Lectionary Commentaries for September 27, 2015
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 9:38-50

Micah D. Kiel

In Mark 9:38, John directs a comment towards Jesus on behalf of the disciples that is the epitome of myopia

The words almost sound whiney, like a four-year old tattletale: “because he was not following us.” The disciples thinking of themselves as an exemplary unit worthy to be followed is beyond the pale. Have they so quickly forgotten that following upon the transfiguration, an afflicted individual must complain to Jesus about his son’s demon: “I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so” (Mark 9:18)? Have they so quickly forgotten the episode immediately previous to John’s question, in which Jesus resolutely declared that arguments about status are upended in God’s Kingdom, that traditional divisions of “us” and “them” are rendered moot? Their concern smacks of an elitism that does nothing more than confirm their continued ignorance.    

Verse 42 returns abruptly to the topic under discussion in Mark 9:33-36. The conversation about another performing exorcisms (9:38-41) is intercalated (a classic Markan Sandwich) with the discussion about who is the greatest.

  • Story 1 (Mark 9:33-37) — Argument over who is the greatest results in Jesus’ declaration that greatness will be defined by who is last and servant of all, represented in a small child.
  • Story 2 (Mark 9:38-41) — The disciples are uptight over an unknown exorcist wielding the power of the kingdom.
  • Story 1 continued (Mark 9:42-50) — Warnings about those who put a stumbling block before any little one who would believe in Jesus.

Mark intercalates such stories so that the reader understands them and interprets them together. Here it implies that the disciples’ immature concern over an exorcists’ lineage sets up the very sort of stumbling block about which Jesus warns.

Diversity and Mark’s community

This Markan sandwich may take us directly into the concerns of Mark’s community, rather than represent accurately scenes from the life of Jesus. Clifton Black argues that the phrase “soon afterward” in Mark 9:39 “seems to point beyond the narrative’s frame, into the life of the community.”1 Likewise, the phrase “bear the name of Christ” as a way of identifying a group makes more sense later in the first century than in the lifetime of the historical Jesus.

We can easily imagine a scenario in early Christianity where there might be ignorance, distrust, or wariness between different groups of Christians. The evidence from Paul’s letters suggests that from the first decades, the church faced disagreements about theology and evangelical strategy. The ability to communicate among churches was probably difficult and slow, accomplished mostly through emissaries and letters. If we imagine a close-knit community behind Mark’s gospel with a particular iteration and understanding of its heritage and tradition, then we might understand their anxiety or jealousy arising from encountering a community with similar claims. Mark has no time for such anxiety, jealousy, or elitism. Jesus’ response encompasses a rather expansive, universalistic view of the church. As long as something is being done in the name of Christ they will “by no means lose the reward” (Mark 9:41).

Unity and diversity in the church

The church has, from the very beginning, struggled to place itself along continuum of unity and diversity. Four gospels were retained and their harmonization rejected. The views of Matthew, Paul, and the letter of James all sit somewhat awkwardly in the same canon. Calls for Christian unity have consistently referred to Jesus’ prayer that “They all may be one” (John 17:22). Yet the Johannine epistles starkly name anyone who denies Jesus has come in the flesh to be the “antichrist.”

I will never forget when I had lunch with my Baptist grandmother to tell her about my new girlfriend (who would end up as my wife). The conversation went like this:

Grandma: “Is she Catholic?”

Me: “Yes.”

Grandma: “Well, that can change.”

(I didn’t tell her that I myself was in the process of confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church). I tell this story not to belittle Baptists, but to suggest that ecumenism and intra-Christian dialogue may be an overlooked but important topic to preach about. It is also a pressing theological issue. Many marriages today are from mixed Christian backgrounds. Christians at work, school, and at home live cheek-by-jowl with different types of Christians. I recently had to spend 30 minutes explaining to the little-league coach why my son couldn’t practice on Wednesday nights because it conflicted with our church’s religious education classes. These, he thought, were supposed to be on Sundays. I am consistently disappointed and confounded by the lack of information my students have about forms of Christianity different from their own. Such ignorance is harmful to the body of Christ. The challenge, it would seems me, is to find a way to express our beliefs in all their fullness, while listening and striving to understand those of another. This could yield common ground, growth, and insight. Centuries of violence, mistrust, ignorance, and caricature are much to overcome.

