Word Magazine November 1984 Page 21-22


“Is Any Among You Sick?”

James 5:14-16

By Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas

What a question for the Bible to address to us! “Is any among you sick?” asks James in his New Testament letter. Just as in the early Church, so too today, and throughout history, the answer has been a persistent and continuing “Yes.”

Who among us has not experienced sickness at one time or another? Some of us are chronically ill. We’ve all felt the debilitating influence of illness on our bodies, our minds, yes, and even in our souls. So, the Apostle James’s question seems to be directed straight at every one of us — in the depths of our most painful personal experience.

How he proceeds, however, in response to that “Yes” is quite important to us, providing us with insights about health and illness which we may never have given much thought to previously.

Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.

This passage should be familiar to most practicing Orthodox Christians — it is read during the Sacrament of “Prayer-Oil” which is also known as Holy Unction. In some jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church it is conducted only privately, while in others it is offered both to individuals on a private basis, and publicly on Great Wednesday of Holy Week.

A Sacrament for the Sick

Verse 14 has been understood in the Church from the very earliest times to be the scriptural passage which established the Sacrament of Holy Unction. From the second century, written documents refer to the blessing of oil by the Bishop, and its administration to the sick. The word translated in the English version as “elders,” can be misunderstood. It does not refer to all the older members of the congregation. The Greek word is “presbyterous” of the Church, that is, the priests. The official name given to the priest is “Presbyter,” even in English. (For more examples of this use of the word, see 1 Timothy 5:17 and Titus 1:5.) Oil is used as the physical means of the sacrament, a common ancient method of healing, as exemplified in the story which Jesus told about the Good Samaritan who bound up the wounds of the man who had been robbed and beaten, “pouring on oil and wine,” (Luke 10:34). But here we are clearly dealing not with ordinary medicine, but a spiritual and religious act. Why? Because the anointing takes place “in the name of the Lord” with prayer and confidence that it is God who will heal the sick person. At heart, though Christians respect and honor physicians and the medical art, and have recourse to it, they know that it is God who in fact heals our ills. The physician is important in aiding the process of healing, but it is God who is the Healer. This attitude was expressed a long time before St. James wrote this passage. In the Old Testament deuterocanonical book of Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sophia Seirach) we read these still applicable words:

My son, in thy sickness be not negligent: but pray to the Lord, and he will make thee whole. Leave off from sin, and order thy hand aright, and cleanse thy heart from all wickedness. Give a sweet savour, and a memorial of fine flour; and make a fat offering, as not being. Then give place to the physician, for the Lord hath created him: let him not go from thee, for thou hast need of him. There is a time when in their hands there is good success. For they shall also pray unto the Lord, that he would prosper that which they give for ease and remedy to prolong life.


The Spiritual and the Physical Together

Both James and the passage from Ecclesiasticus lead us to an understanding of illness which our age and time has just rediscovered. We have known for centuries now of germs and viruses, which cause illness regardless of the state of our character. What we forgot for a long time, was the message of Ecclesiasticus and James, that the condition of our health — both physical and spiritual — is also influenced by the intangible dimensions of our lives which deal with the soul. Science now recognizes “psychosomatic illness” (that is, “soul-body ills”) and strives for “wholistic medicine,” which treats the total person, body, emotions, mind and spirit. That is why “the prayer of faith” is important for the healing to come about. An essential aspect of that healing, if it is to be full and complete and total, is for all that is disharmonious — “out of kilter,” we might say — between us in our sickness, and God and our fellows and nature itself, to be put aright. Therefore, if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” This is important because it is conditional. James is not saying every sin you commit will give you some specific illness, or anything like that. He is saying that in a broad and general way our sinfulness contributes to the spiritual and physical disharmony and disordered state of our health. Pretty much what the physician means when he speaks of “psychosomatic illness.”

Health in Community

James leads us further on to another important truth, going beyond Ecclesiasticus:

our health and our sickness is not just a private thing. They are part of a social whole. We sin against each other, we harm the lives of others, and others harm our health and well-being. James says there are two things we need to do. First we all need to be constantly “clearing the air” from the moral and spiritual pollution of our unkindnesses and our unloving behavior to one another: “Therefore,” he says in verse 16, “confess your sins to one another.” It is the necessary and essential prelude to mutual forgiveness and the restoration of peace in the body of the Church and the body of society. But that is not enough if true health is to come to us, in us and among us. He tells us we must take an active interest in the welfare of one another for healing to come in its fullness: “pray for one another, that you might be healed.” This concern is not restricted to the physically sick alone. Prayer for the sick is “spiritual therapy,” for sure. But prayer for those who are up and about is a kind of “preventative medicine,” designed to keep us in harmony with God, our neighbor and yes, with ourselves.

The Prayer of a Righteous Man

James points to an even greater source of healing for us, as he concludes this teaching. “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” Since the beginning the Church has taken those words to heart and called upon those special people who lived so close to our Lord, that they were his “friends.” The “friends of God” are the saints. We certainly can pray for healing directly to God — and we should. We certainly can ask our fellow believers to pray for us, just as James tells us. With just as much certainty we have the confidence that we can ask the blessed saints to pray for us in our need, for “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” Maybe that is why the Church routinely seeks the intercessions of the saints for all purposes, including the healing of sickness.

“Is any among you sick?” That question has received a response in this passage which challenges us to respond to the word of God: to accept the healing grace of the sacrament of Holy Unction, to avail ourselves, as well, of the ministrations of the medical arts, to recognize the whole situation of health and unhealth, to both give and receive forgiveness as a way of “clearing away the disharmonious,” to become positive in love and caring for others through prayer for them, and to avail ourselves of the great power of God’s saints for healing.

One time, Jesus asked a man who had been ill for thirty-eight years and who lay unable to do anything for himself at the pool of Bethesda, a question: “Do you want to be healed?” He asks that of each of us today, as well. The paralyzed man responded that he had no one to help him reach the healing waters of the pool. We can’t say that. For you see, we have James, 5:14-16.