Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 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.
Religion and relationship in scripture actually go together. From the time when people started to invoke or call on the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26), right up to the present time when we gather in buildings, and partake of Holy Communion, we participate in a kind of religious service led by someone with a liturgy all its own, even if not liturgical in its emphasis. And we’re told in the Old/First Testament that to know God means to help those in need, perhaps getting more precisely in line with the point James is making here:
“Does it make you a king
to have more and more cedar?
Did not your father have food and drink?
He did what was right and just,
so all went well with him.
He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the Lord.
“But your eyes and your heart
are set only on dishonest gain,
on shedding innocent blood
and on oppression and extortion.”
James echoes something of both the Old Testament wisdom, and here, of the prophets. To know God is to begin to know something of the heart of God. And God’s heart goes out to the poor and displaced. Those who profess to know and worship God must begin to have the same heart for others. Otherwise their profession of faith is empty. Specifically here in caring for widows and orphans in their distress, which can include and group in the same category today.
James, as he does in this short letter, especially in our chapter 3, really focuses on the tongue, our speech, and learning to hold it in check. If anyone considers themselves religious, James says, but fails to keep a tight rein on their tongue, their religion is suspect at best, in fact in God’s eyes, worthless. And they deceive themselves. We often can say all the right things, but fail to follow through with action. And James will get to that in this letter. But that’s not the point here. Rather it’s about a loose tongue which more often than not is quite destructive. And the rest of the letter, particularly chapter 3 informs what James is referring to here.
We should be known as Christians for what we do in helping those in need, not in what we’re saying, particularly when it comes to issues which can end up being critical and disrespectful of others. And make no mistake, such speech can be right on the tip of our tongues. That’s why James says here that we’re to keep a tight rein on our tongues. We have to bridle as in controlling our tongues, and not let them have their way in words which ultimately will be helpful to no one. And even deceptive to us, perhaps in the sense of putting us on the wrong track when we think we’re in the right, though often we should know better.
And to keep ourselves from being unstained or unpolluted by the world. We have to be aware and beware in this regard. We need to develop a humble ability to see through what the world holds dear, mostly by developing a stronger commitment to keep a single eye and heart on what God holds as important for us, individually and together. In and through Jesus.