In the first half of James 5, we are warned about the dangers of injustice, impatience and divided loyalty in the community of faith and in God’s Kingdom. However, James goes on the show that, in the midst of our brokenness, redemption and love are the pervading reality.
“Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.”
Some Christians have taken this teaching to suggest that all illness can and will be healed miraculously through the prayer of the faithful. Some even take it so far as to suggest seeing medical professionals to be a compromise of faith, thus invalidating the opportunity for God to work miraculously. This idea is offensive, dangerous and insupportable through Scripture. Yes, we believe that we should always pray for the sick among us, believing that God can and may miraculously heal them. However, James is presenting neither a guarantee nor an admonition against seeing doctors.
Rather, when we read these words in contrast to the earlier challenge to be patient and long-suffering. Not only were the early Christian communities often without the means to see healers, but their status as enemies of the Empire made it even harder for them to seek out such help. To further highlight the problem, their unparalleled commit to serve the needs of the poor meant that there was a much higher ratio of sick people (without means) in their communities and in their homes. This radical hospitality is the root what later developed into hospices and then hospitals. In the face of these challenges might have led some to withdraw from their commitment to the poor (thus James 5:1-6), becoming impatient with god and others (thus James 5:7-11) and even begin to bargain with God to free them from their circumstances (thus James 5:12). In this light, the necessity on trusting God in the midst of such suffering an important reminder. Our obedience must never be contingent on our circumstances.
It is important to note here how much our governments and other institutions have removed the need for Christians to practice such radical hospitality. While we should be grateful for the benefits such changes afford those in dire need, we must never believe that this in any way diminishes our personal and grass-roots communal responsibility to those suffering injustice. Both locally and globally, there is more than enough opportunity to embrace the radical hospitality that James takes for granted as being central to living the Christian life. We have strayed from this central aspect of our vocation as the Church and must do all we can to recover it.
Like Jesus so often did, James links the healing of the body with the forgiveness of sin, reinforcing that God’s Kingdom, His shalom, concerns itself with the whole person (indeed, all of creation). Therefore, while our physical circumstances do not change the obedience we are called to, neither should assume for a minute that those needs are any less important to our Father God than other more (so-called) “spiritual” concerns. Such faithfulness is not just characteristic of the “super-elite” of His Kingdom. After all, in this Scripture, James masterfully demonstrates this by calling the revered and honoured prophet, Elijah, “a man just like us”. Again, he is not teaching us that, in prayer, God will do whatever we demand of Him (See Matthew 6:5-15 & James 4:1-3), but rather calls us to humble, submitted and deeply dependent faithfulness to God.
“My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
For any who would suggest that James’ teaching is a call to moral perfection beyond human means, this section should silence that. While in no way making excuses for compromise, in the face of the challenge he has mentioned and in light of the difficult demands of radical obedience, he knows that many will wander from the truth. Be it through deception, immaturity, rebellion or some other factor, James acknowledges that our human brokenness makes such occurrences expected. Again avoiding the empty and hypocritical posture of judgment, he calls us to approach these wanderers with humility, grace and love. By beginning the sentence with “my brothers”, James is affirming that these wanderers are also our sisters and brothers, whom we should pursue with the same loyalty and devotion. It is a love that wants only the best for them, hoping to save them from the consequences of their sin, consequences that we ourselves are only spared of through grace.
The Epistle of James is a book that has much to teach us about how we are to live in faith together. So clearly rooted in the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, to ignore or minimize the import of what it teaches us is to ignore or minimize the call of Christ to His disciples. Being a Christian is about actively following our Lord, submitting every aspect of our lives to Him- our beliefs, convictions, attitudes, actions, priorities and purposes. Take some time this week to read through the entirety of James, perhaps twice. Consider what it means for you and the community of faith which you are a part of.