For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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.
When you look into the mirror what do you see? Do you see a reflection? Of what? Do you see yourself honestly? We do spend a lot of time looking in the mirror I think, and I am not just referring to the actual time we spend looking in the mirror, which for some of us might actually be a fair amount of time. I am also speaking symbolically. We as a society tend to like to look at ourselves and we also tend to see only what we want to see and not what is really there? I can look into the mirror and say, “My, what a handsome and wonderful, spiritual person I see looking back at me.” We see what we want to see – we do not necessarily see the blemishes. And we avoid looking at the less than attractive parts of ourselves.
This is, in fact, what James is suggesting here at the very beginning of his letter. And it all comes down to hearing vs. doing. And James is making the blunt point that we Christians (in both James’ time and in our own time) are much better at hearing than we are at doing. We can listen to Scripture read, and we can hear or read inspiring words from preachers and pastors and others and then what? Does it prompt us to do anything? Does it inspire us to change our lifestyle or our way of relating to others?
In the first part of this passage (vs. 17-18) James makes it clear that we are given the gift of the “implanted Word” at our Baptism. Christ comes to dwell within us. And that this “implanted Word” calls upon us to respond to Christ’s calling to us. How do we usually respond? Too often, James suggests, by spouting pious nonsense. Talk, talk, talk! Someone once said “talk is cheap.” And James would agree. But for how many of us and those we meet who claim to be Christian does their commitment to Christ consist solely and completely in talk (and in our day and age, this would also include posting religious platitudes in social media!) We see this all the time, from folks we know in our own communities who feel they need to convince us (and possibly themselves) that they are truly religious, to people who we might consider to be celebrities or politicians spouting nothing but religious talk while their actual behavior shows us something else entirely. James is blunt and spares no one here – talk is worthless and that kind of religion is “worthless.”
What is it then that James is calling for? The “implanted Word” within us is calling upon us to be “doers” of the Word, and not merely “hearers.” Luther would rephrase this and say, we are all called to be “little Christ’s” to our neighbor. And in case you still don’t know to what James is referring he actually spells it out: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress….
The phrase “orphans and widows” is a code that refers to caring for others in a whole multitude of ways. To care for “orphans and widows” means to find ways of helping others; of addressing their needs; of working to feed the hungry, provide housing to the homeless, to welcome the stranger, comfort for those who are experiencing loss; provide healing for those who are ill; take a stand for justice and fairness for all – no matter what! It also includes opposing any kind of discrimination for any reason; it also includes committing oneself to the work of caring for the environment and working in every way possible to find ways of reversing the effects of global warming! You cannot ignore these basic issues and still call yourselves “Christian” says James! The “implanted Word” calls upon us all to do everything, everything to the best of our abilities to address these issues.
And sometimes this means working with others. There is, for example, no longer any reason for us not to partner with Roman Catholics in the area of caring for the environment. Pope Francis recently issued a powerful, insightful and deeply Biblical call for all Christians to partner together to work to care for our environment and to reverse the effects of global warming (entitled Laudato Si). Caring for God’s creation “is an all-embracing moral imperative: to protect and care for both creation, our garden home, and the human person who dwells herein -- and to take action to achieve this.” This in a nutshell is our calling and it is exactly to this that James refers.
Finally, James also calls upon us to pray. Pray and act! They go together! We pray without ceasing as we act and allow our faith to show forth in how we live our lives and relate to others. So, the next time you look in the mirror, what will you see? The reflection of someone who is a talker but who doesn’t live his/her faith? Someone who talks about being so religious but never worships or partakes of the Sacrament? Someone who claims to love God, but who turns around and is unkind and unfair to others, especially those who are different in some way or another? Or will you see someone who is a “doer” rather than just a “hearer?” Someone who has the “implanted (incarnate) Word” within them and who seeks in everyway possible to reach out and do: caring and loving and giving of yourself in the name of Christ?
“Mirror, mirror on the wall…”