One document worth studying in light of ecumenism is the joint declaration on justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church (from 1999). Greg Hillis, professor at Bellarmine University, makes a thoughtful argument about this document as a model for ecumenical dialogue:

Each side articulates fully what it believes about justification in a manner that, remarkably, allows Catholics to see much of their own theology in Lutheranism and vice versa. The result is that Lutherans and Catholics were able to make important shared statements on justification with the recognition that both Lutherans and Catholics might read those shared statements in somewhat different ways. In other words, they achieve unity without compromising diversity.2


Notes:

1 C. Clifton Black, Mark (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 217.

2 http://myunquietheart.blogspot.com/2014/04/a-model-for-dialogue-ecumenical-or.html


First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Margaret Odell

No sooner have the Israelites set out from Mount Sinai than the complaining begins.

There is a memory of Egypt — a false one, perhaps, since there’s no mention of backbreaking slave labor or drowning babies, but it’s a memory all the same — of fish they could eat for nothing, and of flavorful cucumbers, melons, leeks, and garlic. Compared to this memory, the present reality of “nothing but all this manna to look at” is dull and uninteresting. What’s more, it cannot sustain them: “our strength is dried up.” We’ve heard this complaining before. In Exodus, the same complaint sounded like vulnerability; here it smacks of rebellion. By the end of the chapter (and outside of this lectionary selection), God will respond to the complaint by sending so much quail it will come out of the Israelites’ nostrils. God judges complaining Israel with a blessing — or blesses them with judgment; it’s hard to tell.

But what’s surprising about this version of the story is that it draws equal attention to Moses’ disenchantment. Like the Israelites, Moses complains: his burdens are too great, and he questions whether God is really with him. A number of interpretive questions arise. What is the gist of Moses’ complaint? Is he, like the Israelites, wrong to complain? And what are we to make of God’s response to his complaint? By distributing some of Moses’ spirit among the 70 elders, God ensures that Moses doesn’t have to bear his burdens alone anymore. But is this redistribution of the spirit, like God’s gift of quail, an ambiguous blessing that is really a punishment? If Moses must share the spirit, is he diminished in some way?

It’s possible that Moses is wrong to complain. After all, by complaining he is failing to do his proper job of interceding for the Israelites. But Moses does recognize their plight. At the very least, he hears it: “Moses heard all the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents” (v.10). Because hearing often has the connotation of heeding and understanding (cf. Exodus 2:24-25), Moses’ hearing may well be an act of empathy and concern.

Something else blocks his intercession, and this is what provokes his complaint. What displeases Moses is not the Israelites’ complaining but God’s anger. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident, only Moses had found favor with God, and he relied on that favor to intercede for Israel. At that time, Moses argued that having God’s favor counted for nothing if God would not also accompany them: “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?” (Exodus 33:15). Moses now faces a similar crisis, and if anything, God’s anger with Israel now casts doubt on God’s favor with Moses.

Caught in a triangle between God and Israel, Moses refuses to claim sole responsibility for “this” people. They are, after all, God’s people, and Moses reminds God, sarcastically, that he was not the one who conceived them, who bore them in his bosom, who and nurtured them “as a nurse carries a sucking child,” and, not least, who promised on oath to give land to their ancestors. In all of these charges, Moses evokes well known traditions about God’s care and concern for Israel. And in the present context of complaining about food, it is no accident that the maternal imagery emphasizes Israel’s utter dependence on God. Moses is not these things to Israel; God is (Genesis 12:1-3; cf. Deuteronomy 32:18). At the heart of Moses’ complaint, then, is a complaint about the divine character. What does divine favor mean, after all, if only Moses receives it? At the beginning of the long trek through the wilderness, Moses legitimately asks what is in store for him as the sole bearer of this people who were supposedly the apple of God’s eye.

Fortunately, God does not respond to Moses’ actual request — “let me die!” but to the substance of his complaint — that he is all alone with this burden. In verses 16-17, God instructs Moses to gather 70 of the elders at the tent of meeting, where God will talk with Moses and take some of the spirit that rests on Moses and distributes it among the elders. In this way, the elders will bear the burden of the people with him. Verses 24-25 describe that event, noting that the elders “prophesied” when the spirit came on them.

