The only formal definition of religion in the Bible appears in today’s reading from James. It is not an exhaustive or comprehensive definition. But it does provide a starting point for reflecting on what the biblical tradition understands to be true religion.
The first characteristic of true religion is closeness to God, or rather, God’s closeness to us. Ancient Israel’s claim to be God’s people rested not on its numerical superiority or military might but rather on God’s closeness to this people and God’s wise and life-giving commandments in the Torah. Today’s reading from Deuteronomy 4 reminds us that true religion has its origin, power and direction in God’s initiative.
A second characteristic of true religion is the pursuit of justice. Psalm 15 paints a beautiful picture of the just person as one who lives blamelessly, does no harm to others, honors those who fear the Lord and is honest in dealing with others. Those whose relationship to God is proper will treat others fairly and contribute to promoting a just society.
A third characteristic is practical action. James insists that we be “doers of the word and not hearers only.” In the Bible the truth is not something only to be admired or contemplated. The truth is something to be acted upon. This is the root of James’s famous definition of true religion as caring for orphans and widows. Here James is echoing an emphasis that is deeply rooted in various parts of the Old Testament.
A fourth characteristic is focus on the essentials. Jesus’ opponents in today’s reading from Mark 7 are Pharisees and scribes. Jesus accuses them of paying more attention to their own rulings and traditions than to God’s commandments. Among even sincere religious persons there is often a tendency to mistake what is marginal for what is central, and so they can lose the freshness and clarity of vision that drew them to the serious practice of religion in the first place.
The fifth characteristic is interiority. When commenting on the Pharisees’ adaptations of the laws pertaining to food and ritual purity, Jesus insists that what really defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth but what comes out of the heart. True religion avoids evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder and so forth. What makes a person holy are the attitudes and actions that Paul in Gal 5:22-23 lists as “the fruit” of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
For many of us, especially those associated with schools, Labor Day weekend marks an important turning point on our mental calendars. The five characteristics of true religion that emerge out of today’s biblical texts provide material for examining our consciences on the practice of true religion.