The following lesson could be used for a church setting about Christian Childcare


Steven R. Covey, known for his advice about effective living along with training and day planner products, popularized the line, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  That complicated sentence speaks volumes once it is understood.  Don’t get sidetracked with the minor issues in life.  Stay on track.  One’s first priority is accomplishing our most precious goals.

               The Bible never says, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” but it comes close.  Think about these lines:


Matthew 6:33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.


1 Corinthians 13:13   13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


1 Corinthians 15:3-4   3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,  4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.


When we read carefully, we look for those sign posts about what is really important.  They are the “don’t miss” and “danger ahead” signs on the highway of life.  So we know that when Scripture says, “strive first” or “the greatest is” or “first importance” we are on to something.

Suppose we could find a verse that defined religion as sincere or genuine or blameless.   Suppose this text said also said that this religion was without deformity, that it was the real thing.  Would that not be one of those “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” kind of text.

I’d like to suggest that one of those crucial biblical texts that reminds us of the core of biblical religion that helps us keep the most important aspects of faith in focus is the last verse of James 1.  Here it is:


James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.


               James comes close to the end of the New Testament with a wonderful letter about core biblical values.  In the midst of talking about trials and the tongue, about teachers and temptation, about confession and conflict, James inserts this line about what pure and undefiled religion.

               The Greek word for pure is the word from which we get catharsis.  Widely used in the counseling world, catharsis is when we get rid of all the ugly emotions and pent up junk in our souls.  Whether we are talking with a minister or just visiting with a friend, or even complaining to God in prayer in the way many of the Psalms are written, we are simply purifying our soul of the uneasy rumblings deep inside.   In popular terms, we say, “I need to get this off my chest.”  What we want is to purify ourselves of that issue.

               The other word in this text that makes it one of those “main thing” text is “undefiled” which means that a person who practices what James is about to say has thrown off whatever deforms true Christianity.  It means to function as a Christian without our vigor being impaired.  He points to how to be a Christian without impairment.

               Now would does not want all this?  Do we want to


                              *practice a religion that is pure, free from the garbage of life?


                              *live a faith that is free from major handicaps?


               Clearly James is not describing all of the Christian life.  He is not offering a summary of Christian living.  He is not giving us a plan of salvation.  In fact, it is striking what he does not mention.  He says nothing about Jesus or faith.  There is not a word in pure and undefiled religion about baptism or the church.   In this “main thing” text James never references reading the Bible or attending worship.   Clearly James is not being exclusive, that is, James is not saying do this one thing and you have it covered.   But rather James is saying that a person who is following Jesus by faith, who has through baptism come into God’s church and who has made a study of Scripture and worships regularly, will be a person recognized by a peculiar list of traits.  That person will be one whose pure and undefiled religion is displayed in their concern for widows and orphans.

               Most of us tend to wonder about James’ admonition.  We might think of several other ways to describe a person of pure and undefiled religion.  The church treasurer might say pure and undefiled religion is fulfilling the pledge you made to the budget.  The nursery supervisor is more inclined to think that pure and undefiled religion is taking your turn once a year.  The church janitor would identify those who clean up their coffee pot after Sunday school the ones who are practicing pure and undefiled religion.   

               Clearly we all have our own definitions of pure and undefiled religion.  This one happens to be God’s definition.  It is one of those “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

               Yet we still suspect that James had it wrong.  Maybe he saw unwanted children on the streets of his city.  Maybe he saw people ignoring his mother who was a widow.   While we might look for some self-interest in James’ “main thing” text, we know better.  He writes by inspiration.  His is a word from God.

               Let’s just suppose we could invite James over to our home for an interview about this “main thing” passage.  We might ask him, “James, where did you get this definition of ‘pure and undefiled religion?”   We might press him and ask him if he made it up.  

               In our imaginary interview with James, I suspect he would say something that we all should say, “I am a student of the Bible.  I got it from the Bible.”   Ashamed that we did not think of that ourselves, we might back off and ask James, again, to be our teacher. 

               In our Bible study, James might first say I notice in your congregation that you sing many songs about God.  You worship him as the “God of Gods” and the “Lord of Lords.”  You call him “great” and “mighty” and “awesome.”  Do you know where those words all come from?  Do you know the source of those words.   They are from Deuteronomy 10:


17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe


We quickly see that our song writers have dipped more into Deuteronomy than we have.  We can see that this early book in the Bible describes God in the same way we do on Sunday.   Then James reads the next verse:


18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.


