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A history of caring

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
- James 1:27

James explicitly singles out the care of orphans and widows in his description of “acceptable religion.” This is not a random choice.

Throughout the Old Testament, biblical writers developed an ethic for social concern. This ethic focused relief efforts on three categories: orphans, widows, and strangers/foreigners/immigrants.

Here are a few biblical examples:

“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. – Exodus 22:21-23

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. – Deuteronomy 10:18

Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!" – Deuteronomy 27:19

Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other – Zechariah 7:10

A good Google search can reveal many more examples. God’s drumbeat for widows, orphans and strangers/foreigners/immigrants resounds through the pages of the Old Testament. It only makes sense that James, worshipping that same God, would expect his friends who followed this God to continue to carry this God’s great concern.

One question that comes up – given these ancient categories – is why didn’t James include strangers/foreigners/immigrants in his categories of concern? Why did he limit his attention to widows and orphans?

The answer comes as a surprise. We believe it’s found in James 1:1: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” The people to whom James wrote were immigrants, were foreigners, were strangers. Persecution had scattered them into the four winds. Their allegiance with the kingdom of God made them forever foreigners, no matter where they settled.

This is the tradition we’ve inherited, the family we’re born into when we’re born again in Christ. We are strangers in a strange land. And we are marked by God’s distinctive kingdom concerns: both his concerns for compassion and his concerns for justice.

What difference does it make for you that God’s concern for widows and orphans has been integrally connected with faith from way, way back? How do you engage with this stranger/foreigner/immigrant identity that James assumes his readers will carry? How does that identity impact the way you engage in works of compassion and justice?

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