Lectionary Commentaries for September 26, 2021
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 9:38-50

C. Clifton Black

I hear groans from preachers reading this Sunday’s Gospel. It contains most things that drive the conscientious into a slough of despondence: exorcisms (verse 38); multiple disturbances in the Greek text, footnoted in responsible English translations (verses 42, 44, 45, 46, 49); hard sayings of Jesus (verses 39-41) that are logically incoherent (verses 48–50) or manifestly outrageous (verses 42-47). No Working Preacher essay can disentangle all these knots. For that, a reliable commentary is mandatory. Here I can only paraphrase Mark’s intent, as best I can, respond to its repugnant aspects, and suggest why I believe such scripture deserves a hearing from the pulpit.

What is Mark driving at?

Mark 9:38-10:31 presents this Gospel’s most concentrated cluster of moral teaching: vignettes of discipleship expressed within the believing community (9:38-50), the family (10:1-16), and a larger social sphere (10:17-31). This Sunday Mark considers the church’s boundaries and internal responsibilities. The radical character of discipleship is focal, consistent with last Sunday’s mandate that each of Jesus’ followers become “last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

Mark 9:38-41 encourages a broad-minded attitude toward those who provide relief but operate outside the disciples’ circle: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (9:40). Here Jesus commends in strongest terms (“truly I tell you”; see 3:28; 8:12; 9:1) the reward due anyone who quashes diabolical forces in his name (3:23-27)—whether or not they are “following us” (9:38: our way of being church)—or another who offers a simple cup of water to disciples “because you are Christ’s by name” (9:41, my translation). Adhering to the spirit of 9:35-37, 9:38-41 stresses gracious reception of anyone whose action, bold or modest, genuinely conforms to Jesus’ character. If that’s something you think your congregants need to hear this Sunday, and no more, I say: Go for it.

“For whoever offers you a cup of water because you bear Christ’s name” (9:41, my translation).

“But whoever trips up one of these little ones who believe” (8:42, my translation).

The contrast established in 9:39-41 and 9:42-50 is that between nurturance of Christian believers and infliction of injuries that cause them to lose their faithful footing. The primary meaning of the Greek word skandalon is a trap for catching a live animal (Joshua 23:13; Psalm 140:9), which shades into a metaphorical pitfall (Romans 11:9; 1 John 2:10). The cognate verb skandalizō (NRSV: “put a stumbling block before” [Mark 9:42] or “cause to stumble” [9:43, 45, 47]) conveys the sense of tripping up someone for downfall. While Matthew often employs the term (10:42; 11:11; 18:6, 10, 14), only in 9:42 does Mark use “little ones” (tōn mikrōn) to refer to one’s fellow believers. It is conceptually related to the child (to paidion) who should be received “in my name” (9:36-37). Harming “one of these little ones” invites punishment worse than being hurled into the sea with a huge grinding stone “hung around your neck” (9:42).

In Mark 9:43, 45, and 47, the image of stumbling recurs. Here the self is the apparent victim. Yet the aphorisms’ content imply social responsibility: one may trip up oneself through conduct harmful to others. The foot can take you places you dare not go. The hand can reach where it shouldn’t. The eye can gaze with malicious intent. A limb’s amputation may be required to save the whole body; drastic surgery is necessary in emergencies if one hopes “to enter [eternal] life” (9:43, 45; 10:17) or “the kingdom of God” (9:47).

If one suffering gangrene, whether of body or of soul, pretends to be healthy, the outcome is hell. Gehenna (9:43, 45, 47) was a ravine south of Jerusalem notorious for pagan infanticide (2 Chronicles 28:1–14), envisioned by later Jews as the place of the wicked’s final judgment (Luke 12:5). Undying worm and unquenched fire (Mark 9:48) were stock images for the destruction of evil (Isaiah 66:24; Judith 16:17). Mark 9:49-50 hearkens back to 8:34-37. “Salt is good”: like cross-bearing discipleship, a sacrificial preservative prevents the church from insipidity (9:50ab; compare Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19). “Salt,” self-sacrifice for the gospel, promotes communal peace that quells self-centeredness and one-upmanship (9:50c; 9:33–34, 38).

Why does Jesus speak so grotesquely?

Repeatedly Mark’s Jesus heals bodies diseased and deformed (1:31-34, 40-41; 2:1-12; 3:1-6; 5:1-43; 7:31-37; 8:22-26; 10:46-52). Because “he did not speak to them except in parables” (4:33), he cannot be literally advocating self-mutilation in 9:43, 45, or 47. These are stark remarks, intended to grab us by the scruff of the neck and shake us to our senses of the grim consequences that disciples invite when they abuse one another or anyone else.

