First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 18

William Loader

Pentecost 18: 27 September James 5:13-20

Already in 5:7 James had addressed the issue of suffering. People need to hold out with patience and not be at each other's throats (5:9). We need the patience of the farmer who knows that a harvest will come - in time (5:7). The setting for this thought is the belief that Jesus would come again, presumably in the lifetime of the hearers (5:8). This hope was difficult to sustain. It is even less realistic for us, two millennia later. On the other hand, one characteristic of Christian faith remains hope. This is sometimes collapsed into hope for an after life, but we should see it as just as much a hope for change in this world. We do not expect magic solutions, sudden divine interventions which will bring justice for all. We identify more with the yearning of the Spirit for renewal. When we take seriously what is happening in our world and around us, the result can be depressing. The encouragement to hope is grounded in an almost defiant expectation that engaging in the life of God in the world is engaging in life and life that will bear fruit. Sometimes it is very hard to hold onto that. The wisdom of James points us to the faithfulness of the prophets and also to Job (5:10-11).

James 5:13 deals with specific cases of suffering (the case of Job makes the transition well). The context shows that this is now not persecution or the existential anxiety of unfulfilled hopes, but sickness. It begins almost as though it wants to broaden the focus. Why mention the cheerful? Yet maybe the focus is still on the issue of the sick. Sometimes people who are well, especially in the context of others who are not, can feel guilty about their well being. This is not the wisdom of James. Let them be glad and affirm their wellness.

James 5:14 then gives quite specific instructions in the case of illness. The leaders of the congregation are here designated as elders, reflecting a leadership structure similar to what would have existed in synagogues. These are to come, to pray for the sick and anoint them with oil in the name of Christ. This is an interesting piece of evidence that the healing ministry of Jesus continued in the communities which acknowledged him as the risen one, the 'Lord'. The dramatic episodes of the gospels and the early chapters of Acts have become a kind of normal routine in the congregation.

James 5:15 explains the basis for this action. Prayers of faithful people or prayers prayed in faith have an effect. God responds. Here, with an echo of resurrection, James declares that the Lord (Jesus - as in 5:14) will raise the person up. The God who raises the dead is still in action. Forgiveness gains a mention because of the widespread notion that sickness may be related to sin (as in Mark 2:1-12; but need not be). Health includes also open confession of sin (5:16). Prayer for healing is encouraged: this time everyone is included, not just the elders. 5:16 concludes with another reference to effectiveness of prayer: prayers of the righteous are very effective (an echo of the beginning of 5:15). As a kind of proof we hear of Elijah whose prayers brought about major change in the weather..

Like the assumption that Jesus would return in their lifetime, some of the comments about prayer and healing are not without problems which some will sense more strongly than others. Weather control is a matter of vital importance to the well being of millions in our world today. One might expect serious endeavours to change weather on the part of the remnant righteous of our own day. The evidence is not compelling. The use of oil assumes special properties of this medium, reflecting ancient belief. We might think more of its effect in enhancing the tactile. The laying on of hands is assumed to provide a medium for channelling of divine power. The assumption is clearly that such actions actually achieve or mediate something more effectively than mere words. This will doubtless be our life experience in many forms of communication. One might wonder why God needs to wait to do things until a righteous person prays - as if merit has snuck back in through the back door of piety and God is thought to reward goodness. Elsewhere we have learned that God will respond to the cry of the sinner without such discrimination.

While there is something of a thinking chasm between our world and theirs, it is not clear that we know enough to treat a passage such as this as a relic. Many will be aware that there is something healing about such prayer and that acts such as this do something and often achieve something, even if we may be less confident about the explanations which James gives. Even to hold people before God in compassionate thought does something significant which usually goes far beyond just orienting ourselves to the needs of others. But God does not need persuading to care; the language of prayer like the touch and the oil engages us in symbolism of compassionate outreach which is good for our health and for the health of others.

The closing words refer not to evangelism, but to care for members of the congregation who have relapsed in some way. 'From the truth' suggests a cognitive element, but 'sin' also suggests a moral element. Rather than sit in judgement (note 5:9 already addresses judgemental behaviour), we should seek to restore such a person. Under pressure of persecution and other adversity some early Christians rejected the possibility of restoration and condemned those who relapsed to a state of never being forgiven (Heb 6 and 1 John). The wisdom of James leaves the door open for return. Probably 5:20 speaks of the deliverance of the wanderer from the paths of death. It is possible to read it as offering a reward to the one who achieves the change. There is an allusion here to Prov 10:12 in a rather free translation which instead of speaking of all sins speaks of a crowd or multitude of sins. This is probably because James is thinking of particular sins which the person will have committed.

One might read this as a promise to those who keep an exclusive sect going or who keep the numbers strong. The wider context suggests something more generous, at least in the terms of the day. The focus is on saving someone from 'death'. That, too, may reflect notions of saving people from hell. Perhaps it does. It can also be reinterpreted as compassion for people to liberate them from whatever brings death to them in other than the normal mortality - maybe James does not go that far, but we need to.

Gospel: Pentecost 18:  27 September Mark 9:38-50

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