another take on James 5:16b on the prayer of the righteous

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

James 5:16b

Without backing down at all on what I wrote on yesterday’s post, I want to briefly consider another possibility in line with the other way of interpreting, and thus translating this passage. Remember that all translation involves interpretation, say from German to English and back. Which is largely why we have differences in our Bible translations, which together make no impact at all on basic Christian doctrine.

The rendering adopted by the NIV (see NRSVNET, etc.) might be correct, and is certainly possible. The emphasis then would be simply on the prayer of a righteous person being powerful and effective. Even if the other way of translating is getting more to the original writing’s intent (I don’t know), what is said in this post still holds significance. And maybe a bit more so, if the NIV rendering happens to be more accurate.

A righteous person, or the righteous, in meaning is probably a bit different in the book of James then it is in Paul’s writings. The righteous in Paul, are those who are “in Christ,” who share in Christ’s righteousness, whether it’s an alien imputed righteousness, or not. The emphasis is that this righteousness comes from Christ, and is not part of the Law. And that it comes by grace through faith, as well as through baptism. It is worked into one’s life by the Spirit, and thus imparted by God through Christ to the one who has faith. So it’s not like it isn’t worked into real life. It’s just that the emphasis is on faith, and that faith in and of Christ.

In James, righteousness is different. Which is why Martin Luther disliked the letter, calling it “a right strawy epistle.” Paul referred to Abraham as simply believing God’s word, and thus being credited righteousness. James refers to Abraham being obedient so that he was considered righteous (NIV) or justified by what he did, so that James says justification is therefore by works, as well as faith, and not by faith alone. Actually we don’t see James contradicting Paul at all. It’s a different perspective, which is present but expressed in a different way in Paul’s letters. We could say that his faith produced works, and therefore was shown to be genuine faith. Through Paul and elsewhere we learn that we can’t save ourselves through our works, that we can only trust and have faith in God’s word, and specifically in the message of the good news in Jesus. Through hearing that message, and believing, like Abraham, we are justified, made or declared righteous. But if we are saved by grace through faith, we are saved for the good works which God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).

The righteous in James are those who live by the royal law that gives freedom, namely “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And that makes a difference not merely in what they believe (the demons believe God is one, and they shudder, says James), but in what they say and do. Certainly belief is important to James, but faith must be accompanied with works to prove its authenticity. Without works, faith is dead.

And so to the passage. The righteous person’s prayer is one who adheres to righteousness as spelled out in this relatively short book. They don’t just listen to the word, but they do what it says. They have humbly accepted the word planted in them, so that they are being saved. True religion includes keeping a tight rein on their tongue, helping orphans and widows (the needy) in their distress, and keeping themselves from being polluted by the world. And echoing Jesus, which James probably does more than Paul, and perhaps more than any other New Testament book, the poor seem to be more inclined toward faith than the rich, and thus are rich themselves in faith, and heirs of the kingdom of God, promised to those who love God.

And so if you are righteous according to James, that’s saying something. The focus should never be on us, but to be righteous according to James, Jesus (see the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7) and the First/Old Testament prophets means to have a change of heart, a change of life. And right down into the nitty gritty of where we live, in what we say (and don’t say), as well as what we do (and don’t do), in good works or deeds for others.

If we are righteous in the way James describes as part of our faith, then our prayer can make a difference, in fact actually is powerful and effective. And the good takeaway here is that it isn’t just the emotionally charged, heartfelt prayer, but any prayer at all from the lips and heart of a righteous person. Of course all of this possible only through the faith that is ours in Jesus.

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