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James 5

Scripture: James 5:1-20

Overview:

  • Jim calls out the rich folk saying, “Yo, One-Percenters, listen up! Bust out your gold plated tissue boxes. Weepy time has come.”
  • James goes on, “You hoarded your wealth so much, it has become useless, even to you. All those nice clothes in your closet? Eaten up by moths. All those gold coins stacked in your safe? They haven’t moved in so long they’ve corroded. And you’ve done all this at the most critical time in history, the time right before God establishes his kingdom on earth!”
  • Jimmy Jay reminds them that the money they owe to their workers is shouting through a megaphone in God’s ears–the God who has an army at his fingertips, who can bring judgment at any moment.
  • “You rich people,” Jamie says, “are like dumb, fat, stall-enclosed, lazy cows–stupidly and ignorantly chewing up giant bails of hay on the very day you’re going to be turned into hamburgers. You hurt innocent people, for no reason. Bad idea.”
  • James then whips around and tells his readers, “But you guys, have patience. God is coming. Don’t do anything rash, though you’re being oppressed.”
  • Jay Jay then shares the analogy of a farmer patiently waiting for his crops to grow, knowing that he can’t control the weather and the timing. He just has to wait for the harvest and hope for the best.
  • “The same is true with you,” Jammy Jim says. “So don’t get impatient and fight with each other about how to control the situation–you can’t. You’ll be sorry if you fight amongst yourselves. God’s judgment is right around the corner.”
  • James then reminds them of Job and the prophets, all whom endured crappy circumstances until God came through for them.
  • “Don’t make deals with God,” Jay says. “Don’t make contingent promises with anyone, just be real. Be honest with each other. If you say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ simply mean it.”
  • “Are you sad? Then pray. Are you happy? Then pray by singing. Are you sick? Then get the leaders of your church to come over, give you some medicine, and pray for you,” James advises.
  • James tells them that faithful people are good at praying and that they can help physically heal people. And if someone’s illness is spiritual in nature, they will be forgiven, too.
  • “Pray and talk honestly with each other,” Jimbo says. “Share your issues, your struggles, your hopes and failures with each other, then pray about it. The prayers of people in alignment with God will release his power into the world.”
  • James goes on to say, “Remember Elijah, that super awesome prophet? Yeah, well, he put on his robes one leg at a time,  just like the rest of us. But because he believed in God and lined up his life with God’s will, he was able to pray his nation in and out of a three year drought. Dang!”
  • James closes out his letter by telling his peeps that they should pursue anyone who has left the church. Helping someone finds forgiveness washes away all their faults. It covers up the problems and gives them new life.

Historical Context:

The Rich

James seems to be reiterating many of the same ideas and feelings that Jesus had toward the rich. See the verses below and note the tenor of the comments.1

  • You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matthew 6:19-24)
  • Wealth was one of the reasons the “seed” in the parable of the sower did not take root. (Matthew 13:22.)
  • It is very hard for the rich to enter the kingdom. (Matthew 19:23-24)
  • The rich are compared unfavorably to the poor widow who gave everything she had to the temple. (Mark 12:41)
  •  Mary thanks God for caring for the poor and sending the rich away empty. (Luke 1:53)
  • Blessed are you who are poor. . . . But woe to you who are rich. (Luke 6:20, 24)
  • The rich man in the parable is declared a fool. (Luke 12:16-21)
  • Jesus tells his host to invite not his rich neighbors but the poor to a meal. (Luke 14:12-14)
  • The Pharisees are characterized as ones who love money. (Luke 16:1-15)
  • In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is in torment in hell, while the poor man Lazarus is blessed to be at Abraham’s side. (Luke 16:19-31)

 Lord of Sabaoth

The NIV translates James 5:4 as  the cries of the oppressed reaching the ears of “the Lord Almighty” The literal translation is “the Lord of Sabaoth,” or as it is translated elsewhere, “the Lord of Hosts,” which is more properly understood as the “God of the heavenly armies,” or the “God of the heavenly hosts (such as the sun, moon and stars),” or the “God of all the armies of angels arranged in an orderly host.”1

This is a quotation from Isaiah 5:9 (also used by Paul in Romans 9:29) in which God is warning Israel of its impending destruction because of its careless attitude in keeping his “vineyard” or laws and national focus. This is an expression for the omnipotence of God, and a comment on his ability to bring vengeance and judgment. James is reminding his readers that God hears the cries of the oppressed workmen even if the employers are deaf.6

Farming in Israel

In the climate of Palestine there are two rainy seasons on which the harvest essentially depends–the autumnal and the spring rains.2

The autumnal rains usually commence in the latter half of October or the beginning of November; not suddenly, but by degrees, which gives opportunity for a farmer to sow his fields of wheat and barley. The rains come mostly from the west or south-west, continuing for two or three days at a time, and failing especially during the nights. The wind then chops round to the north or east, and several days of fine weather succeed. During the months of November and December the rains continue to fall heavily; afterwards they return only at longer intervals, and are less heavy; but at no period during the winter do they entirely cease to occur.2

