Commentary on James 5:13-20
Though I am now Roman Catholic, I grew up in a fairly conservative evangelical home.
My father is an ordained minister. I can remember when I was young, on a couple of occasions, my dad would get a call at an odd hour. He would go the cupboard, take a bottle of olive oil, and meet the elders of the church to anoint someone who was gravely ill. Having been raised in a rather non-sacramental environment (communion once a month; adult, believer’s baptism), this “sacramental” approach to someone struck ill seemed very strange to me.
This text in James has loomed large in discussions (or worse) between Catholics and Protestants for centuries. It does provide the main basis for the Roman Catholic understanding of the anointing of the sick (extreme unction) as a sacrament. Most Roman Catholic scholars would readily admit, however, that a sacrament per se is not fully revealed in this text in James. It does, however, launch a trajectory that finds a fuller expression revealed in later church tradition.
The issues about a sacrament set aside, this text in James is very indicative of the emphasis of the document as a whole. James stands out somewhat in the New Testament in its radical emphasis on personal responsibility in the ethical realm. Its contrast with Paul is long documented, as is Martin Luther’s general contempt for it. It is important to note its continuity, however, with certain segments of Israel’s scriptures, especially the legacy of Deuteronomy as embodied in some of Israel’s later wisdom literature (Sirach and Wisdom in particular).
James 5:17-18 emphasizes these connections — using Elijah as an example of a righteous person whose actions were rewarded by God. In this case, Elijah’s prayer is deemed effective in the specific results it procured. Thus, this text, although it contrasts theologically with some documents in the New Testament that may be deemed more central, its perspective is not without precedent.
Whether titled a sacrament or not, the understanding of healing in this text does typify a belief that finds widespread adherence throughout the New Testament. Olive oil was widely used for healing in the ancient world and texts such as Leviticus 14 discusses the use of oil in the treatment of leprosy. The synoptic tradition also evinces healing as part of the mission of those whom Jesus sends out (Mark 6:13).
There are many connections between James in general and oral sayings of Jesus and his teaching (especially showing similarities to Matthew). Thus, the anointing of the sick is seen as among those things its author thinks he has inherited from Jesus himself. The healing is done explicitly “in the name of the Lord.” In verse 15 there is an implicit connection between sickness and sin. The assumption would seem to be that the cause of the sickness might be connected to sin. This also is inherited from Israel’s scriptures.
For example, in the book of Job, Job’s friends imply and then outright assert that Job’s misfortune, the lack of soundness in his own flesh, is a result of some sin Job has in his life. Though it seems unpalatable to modern sensibilities, it is not surprising to see here the idea that the anointing of the sick and the forgiveness of sin are explicitly connected.
In our modern context and understanding of health and healthcare, it would seem we have lost much of the New Testament’s emphasis on charismatic healing (for sure, some charismatic denominations today would still claim to practice this emphasis). Raymond Brown formulates this question provocatively: “Most Christians do not think they have been given a special charisma for healing.
What responsibility have they toward continuing the early Christian emphasis on healing or care of the sick, especially in a culture that more and more entrusts healing to the medical profession and health organizations?”1 This is not to recommend a flight from modernity to superstitious healing tactics. There is, however, a radical theological belief in God’s power latent in the discussion of healing in the book of James that ought not be immediately passed over.
If we try to move past the specifics of the healing, there are some deeper principles evident in this text that also can help make it theologically rich even if we find some distaste for its specifics.
The text in James 5:13-20 has a very community-based theological disposition. While parts of James, and certainly the Wisdom tradition it inherits, can be focused on the individual, much of the discussion throughout the text of James is oriented around a community.
Chapter two’s warning about partiality is focused on examples from members of the community. The words about faith and works are dotted with examples about how others are to be treated. The plight of the sick, then, is not that they simply pray by themselves and have an individual faith. The community is to gather; this seems to be a central dynamic of the understanding of the healing.
Verses 19 and 20 also demonstrate this principle. Here the focus is on saving another from sin, but we’ve already seen how this is understood in connection with sickness. The same point comes through regardless, that members of the community bear a mutual responsibility for each other.
This is not easy to do today. We retreat into our homes. Our porches are on the back of our houses in our private backyards. Certainly, those who are well bear a responsibility to help those who are not. But, those who are struggling or are ill would seem to bear the reverse responsibility: that they share their struggles — health related or otherwise — with those who are available. It is often harder to ask for or receive help than it is to give it. What this text in James indicates is that this is an essential aspect of the Christian community — that we be involved in each other’s lives, helping each other in our physical and spiritual journeys.
1Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 746.