Home » Various Sermons » A Last word on the Tongue: James 5.12-20

A Last word on the Tongue: James 5.12-20

“But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.  Is anyone 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 one who is sick, 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 person has great power as it is working.  Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.  Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” – James 5.12-20

When Arthur had sentenced his wife, Queen Guinevere to be burnt for her sins, he ordered Sir Gareth to be a part of the group to accompany her to her doom.  But Lancelot came to save her and in the process he killed Sir Gareth.  Now Gareth was Gawain’s favorite brother and upon seeing his brother killed Gawain swore that he would see Lancelot killed for this evil deed.  In so doing he forced a war between Arthur and Lancelot which could had been avoided and in the following battle he challenged Lancelot in a duel, but in each duel he lost and was even wounded.

While Arthur was away battling Lancelot’s forces, his evil son Mordred took over the kingdom.  Upon hearing this Arthur turned back to save his kingdom, but his troops were gone and his best knights killed.  At this Gawain began to lament his oath that he had taken in anger.  In the battles to come to reclaim Arthur’s kingdom, Gawain was wounded mortally by Mordred.  As he laid dying he composed a letter quickly repenting of his sin to Lancelot and as well as asking for Arthur’s forgiveness for his foolishness.  Gawain shortly died after composing his letter, but he had felt a sort of relief because of it all.

As James closes his letter he warns us one last time about misuse of our tongue and the dangers of Oaths, but he also calls us to the power of prayer, of repentance, but most of all of the Lord’s forgiveness.  In a way as James closes this letter he speak of the hope that we have in Yahweh’s forgiveness and of the true joy that we can have in Christ.

“But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” – James 5.12

James begins this portion with, “But above all,” and we can for the most part take this phrase as the beginning of the end of James’s epistle[1].  At the same time James wishes to once more bring to mind the same issues which he had dealt with since the beginning the misuse of our tongue[2].  As James begins this section he seems as it were to be quoting his brother’s words as found in Matthew 5.34-37.

Original when one swore they said “by Yahweh” (Exodus 22.11) but when it became taboo to say his name the swearing thus became done by heaven or earth[3].  But by swearing by heaven or earth the oath also became one which wasn’t as valid and thus to say by heaven instead of Yahweh made the oath one that was less binding so to speak[4].  James’ words which harks back to Jesus reminds us that heaven and earth, aren’t ours to swear by, but Gods and all that we have is our ye sand our no[5].  Besides the fact that the oaths being made were oaths for mundane things such as proving your truth or making promise to do such and such a thing in the future[6].

James is thus concerned with pushing his readers toward truthfulness[7].  He is also moreover concerned with his readers that they avoid once more wrong actions, as he has spoken about quite often in his epistle, by taking oaths they were doing something, but it was the wrong sort of something[8].  James was combating the abuse of oaths which had sprung up among the Jewish people; remember that who he talked too, was quite likely Jewish-Christians.  Moreover this problem is one which was evidently a problem for Ben Sira who warned that oaths such not be abused as Sirach 23.9-11 relates:

“Do not accustom your mouth to oaths, nor habitually utter the name of the Holy One; for as a servant who is constantly under scrutiny will not lack bruises, so also the person who always swears and utters the Name will never be cleansed from sin. The one who swears many oaths is full of iniquity, and the scourge will not leave his house. If he swears in error, his sin remains on him, and if he disregards it, he sins doubly; if he swears a false oath, he will not be justified, for his house will be filled with calamities.”

So what does one do with oath taking?  The problem firstly is that within the Old Testament we do not see a place where Oaths are outright outlawed, and Yahweh himself makes an oath as evidenced by Exodus 13.5[9] “And when the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this service in this month.”But the Old Testament did show a concern that an oath be true, as seen in Leviticus 19.12[10] “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.”

As noted earlier people had started to abuse oaths to the point that Wisdom writers were asking people to take oaths more seriously and using them less often, but the problem all hinges on our truthfulness.  Johnson puts it this way “It is a call to simplicity and truthfulness. If a person’s “yes” reveals the affirmation of the heart and the commitment of the hands, then it can be trusted. In the same fashion, if a person’s “no” defines the boundaries of consensus and commitment, then it is equally to be trusted[11].”  Basically we shouldn’t take oaths for any other reason then what the law demands, we shouldn’t need to take an oath among our Christian brothers for the hope that our word is true.

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.  Is anyone 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 one who is sick, 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 person has great power as it is working.  Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.  Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” – James 5.13-18

This section of James, concerning prayer forms a rather fitting end to his epistle, he began in 1.5 by telling us that prayer gave us wisdom and he ends here speaking on why else we ought to pray[12].  Let him sing praise the word here encompasses both sing and playing an instrument[13].  Moreover as praise can at times be seen as a form of prayer we can be reminded of Paul’s’ words in Ephesians 6.18[14] “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,”

Instead of the many various actions which might take such as the grumbling against on another of verse nine or the oath taking of the previous our answer in times of trouble is pray as too is it during the good times[15].  In way whether we are feeling down in the dumps, suffering or that we are feeling rather well, there are always occasions to be talking to God in some manner.

Beginning with verse fourteen and the following two, James teaches about prayer and praise, but in a way that focuses on the communion aspect of the Christian faith[16].  By speaking of sickness James has returned to suffering, but this time in the form of illnesses, and the challenge which they bring.  As he brings the elder into the fray, James reminds us that even as happiness is to be shared so too is suffering to be shared[17].  After all one has to note that here, the Believer is not told to pray, but instead to call the Elders, to pray over him[18]!

