particularly on widows. Widows and their care figure prominently in the agenda that God has set for His church. One of the earliest problems that arose in the Apostolic church was that the widows were being neglected. And if that was a problem in the first-century church, how much more likely is it that we, twenty centuries later, would be guilty of neglecting the widows in our midst?
After my grandfather died, my grandmother moved into our home and lived with us for many years as I was growing up. On several occasions, she would talk to me late at night and weep, telling me of the burden of pain she had in feeling like she had not only lost her husband but that she had also lost her place in the community. Once her husband passed, she suddenly felt excluded from the things she was intimately involved with alongside him while he was alive. When a person loses her lifelong mate, it’s like losing an integral, intimate part of one’s self because husband and wife, we are told, in the mystery of marriage are one flesh. So, the pain of widowhood brings a unique dimension of loneliness. It’s jarring to suddenly be alone when one has been accustomed to the constant companionship with one’s spouse over a long period of time. Since God is the great Comforter of His people, it makes sense that He would have such concern for widows given the pain they experience.
Now, why does James not mention the widowers? After all, the widower also experiences that same pang of suffering that goes with losing a lifelong mate. Well, every man that I’ve ever talked to always says they want to go first because they can’t imagine living life without their wives. I can’t prove it, but I think that’s one of the reasons why the normal life expectancy of the man is shorter than the life expectancy of the woman, because God is gracious to us men, and He knows that we’re not as strong as women. But what I do know for sure is that widows have always experienced particular difficulties in every age and culture. They faced particular problems in the ancient world. There weren’t insurance programs, annuities, or other sorts of things, and without a husband, the widow was usually the most vulnerable and helpless person in the community. Widows had little or no means of support in ancient societies. Thus, the care of the widows was given to the church both in the Old Testament and in the New.
Jesus frequently pays attention to widows in His teaching. Just consider the story of the widow’s mite in Mark 12:41–45. Who is it that normally gets the attention in the church? The people who are the big donors, the ones whose donations are so important to the ongoing funding of the church’s budget. Few pay attention to the poverty-stricken person who makes a tiny donation that’s insignificant to the budget’s bottom line. But Jesus noticed what everyone else overlooked. He told His hearers to look at the poor widow. Even though the woman gave only the equivalent of two pennies to the temple, she put in more than all the rest of the people who donated heavily to the treasury because in giving out of her own poverty, she gave out of her devotion to God.
One of the most tender moments recorded in the New Testament is found in John 19:16b–27. While Christ was on the cross, He looked in the direction of His mother, who was an eyewitness to His passion, and He said to her, “Woman, behold your son!” He was not asking His mother to look at Him. Obviously, she already was looking at Him. Then, Jesus said to John, “Behold your mother!” In His dying moments, Jesus was commending the care of His widowed mother to His beloved disciple, John. On the cross, Jesus said to John, “John, you take care of My mother. She’s a widow, so let her be to you as your own mother.” To Mary, He said, “Mother, let John be to you as your own son.”
What are sons for? To look after their mothers. What are mothers for but to look after their children? When you think of all of the years and the opportunities where mothers have looked after their children when they enter into their loneliness, the first line of care is to be the surviving family. But it by no means stops there, because the larger family is the church. James, the brother of Jesus, sees this mandate to care for widows as so important that he uses it to describe the crystallized essence of true religion. Do you think you’re religious, but you don’t care about the widows? Your religion is an exercise in futility, because James says pure and undefiled religion is the care of widows and of orphans in times of trouble.