The following is a reflection on James 5:13-20, the epistle lesson appointed for Proper 21B, according to the revised common lectionary.
I think it’s helpful to read the conclusion of the Epistle of James in its full context. James was writing to a community engaged in conflict over class discrimination. It was apparently a vicious and heated inter-church argument.
In the beginning of the Epistle, James urges the people in the church to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. He tells them that anger doesn’t bring forth righteousness. Later in the letter he tells them to watch their language and how they speak to one another. Because, as we all know, words can do lots of damage. And, he admonishes the people to act with gentleness at all times.
Really, it’s a good recipe for church unity, no matter the level of internal conflict, if any exists at all.
As I said in last week’s post, I think these changes are about core identity, and not window-dressing. James is saying that in our very being we are to be people without anger, without approach, and without arrogance – and that if we can manage to do that, we’re a lot closer to Christian identity than we would be otherwise.
One might say that the bulk of the Epistle of James is about how to BE, and that it’s much shorter on what to DO. But, that isn’t true.
What James does, is link the two together. We don’t do certain things to win God’s favor, we do certain things because of the kind of people we are.
Because of our faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ (James 2:1), we put away anger, we listen, we care for the widow and orphan in distress, we act with gentleness, we treat poor and rich alike, we love our neighbor as ourselves.
And then, you get to the fifth chapter. Now that we have everything else under control…it’s time to pray.
We are a people of prayer. We pray when we’re in distress, and we sing our prayers when we have something to celebrate. And, we pray together. We bring our sick into the midst of the assembly, and we reach out our hands and touch them. We even bring our troubles and sins to each other, knowing that no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, we will be met with gentleness and prayerful forgiveness.
Luther called James the “Epistle of Straw” and he sought to demote it to apocryphal status.
But, no. In this letter, James the Just, James the Brother of our Lord, paints a picture of what the church is meant to look like. What we’re to be, and what we’re to do—and he shows us that those two things are inextricably bound together.