Today's NT reading is James 1:16-27. Much of James’ letter frankly bristles with indignation toward the rich; see especially 2:1-9 and 5:1-6. This is a bountiful section of Scripture, filled with symbol and warrant. Verse 1:27 really caught my attention, so I want to reflect on it.
Luke Timothy Johnson (Sharing Possessions, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981) posits that according to James, the way we respond to others is the hallmark of our faith. He states that Leviticus 19.18 is so important for James that the letter “can be read as a reflection on the implications for Leviticus 19.18 for the Christian life”(pg.102). Action in love to address the needs of others is required. We do not use the standards of the world, as James understood the term, to determine worthiness of human life. In that day, there were no societal programs to assist widows, orphans, or others who fell on hard times. Their lives were worthless, expendable. But if one saw with the eyes of Christ, those who were worthless in the eyes of the world were seen as lively and worthy.
Of course we have widows and orphans today. Now days they are known as welfare recipients, illegal immigrants, the homeless, or residents of parts of New Orleans. Our society still sees those who need help as unworthy. “Damn it, get a job!” we say so helpfully. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Do it yourself!” But not everyone has the internal or external tools to live by society’s admonitions. Society sees them as Other. To stand with Other is to stain oneself, according to the world.
But James says otherwise. The world’s standards of determining worthiness do not apply to those who follow Christ. It is not up to us to determine worthiness at all (thank God!). Our faith nudges us to look upon each other with love, and act that way. It only follows to care for the widow and orphan in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. And those actions cannot be separated.