The God of gods knows about justice for the orphan.  The Lord of lords is filled with concern for the widow.  The God we set on the high pedestal of “great, mighty and awesome” cares about the stranger.  The mighty God has the lowly in his heart. 


               God’s concern for the widow and the orphan continues in the old book of Deuteronomy.  God tells the people to take up a tithe.  Part of the tithe goes to support the widow and orphan (Dt 14:29).   God tells the people to celebrate the Passover.   Part of the celebration includes the admonition to include the widow and the orphan (Dt 16:11).  When they arrive in their new land the people are set up a court system.  God gives specific instructions that the court system must be fair to the widows and orphans. 


               In our imaginary Bible study with James as our teacher, we might next go to the song book of Israel.  James might turn to these passages:


               Psalm 146:9  9 The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow


Psalm 10:17-18  17 O LORD, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear  18 to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more.


Psalm 82:3   Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.


The book of Psalms is rich soil for how we approach God.  Indeed many of the songs in our current hymnals come from this ancient book of songs.  The writers of Psalms knew the heart of God.  The god of Gods and lord of Lords continues his same focus on the orphan and widow.


               Then James might turn to the prophets.  God sent these men to correct what was wrong in Israel, to being them a word from God.  God called them “my servants the prophets.”  James might have done a quick century by century survey:


               Isaiah spoke to Jerusalem in the 8th century BC by pointing how they had drifted from what God wanted.   He urged them to change their ways to return to a more pure religion:


Isaiah 1:16-17  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil,  17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.


In the next line he urges them with the famous line, “Come let us reason together.”  God hoped they would see the value in showing concern for those closest to his heart, the weak and oppressed.


               A century later, Jeremiah preached in the same city.   Jeremiah went to the temple and delivered the most famous sermon of his career.   At the highpoint of the lesson he urged,


Jeremiah 7:5-6   5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another,  6 if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.


We might ask Isaiah and Jeremiah where they got this central concern.  Both are sent by God to tell the nation the things they needed to correct.  Both of their answers anticipate the same thing James would say.   Where do they get this focus?  The god of Gods and the lord of Lords has his heart set on the widow and the orphan.  He does not want them overlooked.


               Our Bible study might cite Ezekiel’s complaint in the 6th century, “7 Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you” (Ezek 22:7) or Zechariah’s advice in the 5th century, “10 do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (Zech 7:10).


               James might well cite the concern for the vulnerable and weak expressed in the Gospels and by his comrades writing the New Testament.  Jesus set his agenda in Luke 4:18:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”   Jesus does not specifically mention either orphans or widows, but his mission includes the weak, marginal and oppressed of his time which would clearly include the widows and orphans.   The early church made sure there was not “There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34), Paul raised funds for the starving in Judea (2 Corinthians 8-9) and James might have alluded to the Jerusalem conference when after making a doctrinal decision they agreed to help the poor (Gal 2:10).


               Our Bible study has made one thing clear.  James is not alone in pointing to “the main thing.”  The god of Gods and lord of Lord’s points to the same thing.  The psalmists praised God as the one who cared for orphans and widows.   The prophets saw that one of the major differences between the way people were living and the way God wanted them to live was in the way they treated the poor, especially the widow and orphan.  Jesus set his mission on the same needy group of people as did the early church and the apostolic writers.


               James did not make up his definition of pure religion.  He got it from Bible study.  He read Scripture from beginning to end and isolated a core teaching of what it means to practice pure and undefiled religion.  James was simply putting in words what was agreed to at the Jerusalem conference.  He was echoing Paul who raised funds for the starving and the early church that took care of their needy.  All these Christians were following Jesus who came to preach good news to the poor and vulnerable.  He followed Zechariah who cited Ezekiel, who quoted Jeremiah who cited Isaiah, who quoted Moses who got it from God. 


               All this makes it doubly difficult to jettison James 1:27.   Not only does James say it is one of “the main things” of the Bible, but he in a way is summarizing one of the great qualities of God-like people from the ancient days of Deuteronomy until the final days of the apostolic church.


               We also note that widows and orphans often fall off the agenda of the mainstream people of God.  They forgot in Isaiah’s day and in Jeremiah’s.  They had to be reminded by Ezekiel and Zechariah.   Perhaps by putting those two crucial adjectives in front of the care of widows and orphans, James hoped that all Christian people of all the days to follow him would remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, and that in the middle of all that’s central is a concern for the widow and the orphan.


James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.