But is this redistribution of the spirit, like the gift of quail, a kind of punishment? After all, Moses must now share a sign of divine presence and favor that had once been exclusively his. The episode about Eldad and Medad answers that question. The narrative does not explain why these two elders were not at the tent or meeting, nor does it explain why the spirit also rested on them. But it does draw attention to ordinary human concerns: what is Moses going to think? Shouldn’t they be stopped?

Moses’ response sets aside the zero-sum game of prestige and honor for the far more gratuitous calculus of the Holy Spirit: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them” (11:29). Moses had, after all, asked for divine favor, and he had also equated it with God’s care and concern for the community. If that favor was bestowed upon the community in an entirely unexpected way, Moses could at least recognize the moving of the spirit within the community. Sharing burdens requires the recognition of shared gifts, and Moses was all too happy to share.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

Preaching from the book of Esther is not for the faint-hearted.

The book offers some challenges to the preacher. In the Hebrew text of the book, God is never mentioned. Neither is prayer or worship. There is a lot of killing at the end of the book.1 And there’s the little matter of the way in which Esther becomes queen, a process which, despite the Veggie Tales rendition of the tale, shouldn’t be discussed in the presence of young children.

Still, despite these difficulties, the book of Esther is a good story, it has a strong female protagonist (not common in the Bible), it tells us something about God’s character and action, and it is part of Scripture, so it deserves our attention, even if it’s only for this week (which is the only time Esther appears in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary).

The verses assigned by the lectionary are out of context and need to be set in context in order to be understandable. That’s why I would suggest that if you preach about Esther, you largely ignore the other texts assigned for this week and just re-tell the story.         

Be sure to highlight some of the humor in the story. The book opens with a lavish feast that lasts six months! The king of all Persia is a pompous fool who needs his advisers to tell him what to do at every turn. After Queen Vashti refuses to come to the party, the domestic dispute is blown up into a national crisis and engenders a royal decree sent to all the corners of the empire that “every man should be master in his own house” (1:22). The gallows that Haman builds for Mordecai are an absurd height (75 feet tall), and Haman is the one who ends up hanged on them (7:9-10). The tone of the whole book, in other words, borders on the farcical.

The humor of the book of Esther is reflected in Purim celebrations (the annual Jewish festival that commemorates the story of Esther). At Purim, participants dress up in costumes, put on Purim shpiels (humorous plays), and generally have a raucous celebration. When the name of Haman comes up in the reading of the scroll of Esther, it is drowned out by booing and noisemakers. When the names of Esther or Mordecai are read, they are cheered. There is even an ancient tradition from the Talmud instructing Purim celebrants to drink until they are “unable to differentiate between the phrases ‘bless Mordecai’ and ‘curse Haman’” (Megillah 7a).2

All of this humor has a point. There is an underlying seriousness to this story. It is, after all, the story of an attempted genocide of the Jews in ancient Persia, a story (with different enemies) that has unfortunately been played out again and again in Jewish history. Indeed, the joke goes that Jewish holidays can be summed up in this way: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

The underlying seriousness of the story of Esther comes out most poignantly in a scene that is not included in the lectionary readings, but deserves attention. When Mordecai sends a message to Esther, asking her to stop Haman’s massacre of the Jews, Esther responds that she cannot go to the king unless summoned, on penalty of death. Mordecai says:

“Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (4:13-14).

The rabbis, who puzzled about the lack of God language in Esther, made much of that phrase, “another place.” Relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from “another place;” that is, from God, they said.

Similarly, after Haman goes home, humiliated after being forced to parade Mordecai around the city, his wife and friends say, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not prevail against him but will surely fall before him” (6:13).

God is never mentioned in the book. But Mordecai is sure that help will arise from “another place.” And Haman’s family is sure that he is doomed to fall before Mordecai the Jew. And there are many, many coincidences that conspire to defeat Haman and save the Jews. Esther, out of all the women, just happens to become queen. The king just happens to have insomnia on the night of Esther’s first banquet. The court records read to him just happen to be the ones that tell about Mordecai saving his life. Haman just happens to come to the court when the king is contemplating how to reward Mordecai. And the list goes on.