The way in James speak of the Elders, including “of the assembly” gives the suggestion that these people are more than old men, but instead it gives the idea that they are official leaders[19].  Of course one might ask why is it that he Elder, but no one else is called upon?  The point, however of the Elder is that they are called Elders because they should have shown maturity in faith, and moreover they should be able to know better the others, the will of the Lord, and as they pray to understand better the way God works[20].

Why might one be told to anoint the answer is somewhat hard to answer and there has been a variety of different outcomes.  But it seems to be that the act of anointing here was as Moo puts it “therefore, that “anoint” in v. 14 refers to a physical action with symbolic significance[21].”  It is the idea that by doing this physical action, that the elders are signifying that this person as now been “set apart” for God’s care[22].  Finally this verse ends with in the name of the Lord.  The Lord here probably refers to Christ, but considering that shortly James will once again refer to the Old Testament Yahweh might be what is in view[23].

It is the right type or prayer which will help, not prayer with the wrong intentions, in prayer especially community prayer it is the pray of the faithful for the right reasons that has the power[24].

The connection of sickness and sin is a complicated one for in some texts such as 1 Corinthians 11.29-30 sin and illness seem close, while in others such as John 9.1-3 it seems quite distant, but one has the remember James started this with the words “If he has sinned…” the idea is that he sin may be part of the sickness, but not always so[25].

The idea of confession of sin had always been an important part of the Jewish faith, this includes both private and public confession and for various occasions, Oesterley notes that “it was the duty of the Rabbis to urge the sick person to confess his sins.  Confession is regarded as a meritorious act[26].”

One could look at Numbers 5.7 “he shall confess his sin that he has committed.  And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong.” or Daniel 9.4-5[27] “I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules.”

We told to confess to one another, James isn’t telling his audience to spout out every detail of their sin to the public, but rather to be honest that they had committed the sin[28].  All too often confession within the church bring up great upheavals and more hurt feelings then they ought to.  James commended his readers to confess to another not to bring up pain, but to bring a “release” from their sin and allow true joy room to move[29].

In the second part of verse 16 James reminds the readers that prayer isn’t just for the elders, but for the whole community and the power of that goes with the whole community[30].

To prove his point James has again turned to an Old Testament figure.  Before anyone could argue that Elijah was someone special James tells us that the truth of the matter is that Elijah’s nature was just like any other human’s[31].  Thus when referring to Elijah one has to realize that James isn’t speaking of many with any sort of above average gifts, instead he had realness and force to his prayers, as we too can have[32].  (Concerning the time James is going on tradition (as evidence in Sirach and 4 Ezra)[33]).

“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” – James 5.19-20

As 1 John 5.16 and Jude 22-23 end, so too does James and each concern the helping of a fellow believer concerning their sin[34].  James ending might seem a bit abrupt, but it is no more abrupt then other pieces of Jewish wisdom literature such as Ben Sira or Wisdom of Solomon[35].

In verse nineteen we see James use for the last time, the term “my brothers,” and in a twist he asks them to do something, namely to the help a fellow believer recover from a wrong road[36].  This brother though is simply doing some minor sin, but indeed is majorly sinning[37].  One might be reminded of Yahweh’s words to Ezekiel in 3.21[38] “But if you warn the righteous person not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning, and you will have delivered your soul.””

One might wonder wondered what is all involved in this covering of sin.  Many view this passage as an encouragement to believers by reminding them of the forgiveness which they can enjoy, but it seems better to refer to this passage as referring to sinner and the amount of sins which have been prevented so speak because of his return to the fold[39].

In the end what matters is that we should be encouraged to intervene in others life to help bring them back to Jesus and be to be reminded that we help them in what matters most, their relationship with God.

In Conclusion:

James has often spoke about the use of our tongue and in the ending of his letter he doesn’t forget about our little member.  There so many ways which one might mess up by the use of the tongue, but there are some good ways in which we might use it, most notably by prayer and by praise to our God.  As we reflect on the words of James we should remember all that he has told us to avoid, but also all that he has requested that we do[40].


[1] Moo 232

[2] Johnson 327

[3] Leahy 376

[4] Hartin 782

[5] Richardson 229

[6] Moo 232

[7] Leahy 376

[8] Richardson 229

[9] Johnson 327

[10] Moo 232

[11] Johnson 341

[12] Hartin 782

[13] Oesterley 473

[14] Leahy 376

[15] Richardson 229

[16] Richardson 230

[17] Johnson 231

[18] Moo 237

[19] Johnson 330

[20] Moo 237

[21] Moo 242

[22] Moo 242

[23] Oesterley 474

[24] Richardson 233

[25] Johnson 234-235

[26] Oesterley 475

[27] Leahy 377

[28] Johnson 236

[29] Johnson 237

[30] Moo 247

[31] Leahy 377

[32] Hartin 783

[33] Leahy 377

[34] Hartin 783

[35] Johnson 339

[36] Moo 249

[37] Moo250

[38] Johnson 338

[39] Moo 250-1

[40] As a final note I didn’t want to wait to put up this sermon on getting together the full bibliographic data, but if need be, for anyone whose interested (for what few read this blog) I can do so in a comment to this post at some future venture.

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