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James 5:13-18 briefly mentions several kinds of prayers for those who are suffering or rejoicing (5:13). Those who are suffering ought to pray. The verb James used for suffering (κακοπαθέω) is rare in the New Testament. Paul used the word in 1 Tim 2:9 to describe his own suffering, bound in chains like a criminal. In 2 Tim 4:5 it is one of the final commands to Timothy (endure hardship). This is not necessarily that people being oppressed by outsiders (such as the wealthy of the previous section). This word can refer to any sort of affliction (even the sickness in verse 14).

Image result for anoint the sick with oilAlthough the verb is the common word for prayer, James makes a clear parallel with “cheerful singing” in the next line. It is at least possible James wants the one who is suffering to pray a lament Psalms. There are many examples of prayers in the Psalms where the writer is lamenting because of suffering and oppression.

In contrast, the cheerful ought to “sing praise.” The verb “be cheerful” (εὐθυμέω) and the related nouns have the sense of “in good spirits” (BDAG), as in Acts 27:22, 25, 36 where Paul encourages those about to be shipwrecked to “take heart.” This word does not refer to someone who is bubbly and happy, but rather someone who may be suffering but rejoices anyway. In James, the readers all seem to be suffer in some way.

Although there is no organized persecution, there is some harassment at the hands of the wealthy and powerful. Since the verb for singing (ψάλλω) is related to noun for a psalm, perhaps James wants the cheerful to respond to the Lord with thanksgiving or praise drawn from the Psalter. The believer is to respond in worship whether they are enduring some suffering or enjoying a time of relative peace.

A second kind of prayer in this paragraph is prayer for the sick (5:14-15). The elders are to pray over the sick and anoint them with oil. It is important to understand “elders of the church” in the context of James as a very early letter. This is not the office of elder in the fairly structured church of the Pastoral Epistles. Some scholars see this as a distinctively Christian phrase. Sophie Laws, for example, “This is one phrase which gives a specifically Christian colouring to the epistle” (Laws, James, 225).

An elder (πρεσβύτερος) referred to the older, wise men of a community. For Jews, these were the men who were respected in a town and synagogue. As the church developed certain men were appointed to function as official guardians of faith and practice, but in the earliest Jewish communities, the elders were analogous to the older men of the synagogues. By church (ἐκκλησία), James refers to the Jewish Christian communities in the Diaspora, more or less equivalent to a synagogue. This is not the universal church, the body of Christ.

The elders also anoint the sick with oil. Although anointing with oil is used for a variety of things, it is associated with treating wounds. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the Samaritan puts oil on the man’s wounds, for example. But in the ancient world there was nor a clear distinction between a miraculous healing and medical science. “A distinction between remedies based on superstition and remedies based on science would have been foreign even to the practitioners of Greek medicine” (Laws, James, 227).

The elders anoint the sick person “in the name of the Lord.” This could refer to Jesus, or could refer to the father. For the most part Jews would have referred to God as “the name,” so this implies the Lord is Jesus. Although this seems academic, there are so few references to Jesus in James scholars hope to find them wherever they can! Dibelius thought the command to pray “in the name of the Lord” is an allusion to exorcising a demon who was responsible for the sickness. This would reflect the Second Temple view that demons caused illness, but there is little in this text to support an exorcism.

The sick person also confesses their sin. This may reflect the Jewish view that sickness and sin are related. It was common in the Second Temple Period for Jews to connect physical illness and sin. For example, Sirach 18:19-21 and 38:15 makes confession of sin a requirement for healing and good health (Laws, James, 229).

Sirach 18:19–21 (NRSV) Before you speak, learn; and before you fall ill, take care of your health. 20 Before judgment comes, examine yourself; and at the time of scrutiny you will find forgiveness. 21 Before falling ill, humble yourself; and when you have sinned, repent.

Sirach 38:15 (NRSV) He who sins against his Maker, will be defiant toward the physician.

In John 9, Jesus’s disciples ask of a man who was born blind had sinned, or of his parents had sinned; in Mark 2 the Pharisees considered Jesus’s pronouncement that a lame man’s sins were forgiven to the blasphemous since the man was still lame.

It is surprising James makes no reference to laying on of hands, a common practice in healing. This may imply this is not a “traditional healing.” The impression from the two verses is that a person with an unusual illness can call one or two of the community leaders to their bedside and confess their sins. These elders will pray for them and tend to their illness in some real tangible way.