Jon Levenson, using an old saying, puts it this way: “a coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous.”3

God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. God does not speak or act in the story. There are no burning bushes here; no miracle by the sea. And yet, by the end of the book, God’s people are saved and their enemies are defeated.

This understanding of the book of Esther lends itself to some homiletical possibilities:

  • The preacher might speak of the faithfulness of God to God’s promises. God saves God’s people, Israel. And if God is faithful to Israel, then God will continue to be faithful to those of us who, by God’s grace, are grafted into Israel through Christ (Romans 11:17-24).
  • God saves God’s people not through direct intervention, but through the wisdom and courage of Esther and Mordecai. “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this,” says Mordecai to Esther (4:14). The preacher might use this occasion to speak about vocation and the need for courage in following God’s call.
  • The preacher might also speak about discerning God’s will and action in the everyday realities of life. We may wish for God’s direct intervention, for a burning bush or an obvious miracle, but most days we (like Esther) don’t get such things. Indeed, most of the time, as a friend of mine says, God is subtle to a fault. And yet, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we may be able to discern where God is acting in our lives.

On this last point, Frederick Buechner is helpful. He has written at length about discerning God’s presence in the everyday events of one’s life:

The question is not whether the things that happen to you are chance things or God’s things because, of course, they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak … He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys … ‘Be not afraid, for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.”4

Here, then, is one place where this humorous, raucous story of Esther might lead us: to the understanding that in the ordinary events of life, and sometimes in the not-so-ordinary events, in the coincidences and chance encounters of our days, we are called and claimed by God. And we may even, like Esther, find the courage to answer that call.


Notes:

1 Brent Strawn has done a good job of addressing this issue of violence in the book of Esther.

2 For one example of a humorous Purim shpiel song, written and performed for Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, listen to “Vashti was Right” (accessed May 30, 2015).

3 Jon Levenson, Esther (OTL; Westminster John Knox, 1997), 19.

4 Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (HarperCollins, 1982), 77-78.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 19:7-14

James K. Mead

As a college professor of biblical studies, I consistently find that the most important question for the course is: What kind of book is the Bible?

Ironically, our general education course is designed more for understanding the story of the Bible than it is for exploring the nature of its revelation. Nevertheless, there is almost never a class hour in which this question does not arise in some shape or form. Given that my first career was as a parish pastor, I know that this is also an incredibly important question for congregations. How we use the Bible in personal prayer, corporate worship, doctrinal formation, social ethics, and missional identity hinges on the sort of book that the Bible is. I believe Psalm 19 offers a unique opportunity to direct the church’s attention to the nature and function of scripture.

Two preliminary comments: First, with critical scholarship I acknowledge that there are sound reasons for thinking that Psalm 19:1-6 existed as a separate poem or was written by the author of vv. 7-14 based on an earlier (perhaps) non-Israelite hymn about nature or its gods.1 However, I agree with many scholars that Psalm 19 is best interpreted as a poetic unity.2 So, while the lectionary offers us an opportunity to focus on half of the psalm, the meaning of vv. 7-14 eventually relates to the whole poem, and this can be used to your homiletical advantage, as I’ll try to demonstrate below. Second, I assume that what Psalm 19 affirms about “the law of the Lord” may be applied to the Bible’s revelatory function. This assumption involves a fair amount of theological and hermeneutical complexity, but I believe that preaching can and should engage a congregation’s confessional/creedal traditions, including its doctrine of scripture. Here are three possible affirmations that could be made when we ask what kind of book is the Bible?

First, the Bible is a book that speaks on many levels. I’m talking about how Psalm 19 addresses every aspect of our being through six descriptive phrases (e.g., “the law of the Lord is perfect”) with their accompanying effects (e.g., “reviving the soul”).3 I’m not sure a sermon should try to unpack all of these, so another approach would be to draw attention to their similarity and difference. The parallel pattern demonstrates an underlying unity in their function for our lives,4 while the different items indicate the variety of effects in our lives. To paraphrase Peter Craigie, the six aspects increase our vigor, wisdom, joy, truth, reverence, and righteousness.5 New and life-long students of the Bible will be blessed by the realization that the Bible cannot be classified under one purpose. It is not primarily a moral code book, though it contains laws and ethical principles. It’s not merely a source of doctrine or history, though all of these can be discerned in its pages. It is not just a drama of redemption, because within the overarching narrative structure are several other literary forms. To sum it up, the Bible’s unity and diversity, its continuity and discontinuity exist in a healthy tension. Psalm 19 witnesses to the vibrant nature of the Bible.

