by Danielle Shroyer
Epistle Reading: James 5:13-20
For Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012: Year B—Ordinary 26
I don’t have any concrete evidence on this, but I think this passage may be in the running to win a “Most Negative Spiritual Baggage” award. I can personally count a rather alarming number of conversations I’ve had with faithful people who have felt that they’ve prayed their hearts out over people they’ve loved only to see them not be healed. I’ve also seen my fair share of really terrible theological conclusions and manipulations that are pinned on a few of these verses.
Discipleship in One Verse
The text starts off well. In fact, if you could somehow find a way to preach just from James 5:13, that would be some solid teaching. Are you suffering? You should pray. Are you cheerful? You should sing out in praise. This one verse covers the wisdom of the majority of the Christian life. The next verse, too: Are you sick? Gather the elders around to pray for you and anoint you. Steady as she goes, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in…oh wait.
Verse 15 makes things a bit more complicated.
A Planet Full Of Dashed Hopes
“The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.” “Save” here is the Greek word “sozo,” the same one used for being saved in the more spiritual sense. It does also mean saving in the sense of being physically healed. Many American Christians have tended to prefer the second almost completely to the exclusion of the first.
This is problematic because every single one of us knows someone who died before their time, died in a way that was painful and unfair, died despite the prayers and cries of the holy and the faithful. So the fact that this has been used to create some sort of guaranteed divine healing system stings like a slap in the face. Sickness and grief and death are pretty difficult without the added baggage.
If Elijah Could…
James doesn’t seem to help or clarify matters when he piles on the guilt by comparing all of us to Elijah immediately afterward. “Elijah was a human being like us!” he says, “And HE was able to pray so powerfully that there was no rain in the whole wide world for three and a half years!”
Never mind that Elijah was a prophet who also didn’t die because he was taken up into the heavens in a fiery chariot. He’s exactly like us. He is the most average human being ever there was. You should absolutely compare yourself to him, especially when someone you love is sick and your prayers aren’t magically working to fix them. Then you can feel guilty not only for your prayers clearly not being said/heard correctly, but also for not being ELIJAH.
If this is James’ idea of a pep talk, I frankly think he fails. There’s a veritable mine field of broken hopes and false expectations (and, dare I say it, lost faith) in this passage. Sometimes people are healed, and it is wonderful. Sometimes they do not get any better, and it is hard, even when you have resurrection hope, even when you have faith, even when you’re trying your best to pray your sorrows.
The Hardest Question
Is James really that oblivious to reality, the human condition, even to the practice of compassion, or is he saying something more here?
Danielle Shroyer is the Pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, TX. She is the author of The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and blogs at www.danielleshroyer.com. Danielle lives with her husband, two children, and two wild and crazy dogs in Dallas.