Like the first two commands of this paragraph, the sick person confessing sin is often found in the Psalms.

Psalm 35:13–14 (ESV) But I, when they were sick— I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest. 14 I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother; as one who laments his mother, I bowed down in mourning.

Psalm 41:1–3 (ESV)  Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him; 2 the Lord protects him and keeps him alive; he is called blessed in the land; you do not give him up to the will of his enemies. 3 The Lord sustains him on his sickbed; in his illness you restore him to full health.

The prayer of these elders can “save them” and the Lord will raise them up. This appears to refer to healing, although this is not necessarily the sort of miracle Jesus did, nor the apostles in Acts. But regardless of the activity of these elders, it is the Lord who raises the sick person from their sick bed.

By way of application, these two verses are not related to modern healing at all, they reflect Jewish practice in the first century. James is describing a practice which should be as obvious as praying at times of suffering or cheerfulness.

James reflect a common image from both the Old Testament and philosophy that life is short and no one can know what the future will hold (v. 14) The real problem with making arrogant plans for the future is no one knows the length of their life.

Borrowing a common metaphor from the Old Testament, James describes life as a mist. An early morning fog can seem substantial, but it will be gone as soon as the sun rises.

Hosea 13:3 (ESV) Therefore they shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes early away, like the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor or like smoke from a window.

Wisdom of Solomon 2:4–5 (NRSV) Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat. 5 For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.

Rather than despairing over the brevity of life, James says everything ought to be done in the light of the will of the Lord (v. 15). This sort of phrase is so common to modern Christians we hardly think about saying “if it be your will” during prayer. But as Sophie Laws points out, this phrase does not have any real precedent from the Hebrew Bible. Everything that happens is God’s will, so there is no wishing that God’s will happens (or not).

Rather, Laws says “the lord wills” is “is part of Graeco-Roman idiom from Socrates’s commending of it to Alcibiades (Plato, Alc. i. 135d)… it was a knock on wood phrase in ancient cultures” (Laws, James, 192). A Roman might say deo volente, “God wills” as a kind of “if-all-else-fails” hopeful saying when beginning a task that need some luck (McKnight, James, 37). Paul uses a similar phrase in connection with his travel plans in 1 Corinthians (4:19, “I will come to you if the Lord wills;” 16:7 “I wish to spend some time with you if the Lord permits”) and in Acts 18:21.

The recent secular reaction against the phrase “thoughts and prayers” after a disaster is a sobering reminder that Christians throw out phrases without thinking. So many people say things like “our prayers are with the victims” after a disaster, but I have often wondered if they news reader really prayed for anyone (ever). Aside from a general misunderstanding of prayer and a cynical reduction of one’s piety to the occasional “moment of silence,” the criticism is coveting to me since there have been many times someone has asked me to pray for them about some specific issue and I have failed to pray, or even remember the request. The phrase “I will pray for you “becomes a nice thing to say even if I do not actually pray.

I think most Christians I know really do understand what prayer is about and do in fact pray for victims and their families at the time of a disaster. But too many people use the phrase “thoughts and prayers” like a Roman might use “if god wills.” It is a knock-on-wood phrase with little meaning, This is what James is upset about, people who make their plans and toss a quick “if God wills” into the mix to make it sound spiritual.

The person who believes they are in control of their lives are arrogant, boasting in things they have cannot control. The merchant’s boasts are pretentious. The noun ἀλαζονεία is used to describe the pretentious boasting of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (2 Macc 9:8). The merchants are foolish to boast in their planning, shrew business sense, and amazing profits because it was God who provided it all to them in the first place.

How do we live life guided by the will of God, yet responsibly plan for the future? As modern Americans we always plan for the future (retirement plans, for example, college savings for children, etc.) There is a balance between making wise plans for the future and knowing the future is uncertain. It is important to get a job in order to provide for your family, to save money to provide for yourself when you retire, all the Dave Ramsey things. But the wise person does not hold on to that accumulated wealth too tightly since circumstances may destroy all your saved wealth.

This kind of wise attitude toward preparing for the future has to be balanced with a clear understanding that everything can change in an instant. Some disaster could change everything so that your plans have to change in order to survive. As with Job, our attitude has to be “the Lord blesses, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

James offers one final example of the arrogance of the tongue: making plans for the future and the flippant use of the phrase “if the Lord wills.” Even today, this is quite similar to saying “sure, I will pray for you.” Christians tend to add this to prayers as if we are giving the Lord an option out of responding positively to our prayers (“give so-and-so healing, if it be your will.”)