The spring rains followed, as the crop was maturing, in late March and early April.3

Rain is a standard Old Testament image of God’s promised faithfulness (e.g., Jer 5:24 and Joel 2:23, as well as Deut 11:14, which would have been especially familiar as part of the regularly recited Shema). God has promised these rains; therefore the farmer can be patient in laboring.1

James using wording that implies that a farmer waits for a valuable crop by being patient “over it,” that is, over his fields. He is patient “until” it receives the autumn and spring rains. The description of the crop as valuable would help the persecuted readers to identify with the farmer as not a wealthy landlord but a small farmer who depends on a good harvest for survival.1

A central idea seems to be, that we should wait for things to develop themselves in their proper season, and should not be impatient before that season arrives. In due time we may expect the harvest to be ripened. We cannot hasten it. We cannot control the rain, the sun, the seasons; and the farmer therefore patiently waits until in the regular course of events he has a harvest. So we cannot control and hasten the events which are in God’s own keeping.2

Another point of James’ farmer story seems to be, that as Christians we are primarily sowing and cultivating, not mainly reaping rewards.3

Anointing with oil

Oil, or unguents of various kinds, were much used among the ancients, both in health and in sickness. The oil which was commonly employed was olive oil, which was believed to have medicinal or healing properties. They believed that the oil closed the pores of the skin, and thus prevented the effect of their environment’s excessive heat by which the body was much weakened.2

In reality, oil provided more refreshment and soothing comfort than it did real relief for serious ailments. Ancient peoples drank it as well as rubbed it on themselves as a medication.3

The term translated “anointing him with oil” refers to medicinal anointing, not religious ceremonial anointing. James used the Greek word aleiphein (“rub”) here rather than chriein (“anoint”).3

Note that James doesn’t seem to be advocating any secret formula for miraculous healing. He essentially recommends common medical treatment supplemented with prayer. Righteousness and faith are no guarantees for healing. Note how the Bible records numerous cases where righteous people were ill and were not healed. For example, Isaac and Jacob were blind in their later years. Elisha died of an illness. Timothy is spoken of as having “frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23). Paul said of one of his co-workers in the gospel, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus” (2 Timothy 4:19). And the apostle Paul himself suffered an infirmity that was not healed (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).5

Elijah

James 5:17-18 recaps the story of Elijah told in 1 Kings 17-18.

The story in 1 Kings begins directly with Elijah’s declaration to King Ahab that it would not rain again except at Elijah’s word. The chapters include the miracles done by Elijah when continuous food was provided for the widow at Zarephath during the drought, and when Elijah prayed earnestly for the widow’s dead son and he was restored to life. The climax was the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, in which Elijah prayed earnestly again and God answered dramatically with fire upon the water-drenched altar and then with rain upon the drought-stricken land.1

James said Elijah “prayed earnestly” which is literally translated, “he prayed in prayer” or “he prayed with prayer.” This type of grammatical construction suggests intensity or frequency. It is sometimes translated, “he prayed and prayed.”1

However, in 1 Kings 17:1 it does not say that Elijah prayed, but that he said, “As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these three years, but according to my word.” And when Elijah was said to pray for the rain to return, 1 Kings 18:42 says, “he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees.”2

James precedes his statements about Elijah by reminding his readers that though Elijah was a great prophet, he too was simply a man. James does not want his audience to postpone praying while they try to attain some level of perfection or super spirituality.1 In spite of Elijah’s mortality, sin and imperfections, God mightily answered his prayers, and he will do the same for us.4

Observations:

