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Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. ~ James 1:27

Broadly speaking, the Letter of James is the New Testament’s version of Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament (i.e., Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon—being most similar to Proverbs). James and Wisdom Literature share many of the same major concerns. They are both passionate about speech, wealth, poverty, and social justice. Even if you read quickly, you can’t spend time in James or Proverbs without being confronted repeatedly with these critically important wisdom themes.

James, Wisdom, and the Orphan Crisis

Biblical wisdom always has its eyes on the way things ought to be. Proverbs 3:19 says, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth,” that is, the Lord put everything together with incomparable skill and care. When he created the heavens and the earth, everything was the way it was supposed to be. There were no pollutants or rogue cells, no marginalized people (i.e., orphans or widows) or oppressive governments. In the beginning everything—God, humans, and all creation—was webbed together in universal “justice, fulfillment, and delight.” Everything, as the Hebrew prophets was say, was characterized by shalom (see part 1).

Wisdom and shalom are inseparably connected in biblical thought. In Proverbs 3:17, just two verses earlier, Solomon writes, “[Wisdom's] ways are of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” Don’t miss the importance of the second half of that verse. Wisdom has pathways, and they are pathways of shalom. In other words, to follow wisdom is to follow the path that leads to the “universal flourishing, wholeness and delight” of shalom.

Wisdom, God’s wisdom, is on a mission, and its mission is the reestablishment of shalom on earth.

That’s why Wisdom Literature is so concerned with our speach. Words can build up, or they can tear down. They have everything to do with shalom.

That’s why Wisdom Literature is so passionate about how we view and handle wealth, understand poverty, and pursue social justice. If greed is king, if the poor (i.e., orphans and widows) are oppressed or marginalized, and if social injustice is tolerated or ignored, God’s shalom is vandalized. Wisdom Literature is passionate about speech, wealth, poverty, and social justice because it’s passionate about the reestablishment of shalom, God’s shalom.

If we recognize that Wisdom Literature and its mission to reestablish shalom on the earth is the context behind James 1:27, we begin to see why James won’t allow us to conceive of a Christianity that fails to care for orphans and widows in their distress. Jesus lived, died, and rose again because things are not the way they are supposed to be. His redemptive mission was to re-web everything—God, humans, and all creation—together in universal “justice, fulfillment, and delight.” In Jesus’ resurrection, the hope of shalom was reborn (see Romans 8:18-26). To understand what Jesus accomplished in the gospel, then, is to care for orphans.

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Read part 1.


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