Second, the Bible is a book that claims, comforts, and convicts us. The prayer in vv. 11-14 dispels any notion that Bible reading is solely an intellectual activity. To be sure, our prayerful engagement with its message enables us to “love God with all our mind,” but the prayer moves us from the nature of God’s word to its claim upon our lives. Through repetitions, the psalmist displays the close connection between the Word and our prayers: “heart” (vv. 8, 14); “perfect/blameless” (vv. 7, 13), and “much/great” (vv. 10, 11, 13). The second half of the psalm moves from describing the Bible to responding to its truth. And through an echo of the first half of the psalm, our “hidden faults” (v. 12) are revealed by the light of God’s word analogous to the sun revealing what is hidden in nature (v. 6).6 Verses 11-13 depict a vigorous process of conviction, confession, and growth by means of eight verbal forms, laid out in two groups that end with the same Hebrew root, nqh (“clear,” “be innocent”).

Third, the Bible is a book that helps us connect nature’s wonders with God’s mercy, and both of them to us.7 This point integrates the psalm on its own terms and connects creation and redemption through some very interesting parallels with the language and plot of Genesis 2.8 In its canonical unity, the poem declares that God’s revelation doesn’t lead “to awe and fear of natural powers, [or] to legalistic religion, but to a relationship so personal and cherished that one’s desire is simply to be pleasing in Yahweh’s sight.”9 I appreciate McCann’s connection of the psalm’s last word, go’alî (“my redeemer”) with the theme of the kinsman-redeemer in Ruth. We experience God not “as a cosmic enforcer but as a forgiving next of kin.”10 The Bible reveals the true and living God to us through its witness to his creative, redemptive, and restorative activity through Israel’s Messiah on behalf of the cosmos and every human soul.


Notes:

1 Walter Harrelson, “Psalm 19: A Meditation on God’s Glory in the Heavens and God’s Law.” in Worship and the Hebrew Bible: Essays in Honor of John T Willis, eds. M. P. Graham, et. al. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 142-147.

2 See, for instance, J. Ross Wagner, “From the Heavens to the Heart: the Dynamics of Psalm 19 as Prayer.” CBQ 61 (1999): 245-261.

3 By “many levels,” I am not espousing a perspective that embraces endless debates about meaning, with the utter hopelessness for hearing a reliable word from God in scripture.

4 Rolf A. Jacobson, “Psalm 19: Tune My Heart to Sing Your Praise,” in The Book of Psalms, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 209.

5 Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 182. See also the excellent appendix in Willem A. VanGemeren, “The Book of Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:184-187.

6 Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 115.

7 Jacobson notes the unifying theme of “speech” in creation, Torah, and the servant uttering the prayer (204).

8 David J. A. Clines, “The Tree of Knowledge and the Law of Yahweh (Psalm XIX)” VT 24 (1974): 8-14.

9 Craig C. Broyles, Psalms (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 109.

10 J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon: Nashville, 1996), IV:753.


Second Reading

Commentary on James 5:13-20

James Boyce

“In fulfillment of God’s purposes … ” That’s how the opening verses of James have described the purposive nature of God’s “generous acts of giving” and God’s “every perfect gift.”

And in God’s giving of good gifts in fulfillment of that purpose James further assures us God does not waver — “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17-18). If the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” then the whole of the wisdom tradition, as unfolded for us in the epistle of James, seeks to encourage and lead us to the conviction that we are indeed endowed by our creator with a rich bounty of gifts for the living of daily life in this world. It is then an extra benefit if the author can teach us some of the practical insights that human wisdom has discovered about a faithful living that leads to healthy life.

Concluding counsel

The summation of that teaching is now gathered in this concluding section of the letter. Its words might be described as a confident vision of a caring community. Such a community exercises its wisdom not in lofty exercises of philosophy or logic to bolster or entertain the self, but rather in the recognition and use of the powerful resources God has given for the care of the community in which each of us thrives through mutual benefit.

