Faithful prayer (Jan. 25, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: James 5:13-18

The epistle traditionally attributed to James is addressed to people for whom life was a difficult struggle. The opening greeting (“to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” in James 1:1) and numerous references to the Hebrew scriptures show that their Jewish tradition had been radically reoriented by their commitment to Jesus Christ. They were struggling to understand what it meant to be a follower of Jesus and how to practice their new faith in a hostile world.

A careful reading of this epistle reveals that most of the recipients were from the lower end of the economic spectrum. Many of them had experienced opposition and even persecution for their faith. They eagerly awaited the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In the meantime, the anonymous author of this epistle has gathered together what appear to be short excerpts from various sermons to create this very practical epistle full of exhortation to practical Christian living.

James 5:13-15 — Prayer changes things 

Although the author does not seem to have personal knowledge of his readers’ situation (therefore the questions), prayer and singing are the recommended responses. Those who suffer should pray. Those who are happy are instructed to strike up a song of praise. And for those who are ill, a prayer session with church elders and anointing with oil in the name of the Lord will restore them to health.

The recommended oil was probably olive oil, a frequent remedy in the ancient world. In addition to this therapeutic use, oil was often used to anoint a king at his coronation or to formally recognize a prophet. Anointing with oil became an integral part of early Christian worship. The Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches have done a better job of following this directive from James than most Presbyterian churches, where anointing with oil as part of a healing service is relatively rare.

The elders referred to here are probably older church leaders whose role was analogous to that of the elders in the administration of first century Jewish synagogues. Anointing with oil is to be done “in the name of the Lord.” Other early Christian traditions describe healing in the name of Jesus Christ (e.g. Acts 3:6). “The Lord will raise them up,” James says. The olive oil is not a magical potion but a symbolic representation of God’s power.

James 5:16-18 — The power of prayer 

Many people in the ancient world believed there was a direct causal connection between illness and sin. If a person became ill, it must have been because that person or a close relative had sinned. The apostle Paul even links illness and death with inappropriate participation in the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). In John 9:1-3 Jesus rejects the common assumption that a particular person’s sin caused a physical ailment like blindness.

James links confession of sins and intercessory prayer as important agents of healing. The confession of sin in a congregational setting is a communal act. Given the problem of arguments and serious conflict in this congregation (James 4:1-2), mutual confession of sins and prayer for fellow congregation members was urgently needed.

To prove his point that the prayer of a righteous person accomplishes a lot, the author points to the familiar figure of Elijah. He assumes that Elijah’s power to cut off rainfall for three and a half years was an answer to prayer. However, Scripture does not mention prayer in regard to that incident. James may have blended that account with the Elijah story found in 1 Kings 17:17-22. There a widow of Zarephath rebukes Elijah for reminding her of her sin and thereby causing the death of her son. Elijah prays fervently to God who restores her son to life. The prophet Elijah was “a human being like us” James says. Thus Elijah’s prayer is described as a model for how Christians should pray.

For discussion 

Many studies have shown the beneficial effects of prayer. It is sometimes said that those who question the power of prayer are those who use it least. Have you experienced the power of prayer in your life? In what way(s)? For what things is it appropriate to pray? To get a job? To win a football game? To find a lost pet? How would you respond to a person who says, “I have prayed long and hard but God doesn’t answer my prayers.” You may have heard it said, “Those who sing a hymn pray twice.” Would you agree? Presbyterian worshippers confess their sins corporately. Do you find this kind of confession meaningful?

James Brashler

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.