Who is James addressing in this passage? Are they “international business men” who travel the Empire making profits? If so, the problem is not travel or business, but rather their arrogance that they are building up reliable wealth for the future. The arrogance of some business owners is their assumption they can go anywhere and make a profit without giving a thought to the Lord’s will.

Jewish businessmen traveled throughout the Empire managing all sorts of businesses. In the New Testament, Aquila and Priscilla were tentmakers in Rome who relocated to Corinth and were active in Ephesus as well. In Acts 16, Lydia is a business woman (a seller of purple) from Thyatira now living in Philippi. Even Paul could be considered a travelling business person since he was able to work in the tent trade any city he happened to visit.

In the Second Temple Period, international business “was seen as a way to obtain the fortune needed to purchase the estates on which the “good life” might be lived” (Davids, James, 172). Ralph Martin says “there is also a fairly well documented background about Jewish traveling merchants in the period, among whom the aristocratic Sadducees, who gained part of their wealth by foreign trade and commercial endeavor” (Martin, James, 169). Jewish entrepreneurs were not the only ones to make huge sums of money. Ralph Martin offers the example of Ananias, the High Priest A.D. 47–55. Josephus called him “a great procurer of money” (Josephus, Ant. 20.205).

The problem these business people plan for the future without acknowledging the Lord. There is nothing unusual or sinful about their business plans, but they are made without any reference to God. “We will go, we will spend time, we will trade and we will make a profit.” McKnight points out this is a claim that they control time (today or tomorrow), place (such and such a city), duration (a year or two), and their goals (profits) (McKnight, James, 370).

The problem is not their planning or the making of profits, but rather the arrogance of claiming control of every aspect of their lives without considering God’s hand in their business activity. Proverbs 27:1 warns against boasting about tomorrow; Job 14:1, a person’s life is short and full of trouble. 1 Enoch 97. 8 has a similar warning:

1 Enoch 97.8 Woe unto you who gain silver and gold by unjust means; you will then say, ‘We have grown rich and accumulated goods, we have acquired everything that we have desired.

Even Stoicism warned against the folly of planning for the future: “no one has any right to draw for himself upon the future” (Seneca, Ep. ci. 5).

James is perhaps aware of Jesus’s parables of the rich fools and the dangers of being anxious over the future. In Luke 12:16-21 a rich fool makes plans to expand his business without any account of the Lord’s will and dies without enjoying his wealth. The parable-like story in Luke 16:19-31 describes a foolish rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus. In Matthew 6:34 Jesus says “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” and in Matthew 16:26, “For what will it profit a man if he

Although there is nothing wrong with doing business and making a profit, it is dangerous to rely on that wealth since the future is uncertain. But how does the modern, western (especially American) Christian live this ideal out in a culture which is completely inundated with relying on one’s own wealth and savings for the future? Can we really plan wisely for the future yet hold loosely to that plan since we cannot really know what will happen tomorrow?

Can we really avoid planning for the future in order to “let go and let God”? Where is the balance?

 

James tells his readers “not many should become teachers” (3:1). Why does James make this command?

It is possible he is concerned about the messianic community having too many teachers, or maybe that some unqualified people were aspiring to be teachers. Jesus told his disciples they ought to avoid meaning called “rabbi” in order to avoid the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (Matt 23:6-8).

The reason for this warning is that those who teach will be judged with “greater strictness.” James includes himself in this warning, although the ESV and NIV add the words “we who teach” as the subject of “will receive greater judgment.”  Similarly, Jesus said “to whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). The teacher will receive “particularly rigorous scrutiny” at the judgment seat of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10–15)” (Laws, James, 144).

The reason for this scrutiny is the teacher speaks more, therefore has more opportunity to say things worthy of judgment. If the wise person is to be slow to speak (2:12), then teacher is in danger of judgment because of his constant speaking! (The more you talk, the deep the hole you dig).

James is concerned with too many teachers talking in unloving ways (McKnight, James, 269).  For teachers in the Jewish or Greco-Roman world, a teacher was judged by his popularity, Just as happens in the modern world, a popular teacher is entertaining. This may mean they use humor and amusing stories as a part of their presentation, and anytime you use humor there is a possibility of offending someone (or everyone).