An honest appraisal of the situation

Wisdom does not look at the world through rose-colored glasses. Its vision is clear and honest in its recognition that life contains many ups and downs and often complex situations that we cannot always control. Our reading quickly and succinctly suggests some alternative situational paradigms clearly intended to stand for all the possibilities (James 5:13-14). The NRSV translations of “suffering” and “cheerful” might somewhat mask this intention. The original pathos of one who is doing “badly” (kakos) refers not only to the “suffering” of persecution, but to anything that can contribute to a negative life experience, such as sorrow, depression, ill health, bad family or social situation, economic exigencies. Use your imagination. The contrasting image speaks of a thymos that has to do with the inner self or passion. So an inner self that is doing well (eu) has to do more with a holistic sense of the self rather than to just being “cheerful.” The third image does indeed refer to ones who are sick, although the term used here is regularly used to refer to any kind of sickness or bodily infirmity, either short range or long. In sum, the author’s quick statement of alternatives pretty much includes anyone we might imagine, including ourselves. And for any situation, wisdom suggests a practice that is fitting to the occasion.

The vision of a caring community

As noted above, the practices now imagined and described might be summarized as those of a caring community. They include prayer, the singing of songs of praise, and the ministry of presence and touch in the laying on of hands and anointing, all while invoking the power and promise that belongs to the community in the “name of the Lord.” It is not surprising that the invocation imitates the same words with which it is customary to begin our gatherings in corporate worship. All of these actions assume a community that surrounds and sustains its members in their individual and personal needs. The specific admonition to “call for the elders” for prayer and laying on of hands makes the link between individuals and the gathered community very specific.

Confidence in the power of prayer

At the beginning of the letter the author has counseled that if we lack anything that belongs to wisdom, the correct response is to turn to God in prayer, knowing that God will respond “generously and ungrudgingly” (James 1:5). That confidence is now reasserted in these final words to the community. But now the power of prayer holds out some rather telling content and promise. The author speaks of its power to “save” the sick, to “raise them up,” and to occasion the “forgiveness of sins” (James 5:5). In effect the assertion is that in the community’s exercise of prayer the very promise and power of the resurrection remain not just some future hope but now impinge on, recreate, and sustain a living and active community of faith.

It takes a village

In case it has slipped our notice, the author emphasizes it once again — such an exercise of prayer is not either by or for persons in isolation. We might imagine that such counsel jumps over the centuries in being particularly relevant to our own contemporary world. Ours is a very individualist oriented culture. Self-help books proliferate on our bookshelves. And even our so-called “social media” is often structured or utilized primarily to focused on exalting individual identities and chalking up the greatest number of “friends” on our tally sheets (friends for whom the greatest insult might be that in a fit of pique I might “unfriend” them at any moment).

But James knows a wisdom that is communal, especially in its faithful exercise of prayer. Twice he charges that confession should be “to one another,” and that we should pray “for one another,” if we have any expectation that the promised healing is to take place (James 5.16). Such prayer exercised within and on behalf of the community has power — James says it is “effective.” It is effective because it is exercised within the context of a community endowed with God’s gifts in creation, and because it belongs to ones who have been forgiven and empowered by the implanted word of promise in Christ Jesus. In James’ language it is the prayer of ones who are “righteous.”

There are stories

The power of prayer is not without its stories in the tradition of the people. The story of the faith hero Elijah is lifted up as testimonial example. By the lifting up of such examples our own communities of faith are also encouraged. We need to find fitting ways to add our own stories and our own experiences to the rich ongoing tradition that confirms with conviction and confirmation the power of God’s gifts to bring salvation and healing to the community of faith.

The reach of an extended family

Families need to continue to care for one another. And that includes those who are at risk. Once again there is an honest recognition that there will be some who will “wander from the truth” (James 5:19). This, too, each of us can testify from our own personal and communal experience. In such occasions there will need to be those among the community who care enough to “turn them around” and bring them back. We need to know that such efforts of bringing back a wandering brother or sister are worth the effort, because in them we can know that God’s salvation is at work. In all its actions of caring, sustaining, and healing one another the community is bearing witness to the fact that God’s work of salvation continues in the involvement and actions of a caring community that exercises its actions confidently in the name of Jesus.