  • James’ comments to rich people were most likely addressed to those outside of the church. This is drawn from the fact that 1) he refrains from addressing them as “brothers”; 2) he calls them, “you rich people”; 3) the tenor of the statements are not instructive but condemning, there is no hint that any redemption is expected; and 4) he follows the tone of many Old Testament passages condemning rich oppressors and affirming their needy, righteous victims (Ps 109:31; Ps 146; Is 5:22-24; Amos 2:6-7).1
  • The reference to moth and rust is a way of accusing the rich of having hoarded treasures. They had accumulated more than they needed for their own use; and that, instead of distributing them to do good to others, or employing them in any useful way, they kept them until they rotted or spoiled. A considerable part of the treasures which a man in the East would lay up, consisted of perishable materials, as garments, grain, oil, etc. Such articles of property were often stored up, expecting that they would furnish a supply for many years, in case of the prevalence of famine or wars.2
  • The presence of “rust” or corroded gold, in the rich man’s treasury, is a “witness” to his unfaithful stewardship of his wealth. It has not been used.3
  • Among ancient peoples, the gold and silver which any one possessed was laid up in some secret and safe place. There were no banks then in which money might be deposited; there were few ways of investing money so as to produce regular interests; there were no corporations to employ money in joint operations; and it was not very common to invest money in the purchase of real estate, or other types of investments.2
  • James seems to be encouraging his readers that judgment will come to the rich. They are not to judge their oppressors, God will.1 There is a good chance that many Christians were either thinking of, or already had been part of a physically violent revolt against the upper class.
  • The verb wail in Greek is ololyzo, which itself sounds like wailing. The term conveys the idea of “weeping accompanied by recurring shouts of pain”.1
  • Like the blood of the unjustly murdered Abel in Genesis, James says the stolen money “cries out” to God.6
  • James says the rich are fattening themselves like sheep or oxen, unconscious and ignorant of immanent “day of slaughter.” James sarcastically correlates the focus of the wealthy to the ignorance of livestock.6
  • James is worried about his audience grumbling specifically against each other. The warning, “or you will be judged” is identical to Jesus’ words in Mt 7:1 indicating that James regards this grumbling as a form of speaking against or judging one’s brother.1
  • “At the door” (literally, “before the doors”) is an image for the nearness of the Lord’s coming.1
  • James instruction for his audience that all they need “is a simple yes or no” is one of James’s clearest references to the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:33-37). In that teaching Jesus confronted the Pharisaic practice of using various formulas to create different levels of oaths, some of which were considered less binding than others. The Pharisees could thereby bind themselves to their promises in various degrees and so excuse themselves from keeping commitments they had made with lesser oaths. They could use their oaths to sound exceedingly pious and to justify themselves as deeply religious, while being in fact hypocritical.1
  • Given the poverty and injustice of James’s original readers, they likely believed that God was uncaring or unknowing or unable to help. James answer to this is for them to pray more. Conversely, when things were going well for them, their happiness may have made them think there was no need to ask God for anything. James answer to this is for them to pray more, to sing songs of praise.1
  • James reminds them that the success of the prayer depends is not the talent, learning, rank, wealth, or office of the man who prays, but the fact that he is a “righteous man,” that is, a good man; and this may be found in the ranks of the poor, as certainly as the rich; among laymen, as well as among the ministers of religion; among slaves, as well as among their masters.2
  • The fact that the ailing person was to “call for the elders” gives a clue that this person’s sickness connects with some spiritual condition. In this context, James had in view a sickness with spiritual roots. In the ancient mind sin and sickness went together, and so confession of sin was necessary if prayer for the sick was to be effective. The confession is to be not only to the elders (or other ministers) but to one another, that is, probably to those they have wronged.3
  • James himself was noted for his prayer life. Ancient historian, Josephus, says, “[James] was in the habit of entering the temple alone, and was often found upon his bended knees, and interceding for the forgiveness of the people; so that his knees became as hard as [a] camel’s, in consequence of his habitual supplication and kneeling before God.”3
  • The repentance of the sinning believer results in the forgiveness (covering) of his or her sins. This description of forgiveness harks back to Old Testament usage, where the biblical writers described sin as covered (as with a veil) when forgiven. Such usage was understandable for James, who was a Jewish believer writing to other Jews.3
  • The Greek text of James is unclear on whether or not the covering of “a multitude of sins” applies to the sins of the converted, or to the sins of the one doing the converting. The primary meaning must certainly be the former; although, of course, there is a sense in which those who win souls may Scripturally be said to “save themselves.” Paul wrote Timothy, “In doing this thou shalt save both thyself and them that hear thee” (1 Timothy 4:16).4
  • Note that there is no signature, no farewell greeting, no formal closure of any kind to James’ letter.

Discussion:

  • What wealth do you have? Money? Time? Talent? Is it rusting? Are you hoarding it versus using it to help the powerless?
  • Just as a farmer patiently awaits his crops to grow, knowing he doesn’t have control over all the circumstances that make it successful, what things in your life do you need to be patient for? What things do you hope for that you must acknowledge you do not have total control over?
  • James implies that God will correct the injustices that his audience experienced. In modern-day America, we are a country of activists and have many liberties that enable us to rally around causes and bring about social change. Do you think James’ advice would’ve been different if he had written to churches today? What are the differences, similarities and roles that people and God play in bringing about justice in the world? Should we be more patient? Should we be more active?
  • James says that the prayer of a righteous person is “powerful and effective.” What does it take to be righteous? Do you really believe there is a direct correlation between your righteousness and your effectiveness at praying? Has this prevented you from praying? Has it encouraged you to pray? Do we really think our prayers could be as powerful as Elijah’s (i.e. cause a three year drought)? Why? Why not?
  • James seems to connect at least some types of illnesses to sin, with the cure being both medicinal (oil) and spiritual (prayer and confession). What is your perception of sickness as it relates to sin? What is the role of prayer and confession in the context of modern medicine? Does prayer help healing? Does confession rid us of sickness? Is sin responsible for some of the physical ailments we experience?

References:

  1. IVP commentary
  2. Barnes’ commentary
  3. Constables’ commentary
  4. Coffman’s commentary
  5. Healing in James 5
  6. Robertson’s commentary
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