I have lived with the New Testament letter of James for many decades. And I frequently puzzled over one aspect of a particular verse: “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.” (Jas 1:27) Why widows and orphans? Why not people who are hungry or ill or grieving? Is there something special about orphans and widows that should take our attention?
widows and orphans had particular challenges. As I wrote in A Deeper Look at James, “Widows and orphans were some of the most vulnerable members of society in the ancient world. If a husband died, the widow and her children would generally not be able to sustain themselves. There were very few jobs for women and no support from the state, and inheritance laws provided few if any benefits for widows. Thus, if a woman’s husband died, she also lost her livelihood and her social standing; she and her children were usually left in a dire economic situation and subject to exploitation.” [p. 37]
Clearly they are deserving of our care. But what about others in equally difficult circumstances? Is James saying we can safely ignore them?
I never quite got what James was talking about until a few years ago. I started systematically unpacking the Old Testament background of the letter while working on A Deeper Look at James. I tried to uncover what the Old Testament said about widows and orphans. And here is some of what I found, stretching from the Pentateuch to the prophets.
He [God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)
Whoever heard me spoke well of me,
and those who saw me commended me,
because I rescued the poor who cried for help,
and the fatherless who had none to assist them.
The one who was dying blessed me;
I made the widow‘s heart sing.
I put on righteousness as my clothing;
justice was my robe and my turban.
I was eyes to the blind
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy;
I took up the case of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the wicked
and snatched the victims from their teeth.(Job 29:11-17)
If I have denied the desires of the poor
or let the eyes of the widow grow weary,
if I have kept my bread to myself,
not sharing it with the fatherless–but from my youth I reared them as a father would,
and from my birth I guided the widow–if I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing,
or the needy without garments,
and their hearts did not bless me
for warming them with the fleece from my sheep,
if I have raised my hand against the fatherless,
knowing that I had influence in court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder,
let it be broken off at the joint. (Job 31:16-22)
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets prisoners free,
the LORD gives sight to the blind,
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down,
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. (Psalm 146:7-9)
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:5-7)
This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’ (Zechariah 7:9-10)
When we look at James 1:27 through Old Testament eyes, we see that widows and the fatherless are often mentioned in the context of other oppressed or disadvantaged groups. Thus when James says “orphans and widows” he is using a kind of shorthand for all the different kinds of marginalized people that the Old Testament often considers together. The phrase doesn’t give us permission to ignore the needs of others but points us to give any such people our care and attention.