When you can assume your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures. (Flannery O’Connor, 1925–1964)

Today’s preachers might ponder that and, with judiciousness, consider its practice. Shock only for its own sake is juvenile, unbecoming a Christian preacher. But let’s face facts. With the exception of the African-American church, a lot of contemporary preaching is so anodyne, so colorless, that it may put God to sleep. In Mark 9:42-50 Jesus uses shock treatment to jolt his followers out of smug self-complacency or shameless indecency.

Why should scripture like Mark 9:38–50 be preached?

Let’s take a hard look at our treatment of little ones who believe in Jesus. Are we supporting them as they totter, or strewing rocks and fences and walls that break them down? Jesus’ family is expansive (Mark 3:31-35); the church faces a reckoning. If a bacterial soul isn’t disinfected now, its treatment later will be a helluva lot worse.

First Reading

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

Stephen B. Reid

Murmuring has consequences. COVID complaints and challenges in our context may bring out a sense of judgement. The generous God in the early murmuring stories of the Pentateuch gives way to a God who provides but also brings intrinsic punishments to bear. In Numbers 11, unlike Exodus 16, God punishes the people who raise concerns. Some murmuring narratives have divine anger and others point only to divine responsiveness. This pandemic too requires theological reflection on the providence and the judgment of God.

The literary context of the passage begins with the story of when the people complained in the hearing of the LORD. God’s anger was so kindled that it consumed the outlying parts of the camp. The fire relented when the people appealed to Moses, who appealed to God. The literary context that follows the lectionary reading tells the story of quail (see Numbers 11:31-35); meat that the people have requested comes. Their “eyes were bigger than their stomachs.” They consume quail to the point of discomfort, appetites that lead to toxicity. The literary context of the lectionary reading in Numbers 11 makes clear that punishment comes with the complaints.

From the very first word of the passage, one sees a difference between Numbers 11 and Exodus. The craving came from the entire congregation in Exodus 16, but the cravings come from a more limited group in Numbers 11, the “rabble.” The Hebrew word occurs only here, leaving the reader to surmise a more limited group of reprobates. They may have been limited in number, but the craving was powerful. The craving links to a weeping that precedes the speech. The language of Numbers 4b echoes the Exodus 16:3. Both are self-destructive, nostalgic pictures of enslaved life in Egypt. Yet Numbers 4b is a more detailed remembrance.

The rabble were “hangry” for meat (4B) but they manufactured false memories of Egypt. God’s liberation of the Hebrews story arc includes stories of human aspiration for that which enslaves. Embedded in this large narrative we find food (Exodus 16:1-35; Numbers 11:4-34; 21:4-9; 11:1-3) and spring (Exodus 15:22-27; 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13) narratives. The Exodus 16 narrative depicts rebellious “hangry” people who will live on the providence of God. Numbers 11 describes a rebellious “hangry” people who will have their desires for satisfaction turn on them like a visitor to the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory.

Moses heard the weeping of the people. The transgression began with a small group of malcontents or rabble but spread in a visceral way. We might think of weeping as contagious. The writer gives us a picture of the entrance to each tent filled with loud weeping. The weeping that Moses heard annoyed God to the point of anger. The writer uses the metaphor of kindling God’s anger (Numbers 11:11). Moses is displeased; in Moses eyes it is evil and disastrous. This echoes Numbers 11:1-3.

Moses takes his complaint to God. Moses hints that he deserves a better congregation. It might seem that this focuses on the leadership challenge but that would miss that the passage gestures to the relational life of humans. The people are a burden. The term for burden can also be a revelation (Zechariah 9:1; 12:1-3) The people function as a burden, but also like a prophetic message, they provide an interpretive lens through which to see the world. Moses moves from a language of leader and prophet to parent when he uses the metaphor of conception and labor.  The pair of items form one whole that spans from impregnation to delivery. These metaphors point to the people and family as the context of challenge, responsibility, and illumination.

Moses raises a question of the task of transition which he compares to the process of a mother carrying a suckling child. The metaphor of “carrying” allows the speech to reference the process of moving from the house of bondage to the land promised to the ancestors in Genesis. Moses shifts to the second person accusative when Moses says to God: the land you promised the ancestors.