Teachers are often guilty of making a careless aside which derails everything they were trying to say. I knew a teacher some years ago who made cutting jokes and remarks, often under his breath as if no one could hear them. He regularly offended his students and really did not have the influence he assumed he had. I have done this myself, trying to make a joke and it comes out totally wrong and I destroy a relationship (and any chance to teach that person a thing!)

Some teachers attain a level of popularity which prevents them from addressing some issues which are controversial. The larger the following the weaker the theology. For example, Joel Osteen has very thin theology but a massive church; a conservative pastor preaching the Bible has every theological T crossed and every I dotted, but they have a church of fifteen elderly people. Joel Osteen cannot speak out against a particular sin because he would lose a section of his congregation that enjoys that sin and does not come to church to be preached against.

In addition to careless speech, a church teacher is presented as an authority on God’s word, Christian practice and theology. With any authority comes great responsibility. When asked, a teacher will gladly give their opinion, even if they have no real preparation or expertise to address the topic (worse: ask a blogger a question!)

Perhaps an extreme example for contemporary culture, pop-stars often give their opinion on matters of science, government, religion, etc. even though they have no education which qualifies them to be an expert. That sort of “careless speech” is influential because people like and trust them. So too a teacher might offer an expert opinion on a theological or ethical issue when they have not really done the work it requires to understand the issue, and therefore lead people astray.

It is likely James has in mind careless speech which leads to division within the church. There is nothing in James which implies the elders (some of whom are likely teachers) are deficient in their theology, but through careless speech they may be creating a divisive atmosphere in the small diaspora Jewish churches. Paul certainly had to deal with this in Corinth, there is no reason to doubt diaspora Jews were any less divisive.

How ought we evaluate public teachers of the Bible? Is it fair they are held to a higher standard just because they are teachers?

James 1:1 indicates that he is writing to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” Assuming that this line is to be read literally, we need to understand what a Jewish writer would have meant when he said “twelve tribes” and Diaspora. Simply put, a Jew “living in the Diaspora” was a Jew living outside of “the land.” But things are a bit more complicated than that.

Elephantine, Egypt

Elephantine, Egypt

The Judaism of the first century developed the way it did because of the exile. The exile could begin as early as 722 B.C. when Samaria fell to Assyria, but the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. is the usually beginning point for most scholars. The fall of Jerusalem was the event that shaped Jewish religion as we know it in the Second Temple Period because it stripped the Jews of all things which constituted ethnicity. They no longer had land, their language began to shift from Hebrew to Aramaic, and there was a significant threat from intermarriage. The Jews, as a people, were at risk of losing their ethnicity.

How did the Jews survive the exile? All other peoples of the ancient world integrated and disappeared from history. How many people claim to be Moabites these days? The primary factor is Jewish Religious tradition centered on the Torah. These traditions kept them from assimilating into a host culture. The story of Daniel is only one example of Jews working within a culture yet remaining distinct from it. Centers of Jewish cultures developed in Alexandria and Elephantine in Egypt and in Babylon. These places continued to develop well into the current era. It is likely that Babylon and Alexandria were superior centers of Judaism to Jerusalem for much of the Second Temple period.

Those who chose to live outside of the land rather than return to Jerusalem always face problems in living in accordance with their traditional customs. The main three which are typically identified: monotheism, Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary laws. It is not a surprise to find these as the main points of controversy in the New Testament. While Paul does not shift on monotheism, he does not require gentiles to conform to the other three boundary markers and it is at least possible he may have been open to Jews not practicing food laws or worshiping on a day other than Sabbath.

The important thing to remember when discuss the Diaspora is that it was not as much geographical as cultural. Paul might encounter strongly traditional Jews in Ephesus or Rome, and relatively “liberal” Jews in Jerusalem. In fact, I suggest that the Jews who ran the Temple in the first century were far less traditional than the Jews who worshiped in the Greek-speaking synagogues in and around Jerusalem. The fact that the first violent persecution of the followers of Jesus came out of the Greek-speaking synagogue (Acts 7) is an indication that at least those Diaspora Jews were “conservative” with respect to the Temple.

So back to James. I think that he is certainly writing to Jews who are Christians, but they are people who may very well represent the more conservative form of Judaism before accepting Jesus as Lord. If this is true, it may explain James’ insistence on good works, for example, as a sign of true faith.

How might this understanding of Diaspora help us to read the Letter of James? How can this Letter be understood as addressing the needs of Diaspora Jews?

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