Year B Proper 17: Pure and undefiled religion

A homily for the Saturday September 1st Holy Eucharist at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Elyria, Ohio. Some of the opening phrases are developed from the previous post (

Perhaps the most bewildering question about the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs, or Canticles – the book has gone by many names – is how it ended up in the Bible, a sacred text.

Historical criticism insists that the Song was written just as it seems to have been – as a love song, a peon to romantic and physical love. There are parts of it which would make a lector blush to read it aloud in church. It is real, and human, and needy, and yearning, and loving, and far removed from what we might expect to hear proclaimed on a Sunday morning or a Saturday night.

In fact, my annotated Bible suggests that songs like this were most likely “sung at banquets by professional male and female entertainers,” and this text was used at harvest festivals by courting young people.*

So how did it end up in the Bible?

Well, by the early centuries of the Christian Era, it had been interpreted in Jewish literature as an allegory of God’s love for Israel, the chosen people of God; and Christian commentators followed suit, interpreting it as an account of Christ’s love for the Church (remember that there is biblical literature which describes the Church as the Bride of Christ), and later as a mystical union of the individual soul with God.*

So where does that leave us today?

We can go one of two ways. We can spiritualize the poem to the point where its meaning is far removed from its words, where its impact is less earthy, where it demands fewer blushes and more furrowed brows to decipher. Or we can admit that we belong to a faith in which God loves us in all of our creaturely being; to the extent that God entered into creaturely being in order to love us the better, to save us, to restore us, to make us whole.

Remember God walking in the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve hiding because they were naked? They tried to hide a part of themselves from God which God already knew intimately, which God experienced in the life of Jesus, the Incarnate One, who came into this world as a naked baby, and who died on the cross stripped of his clothes, exposed and abandoned.

The dangers of trying to remove our bodies from our relationship with God are clear. How far will we go? If we deny our bodies’ relevance to our lives with God, will we write off the bodily needs of those we are called to love, as irrelevant, just material stuff, when we know, we know that a soul starved of bodily food has less energy to pray, and a body starved of a warm bed finds it harder to rest in the warmth of God’s love that we preach, and a body deprived of health and distracted by unrelieved pain struggles to know the peace which passes understanding?

We know that our bodies need love, as much as our souls. In neonatal units these days, doctors and nurses find creative ways to let the most vulnerable infants be touched and held by their parents, because they have discovered that skin to skin contact is essential to the child’s growth and development; it is a basic human need that we were created with, and which God understands and indulges.

Our bodies need our prayers and God’s care as much as do our souls.

So much for the Song of Solomon, but in an odd canonical coincidence, the letter of James also has something of a chequered relationship with the biblical canon. The story goes that Martin Luther, that famous Reformer, wished that it could be left out of the Bible. He felt that it was too materialistic, too moralistic, too involved with what we do and how we behave to one another, and not enough with how God acts towards us, how God behaves towards creation, loving and redeeming it by grace.

Now I don’t want to argue with Luther, because he’s a theological giant, and I would lose, but I do wonder if he missed at least a little of James’ point.

“Every generous act of giving,” says James, “with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”

We can do nothing well without God. God is the source of all goodness.

James knows that we are not responsible for our own salvation, that we could not get it for ourselves, that we can’t make the world right by ourselves. He knows that we are utterly dependent on God.

But he also insists that we have responsibilities as children of God, as first-fruits of God’s creatures. And, James would subscribe wholeheartedly to the theory that actions speak louder than words when it comes to our religion.

“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.”

How we treat one another, whether or not we act out of honest love for our neighbours – that counts for something. That makes a difference – obviously to our neighbours – but also to our own hearts, to our own relationship with God.

“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.”

Pure and undefiled.

Jesus said something about defilement, too, and what it means to stay undefiled. Jesus said that what defiles us, corrupts us, stains and spoils us is what comes from within, from a heart that deceives itself and is oblivious to God; from a heart that entertains wickedness instead of the love of God.

Lust corrupts the act of love. Avarice spoils an appetite. Anger stains our relationships. Deception, and self-deception, defile our hearts.

Jesus is sounding a little cynical today, about the human heart, a little weary, perhaps of the carping of the Pharisee. He knows that what matters is God, is allowing the love of God to permeate every aspect of life, of our own lives, of our lives in community with one another. Instead he sees murder, avarice, fornication, theft, envy, and all of that, wrapped up in a cellophane wrapper called religious observance, supposedly hidden from God by the hypocrites who praise God with willing lips then turn around and lie to their neighbour, eat his food and kiss his wife.

Murder, theft, pride, folly: Is that all that is found in the human heart? That’s depressing! Are we good for nothing, then?

“Every generous act of giving,” says James, “with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”

We can do nothing well without God. God is the source of all goodness.

Pure religion is unfettered, unspoilt, undefiled. It allows God into every aspect of its life, into every corner of its being. It knows that God already knows its secrets; God loves us regardless. God made us to be fully human, fully alive, fully known and loved by God.

If we try to hide parts of our lives, parts of ourselves, parts of our society, our systems, our ways of being from God, they will fall into darkness. If we pretend that we can care for the widows and orphans without providing for their security and a dignified place in society, we are deceiving ourselves and God. If we pay lip service to family values, without valuing the families around us and the families that need our support and help, we create deep shadows. If we deny the impact of prejudice and oppression, because it is just too difficult to face it, we are effectively hiding from our own consciences. If we tell ourselves, in our own private lives, that our secret addictions, our twisted appetites, our little sins against one another do not count because we think we can hide them from God, we fool ourselves, but we do not fool God. These things will create shame, and worse; the conditions of darkness are the ideal growing conditions for those vile vices that Jesus names, that defile the human heart.

The sages who included an earthy book like the Song of Solomon in the biblical canon might have done so because they thought that it was a good metaphor for God’s love for Israel, or they might have done it to remind us that no area of our lives is off limits to God. They might have done it to remind us to let God’s light shine into every corner of our being, of our relationships, of our lives, because it is only when we allow God free and unfettered access to our hearts that they can be swept clean, made pure, kept undefiled, primed and purposed for every generous act of giving, every good gift, so that we can live together more lovingly, more peaceably, more equitably, more honestly.

I wrote a thank you note to the food pantry folks last week, because someone had told me how kind they were to her, how generous and giving, and because when she said it, her eyes lit up, the light of God was pouring out of her. Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, comes from above; and when we allow God into the corners of our lives – the hungry parts, the poor parts, the body parts, the parts which really want to pass judgement, the parts that are afraid that we might one day be hungry too – when we allow God into every aspect of our lives, and our lives with others, God’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

Because God made us, our bodies and our souls, and God loves us, body and soul, without hypocrisy, purely, wholly, more than our wildest dreams can imagine.


* The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version, Michael D. Coogan, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, Pheme Perkins (editors), (Oxford University Press, 2001), “Introduction to the Song of Solomon” by F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp (contrib.), pp. 959-60

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020). She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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