Moses asks, “where am I going to get meat?” echoing the wistful complaint of Numbers 11:5.  During the feeding of the five thousand stories (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; John 6:1-13) the disciples ask Jesus for a solution to the hunger of the people. The disciples argue for individual responsibility, let them go find their own food. Moses’ speech locates his problem in responding to the cry of the people. Once again, the language of weeping crops up.

Moses confesses his inability (verse 14). The speech turns on Moses’ status as  a man alone. This speech points in two directions. On the one hand it points to the instruction of Jethro to Moses (see Exodus 18) that Moses needed to distribute the leadership tasks. On the other hand, Moses’ confessions set the stage for the seventy elders (Numbers 11:16).

God’s more inclusive model Numbers 11:24-29

Moses tells what he has received from God but also gathers the seventy elders at the location of the tent. A traditional theophany of God comes down in a cloud. God speaks to Moses but also dispenses some of Moses’ spirit to the seventy elders. For this one occasion, the gift of spirit allows the elders to prophesy in a one-time occurrence. Two of these, Eldad and Medad prophesy in the camp. Joshua reports that they are functioning as prophets (Numbers 11:27). Joshua sees this as a breach in theological protocol. Moreover, Joshua presses Moses to rebuke them. Instead, Moses envisions the ubiquity of prophecy and the spirit of God among the people.

Alternate First Reading

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

Elaine T. James

The story of Esther is a tale about the survival of diaspora Jews in the context of the empire of Persia, and one of its narrative functions is to give an etiology of the Jewish festival of Purim. Christian readers in the global North should be vigilant to remember that their social location in the cultural majority gives them more in common with King Ahasuerus than with Esther, a minority orphan who is trafficked into child concubinage. This is a Jewish text first, and a text about cultural survival in diaspora second.

Though this small selection for the lectionary reading does not emphasize it, the story of Esther is a satire of bureaucracy, in which the plot unfolds for hapless innocents by the grinding mechanisms of “official business.” Here are a few examples:

  • The presenting characters are the king as his “officials and ministers,” who repeatedly appear as functionaries more interested in feasting and prestige than in governance in any real sense (1:1–8; 3:2; 5:4–8, 12; 6:1–9; 7:2)
  • The promulgation of ridiculous, deadly rules, many of which are written, copied, sent out, and read throughout the empire, layers the story with the sense of bewilderment and fear. Edicts ultimately provide the dramatic irony that thwarts the villainous Haman and saves the Jews (1:19–22; 2:8; 3:2, 9–15; 4:8, 11; 8:8–14; 9:11–15)
  • The establishment of Purim itself only happens by way of an official document, written first by Mordecai after he comes into power (9:20–28) and then confirmed in writing by Queen Esther (9:29–32)

In this bureaucratic plot, King Ahasuerus is given forceful satirical critique. He is an inept patriarch, subject to legal minutiae that he does not understand (1:15); his temper is irrational and vicious (1:12; 2:1; 7:7–10); and his symbols—signet ring and scepter—feature prominently as the guarantors of his patriarchal authority, which he does not fully control (3:10, 12; 4:11; 5:2; 8:2, 4, 8, 10). Between the king and Haman, there is a monetary plot related to the extermination of the Jews that is nearly inscrutable—it has the feel of “dark money” that operates invisibly and the reader does not really know its extent or impact (3:9–11; 4:7).

The relationship between the corrupt imperial court and its indifference to the suffering of real people is perhaps best summarized in these lines: “The couriers went quickly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion” (3:15). The narrator writes with powerful empathy for the Jews, who mourn, fast, weep and lament over the impending genocide (4:3), while the king and Haman—cozily, coldly—sit in the palace and drink.

In these ways, the story satirizes the obvious corruption of those in imperial and colonial power. Alert readers will draw connections to contemporary politics through this comedic exposé of degenerate, self-serving leaders.

The story prominently features women, especially Esther, its title character. Esther is a Jewish orphan, “the least powerful member (orphan) of the least powerful gender (female) of a powerless people (Jews) in the mighty Persian Empire.”1 Despite her low status, she ascends to royal power after the deposition of Vashti, the queen who refuses to appear at the pleasure of Ahasuerus and his banqueting friends (1:10–12).

Vashti is often lauded by women readers for her refusal to acquiesce to male demands, while the figure of Esther is somewhat more problematic, in part because of the dubious sexual ethics on display (she is groomed for the sexual pleasure of the king, 2:1–18), and in part because her participation within the court does not lend itself to critique of the patriarchal imperial structure.

