Saturday of Week 7 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on James 5:13-20

Today is our final reading from the end of James’ Letter, which contains practical advice on prayer.

First, our prayer may be to ask God to remove a hardship or perhaps for the strength to go through it.  The negative experiences of our life are not necessarily to be taken as signs of displeasure on God’s part.  On the contrary, they can often contain a grace.  In dealing with them, we grow in inner strength.  A life without challenges is no life.

However, there can also be an inner restlessness or unease which may point to our life’s being in conflict with God’s will for us.  This may call for some discernment until peace returns.  But we need to remember that inner peace and external difficulties are not necessarily incompatible.  Quite often the contrary may be the case.

Second, those who are ‘in good spirits’ should also pray in praise and thanksgiving.  This is worth saying because, very often when things are going well, God can be the very last person we think of.  But, as soon as we face trouble, we immediately think of praying a novena.  Every day and frequently during the day we should count our blessings and thank and praise God from the bottom of our hearts.

Third, James suggests what should be done when a community member falls ill.  The elders of the community should be called in to pray over the sick person.  In the early Church the elders or ‘presbyters’ (presbyteroi) exercised leadership in the community; they also taught and preached.   They were the predecessors of our ‘priests’ who now have this leadership role.  But there were as yet no priests, as we understand the term now, in the early Church.  Or rather, there was only one High Priest, Jesus Christ (see Heb 4:14-16).

The presbyter would also anoint the sick person with oil in the name of the Lord.  Oil was one of the best-known ancient medicines (referred to by Philo, Pliny and the physician Galen).  In Jesus’ parable, the Good Samaritan pours oil on the wounds of the man lying on the road (Luke 10:34).  Some believe that James may be using the term medicinally in this passage.  However, others regard its use here as an aid to faith, an outward sign of the healing to be brought by God in response to a “prayer of faith”:

The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up…

Furthermore, the healing is total, both physical and spiritual:

…anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.

There is, of course, a close relationship between physical, emotional, mental and spiritual healing – a restoration to wholeness and an end to ‘dis-ease’.

This text provides the New Testament basis for our Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick in which the Christian community gathers in the presence of the sick person who is prayed over, anointed and reconciled with God and the community.  The result is often palpably a genuine healing of the person, in the sense of bringing great peace, even when death inevitably results.

The past custom of “calling for the priest” when the sick person is in extremis and even unconscious is no longer the mind of the Church. The celebration of the Sacrament should be suggested as soon as a person is known to be unwell and, whenever possible, still fully conscious. It was always intended to be seen as a sacrament of healing and not a prelude to imminent death. It can be given in any situation where there is illness and/or danger of death. For example, the Sacrament can be given before a major operation in hospital, or with elderly people who may otherwise be in good health. Indeed, in recent times and in many parishes, the Sacrament is offered after a Mass or during a special celebration, to anyone who feels they need healing of any sort – mind, body, or spirit – with no questions asked. In any of these offerings, it is certainly desirable to have as many people present as possible because the purpose of the Sacrament is to show the solidarity and support of the community to those in need.

James further encourages all Christians to confess their sins to each other and pray for each other for their spiritual healing.  Such mutual openness in a community can only have beneficial results for healing any divisions which may occur.  At this stage in the church’s life, we have not yet arrived at what we now call the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  But what is described here is something to be encouraged.  The practice of the Sacrament in ‘private Confession’ can be very individualistic and legalistic.  With the introduction of Penitential Services, as well as the promotion of prayer and Bible sharing groups, we are moving in this direction again.

As an example of the power of prayer, James gives the example of the prophet Elijah, “a human like us”, who persevered in prayers which were heard.  He first prayed for a drought (as a punishment) and later prayed for the rains to return.  Both prayers were answered (see 1 Kings 17:1 and 18:41-46).

In his last words, James commends the person who brings back a member of the community who has wandered away.  The wanderer may be either a professing Christian, whose faith is not genuine (see Heb 6:4-8; 2 Pet 2:20-21), or a sinning Christian, who needs to be restored.  Such a person who is brought back from his wandering will be saved from death and his sins will be forgiven.

In our days, this is surely something that many of us could try to do.  Few of us can be unaware of such lost sheep, including members of our own family, friends or colleagues at work.

In bringing them back, however, we may have to be careful to steer them in a direction where they will find a church community answering to their real needs.  It is a beautiful thing to bring a person back to the active practice of their Christian faith.  But one has to admit, especially where the young are concerned, that quite a few leave because their church has simply not been providing them with a stimulating and challenging environment for the living of a Christian life.

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