Monday, November 5, 2012

Rethinking James

I have tried to write this post a dozen times.  It has been, at various moments, preachy, nerdy, and generally ambivalent.

Why?  Today is "Orphan Sunday" in churches across America.  The issue: the whole idea of an "Orphan Sunday" makes me feel like a cat getting rubbed from tail to nose.  I mean it seems great at first glance, right?  Who wouldn't want to help children in need, after all? Just saying that I don't like Orphan Sunday makes me feel like someone who tortures small bunnies or something.  And yet there it is.  I would like to explain why I feel this way, but the truth is that someone else has already done it better.  

But since it is Sunday, after all, I want to take slightly different approach.

The thing is that the whole "orphan crusade" is based in large part on a verse from James.  You see bits and pieces of this verse everywhere when you join the adoption community -- on websites, on T-shirts, on blog after blog after blog.  It's not a long verse and seems reasonably straightforward:

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 NIV)

It doesn't get much plainer than that, right?  So earlier this evening I was wondering why in all my Sunday school and seminary classes over the years I have never thought of this verse in the way that it is so often being used these days.  So I looked it up myself.

And realized something that made my classicist heart smile.

You see, I have always used the King James Bible, and in it, this verse is slightly different:

 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their afflictionand to keep himself unspotted from the world. (James 1:27 KJV)

When you put "orphans" and "widows" together (as in the New International Version) the verse seems to be talking about two distinct groups.  There are children without parents who need care and widows without husbands who also need care.  Two groups, two directives.  Adoption seems like a simple answer to the first problem, right?

But when I look at the King James Version, I see a different picture.  Here you have the "fatherless" and "widows" -- it seems like a single group now.  A child and a woman have both lost someone -- the same someone -- and we are to care for them together.  This suggests a wholly different mission: that we care for families in need.  This is much, much harder -- this is family preservation.

So much in one little word change!

So, because I couldn't help myself, I put on my super-nerd hat and looked up the original.  It looks like this:

θρησκεία καθαρὰ καὶ ἀμίαντος παρὰ τῷ θεῷ καὶ πατρὶ αὕτη ἐστίν, ἐπισκέπτεσθαι ὀρφανοὺς καὶ χήρας ἐν τῇ θλίψει αὐτῶν, ἄσπιλον ἑαυτὸν τηρεῖν ἀπὸ τοῦ κόσμου.

I highlighted the word in question -- if you spell it our letter by letter it reads "orphanous."  Clearly it is the root of our word "orphan."  If you look ὀρφανός up (in the handy-dandy Greek lexicon on the bookshelf that hasn't been cracked open since grad school) there are several definitions, among them "orphan" and "fatherless," but also "bereaved" and "desolate."  Bereft.

Yet another variation on a theme.  

And now I see a connection to another post that I recently saw about Orphan Sunday that has stuck with me.  Fair warning that this post might not sit well with everyone, but it has been knocking around in my head for days.  As an adoptive mother I want adoption to be sunshine and rainbows.  It isn't.  I think we all need people to remind us that just because things seem good on the outside, that's not always what is going on inside.  Before you start thinking that I am ragging on adoption, let me also just say that as a wife I also want marriage to be sunshine and rainbows too, but of course it isn't either.

And so we come back to where I started.  One Bible verse.  Several take-home messages.

Caring for children who need it is a big, difficult, tangled-up issue.  Maybe part of my problem with Orphan Sunday is simply that it's just not big enough.

But apparently James 1:27 is.

It's kinda nice when the Bible comes through for you that way.

1 comment:

  1. Oh how I love this post. (I read your blog because your husband's sister is my friend.)