In the lectionary text, Esther risks her life by seeking an audience with the king, and she does so on behalf of her people. For some readers, this attests to her moral fiber and ultimately her heroism. Christina Rosetti, writing in the nineteenth century, offers several meditations on the figure of Esther as a hero whose saving acts specifically arise from her femininity. As such, Rosetti defends her as a model of heroism for women. In her work of prose and poetry, “The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse” (1892), Rosetti presents “trembling Esther” as a woman of valor and devotion who is able to become the savior of her people by mastering her fear.

Other readers might find themselves more skeptical. Esther panders to the king, throwing him two banquets, then indulging his ego with his request: “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.” And she couches her request in the self-interest of the monarch: “If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king” (7:3–4). She grooms him to accept her plan. She manifests a certain docility and idealized femininity that enable her to succeed: from within the palace, she is able to use skill to strategically manipulate the king and save her people.

The lectionary highlights the exciting moment of truth as Esther exposes Haman to the king. And there is considerable ironic satisfaction in Haman’s exposure and punishment—he is hanged on his own gallows. The lectionary reading omits the graphic retributive violence of chapter 9, in which seventy-five thousand Persians are slaughtered by the Jews (9:5–16). The violence of the Jews is no less than the genocidal violence of the obvious villains that the Jews narrowly avoided.

As is the case with many biblical texts, this story does not merely offer exemplary moral templates for the contemporary reader to emulate. Instead, this entertaining, darkly funny tale offers an entry point for thinking about the power of satire in unmasking political power and the various ways that resisting exploitative powers can simultaneously implicate us in them.


  1. Sidnie White Crawford, “Esther,” In Women’s Bible Commentary, 3d ed., Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, Jacqueline Lapsley, eds. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 203.


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?1

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 verses 7-14 based on an earlier (perhaps) non-Israelite hymn about nature or its gods.2 However, I agree with many scholars that Psalm 19 is best interpreted as a poetic unity.3

So, while the lectionary offers us an opportunity to focus on half of the psalm, the meaning of verses 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?

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”).4 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,5 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.6 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.

The Bible is a book that claims, comforts, and convicts us

The prayer in verses 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” (verses 8, 14); “perfect/blameless” (verses 7, 13), and “much/great” (verses 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” (verse 12) are revealed by the light of God’s word analogous to the sun revealing what is hidden in nature (verse 6).7 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”).

The Bible is a book that helps us connect nature’s wonders with God’s mercy, and both of them to us.8

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 2.9 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.”10 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.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 27, 2015.
  2. 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.
  3. See, for instance, J. Ross Wagner, “From the Heavens to the Heart: the Dynamics of Psalm 19 as Prayer.” CBQ 61 (1999): 245-261.
  4. 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.
  5. Rolf A. Jacobson, “Psalm 19: Tune My Heart to Sing Your Praise,” in The Book of Psalms, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 209.
  6. 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.
  7. Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 115.
  8. Jacobson notes the unifying theme of “speech” in creation, Torah, and the servant uttering the prayer (204).
  9. David J. A. Clines, “The Tree of Knowledge and the Law of Yahweh (Psalm XIX)” VT 24 (1974): 8-14.
  10. Craig C. Broyles, Psalms (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 109.
  11. 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

Gay L. Byron

We live in a world where suffering abounds. From the lingering impacts of COVID-19, to ongoing wars and forced displacement of children and families, to devastating wildfires, earthquakes and hurricanes, people from across the U.S. and throughout the world are experiencing suffering like never before. So as the reader comes to the end of the letter of James, a letter filled with ethical teachings and moral admonitions, it is encouraging to find these timely teachings about prayer.

The power of prayer (verses 13-14)

This closing section of the letter is signaled in verse 12 by the expression  “above all else” (pro panton de), a common marker for highlighting the end of an ancient letter (see also Plato, Republic 366b; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 16.187). After this declaration and encouragement to use words carefully (Let your “Yes” mean yes and your “No” mean no), James raises a series of questions, which build up to what may be considered the climax of the letter in verses 13-14: the power of prayer (proseucheo) for the faithful people of God.

After each question, “Are any among you suffering? Are any cheerful? Are any among you sick?” the author provides pithy, yet poignant, instructions: “They should pray. They should sing songs of praise. They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” Here, the author is not solely concerned with individual prayer (verse 13); rather the potential and impact of a praying community is emphasized by the call of “the elders of the church” (tous presbyterous tes ekklesias) to exercise their gifts not solely in administrative oversight, but in the ministry of healing through anointing with oil in the name of the ultimate healer.

One might wonder about the focus on the cheerful in the midst of those who are suffering and those who are sick. They, too, are called to pray, albeit through the form of songs of praise. This is a sure reminder to those who have faced hardships and persevered through trials and tribulations (James 1:2), that there will also be periods of joy and times for celebration. Thus, “singing songs of praise” through good times as well as through times of great suffering or grave danger illustrates how praise and prayer are coupled together in the eyes of God.

Prayer of faith (verses 15-16a)

It is no accident that faith is connected to prayer: “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (verse 15). As indicated earlier in the letter, faith (pistis) is not a passive activity. Faith is active, based on works (erga) and best summarized by the sayings: “Faith without works is dead” (2:17) and one is “justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24).

The leaders of the Reformation, such as Martin Luther, would deem the letter of James an “epistle of straw” because of this understanding of faith, which is in stark contrast to faith based on the righteousness of God (dikaiosyne theou) through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21, 28; Galatians 2:16). Nevertheless, there is a rich tradition of those who are “doers of the word” (James 1:22) through their actions in the world and their commitment to prayer.

In times like these, we need an active faith that will save the sick and bring sinners to  forgiveness. Yet, this forgiveness is not a free pass or solely an act of grace. According to James, forgiveness requires confession of sins to those who have been wronged. The author says, “confess your sins to one another,” and pray for one another (verse 16). Confession, coupled with prayer (an action word!) leads to healing.

When we consider the original sin of our nation—racism—and the ways in which this sin and its related systemic evils multiply injustices against the poor and marginalized, the teachings in this letter about prayer and the call to engage one another through active faith are relevant for building bridges and exposing white supremacist ideologies that inform virtually every sphere of U.S. society. Although not explicitly mentioned in this passage, the need for repentance is imperative as prayers of confession and faith are unleashed in this world. There can be no healing without confession; no forgiveness without repentance; no purging of sin without prayer.

The Greek term used for prayer in verses 15 and 16a, euche, can also be translated as oath or vow (for example, Genesis 28:20; 31:13; Numbers 6:2; Deuteronomy 12:6; Psalm 49:14; see also Acts 18:18; 21:23). In the next section, the author uses an example of prayer from Elijah to show how prayer is connected to a specific person and situation as opposed to a general teaching.

Prayer of the righteous (verses 16b-18)

By using the example of Elijah (see also 1 Kings 17:1; 18:42-45) to exemplify the importance of the prayer of faith (he euche tes pisteos), James is not referring to prayer in an abstract sense; rather, individuals and the entire community are called to offer prayers of faith (even in the spirit of a vow or oath) that can save the sick and redeem the sinner. This prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. “Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.  Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest” (verses 17-18). This example of Elijah is not to be taken literally, for there are many cases when prayers are lifted and disasters still happen. So what is the author trying to say in this passage?

Over centuries, prayer has carried people from all walks of life through the most difficult of circumstances. For African Americans in particular, prayer is a foundational aspect of their faith. It is a link to the power of God—a type of “conversation” with God that exceeds anything of human origin (1:5). Prayer is the catalyst for healing, the conduit through which doors are opened, and the assurance that you will make it through today and have hope for a brighter tomorrow. Prayer changes things!

Maria W. Stewart, the nineteenth-century political writer and public orator, knew something about the power of prayer. One of her prayers is quite reminiscent of the individual and communal aspects of prayer found in James 5:15-16a. For Stewart, prayer brought the weak or sick individual (asthenes) closer to God for his or her own personal healing. But the conversation with God does not stop there. The individual also has a responsibility to seek healing and wholeness for others who are “poor and needy” or separated from God in any way.

A promise for those who remain faithful (verses 19-20)

The final two verses in this passage serve as an overall promise anchoring the entire letter. These verses loop back in a symbolic manner to the opening greeting of the letter, which is addressed to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion, or to those in the diaspora, as noted in the Greek (1:1). The author addresses his “brothers and sisters”—again appealing to the entire community; however, the reference is now to those who are scattered or dispersed doctrinally as opposed to those who are physically separated from their place of origin: “my brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders (planao) from the truth (tes aletheias) and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from the path of wandering (planes hodou) will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:19-20; see also 2 Timothy 4:3-4). For those who hold fast to an active faith, immersed in prayer and accountability, there is a path to life and freedom from sin.

Works Cited

Byron, Gay L. “James.” Pages 461-475 in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Cooper, Valerie C. Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, The Bible and the Rights of African Americans. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2011.

Wallis, Jim. America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Washington, James Melvin (ed.) Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.