The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on James 5:13-20

Posted by Dim Bulb on May 14, 2016

This post opens with a brief analysis of all of chapter 5, followed by the commentary on today’s reading. Text in purple indicates Fr. MacEvilly’s paraphrase of the scripture he is commenting on. Text in red, if any, are my additions.


In this chapter, St. James denounces against the hard-hearted rich, the heaviest punishments in the life to come, on account of their crimes and cruelties towards the poor (1). These cruelties he enumerates. First—Their hard-heartedness was such, as to suffer their wealth to rot, sooner than give it to the poor (2), and their money to rust, sooner than dispense it: the consequence of which is, that they will suffer the severest punishments (3). The next crime he charges them with is, defrauding the labouring poor of their hire, one of the most iniquitous means of amassing riches (4). He then charges them with leading luxurious and debauched lives, pampering themselves in delicacies, like cattle destined for slaughter (5). And finally, he charges them until committing the most heinous crime, of persecuting unto death, innocent just men; and, as an aggravating circumstance of their injustice, he states, that these were unable to make resistance (6).

Turning to the poor and persecuted, he exhorts them to patience by several considerations such as the near approach of the Lord—the example of the husbandman, who patiently endures hardships in hopes of the distant harvest (7–8). He cautions them against murmurings (9), and consoles them by the examples of the prophets of old, and especially by the example of Job. He prohibits rash swearing.

He promulgates the Sacrament of Extreme Unction (14, 15). He exhorts them to the confession of their sins, and to prayer for one another, and he adduces the example of Elias, as an instance of efficacious prayer (16–19). Finally, he points out the great merit of converting sinners from their evil ways.

Jas 5:13 Is any among you suffering? let him pray. Is any cheerful? let him sing praise.

Should any one among you be in a sad mood, owing to his afflictions and adversity, let him seek consolation from God in prayer. Should he be in a joyous mood, let him nourish this feeling by singing spiritual songs, and by offering to God in thanksgiving, a sacrifice of praise.

St. James here prescribes a rule for the guidance of such as are in sadness; he had prohibited them already from uttering complaints against one another (9). He now tells them to have recourse to God for consolation and to commune with him in prayer. “Is he cheerful,” i.e., in a happy and joyous mood of mind, “let him sing,” i.e., sing spiritual canticles, a befitting way of nourishing this happy mood of mind, and of rendering God thanks—See Epistle to the Ephesians, 5:19.

Jas 5:14 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:

Is any one among you labouring under grievous and dangerous bodily infirmity? Let him send for, and have called in, some one of the priests ordained and consecrated to minister in the church, and let the priest pray over him, anointing him, at the same time, with oil, in the name and person, or by the authority and command of the Lord.

“Is any man sick among you?” By “sick,” is meant, as appears from the Greek, ασθενει, labouring under grievous bodily infirmity, or in danger of death from sickness. “Let him bring in (in Greek, προσκαλεσασθω call in,) the priests of the Church,” i.e., “either bishops or priests duly ordained by them by the imposition of hands.”—(Council of Trent. xiv. c. 3)—to officiate in the Church. “And let him pray over him;” the words “over him” show there was a ceremony or rite to be observed in this prayer. “Anointing him with oil.” Of course the oil of olives, which, properly speaking, is alone to be termed, “oil.” “In the name of the Lord,” i.e., in the person of the Lord, or by his commission and authority. The words, “in the name of the Lord,” most probably affect the entire action of praying over the sick man, and anointing him with oil.

Jas 5:15 and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him.

And the form of prayer which is based upon the faith of the Church, and which the Church has marked out, will effect the salvation of the sick man, both in this life (if it be expedient), and in the life to come; and the Lord will assuage his bodily pains, and lighten his mental anxiety, and remove his spiritual torpor. And should there remain any sins not yet remitted, they will be forgiven him.

“And the prayer of faith,” i.e., the form of prayer which the priest will pronounce over him, called “of faith,” because proceeding from faith and grounded on the faith of the Church, which prescribes one particular form, “will save the sick man.” “Save,” i.e., restore him to health, should it be expedient for his salvation, or save his soul in the life to come, should he die. “And the Lord shall raise him up,” i.e., shall alleviate his bodily pains, and fortify him against the terrors of death, and remove all the langour, and anxiety, and sadness with which the dying are afflicted, and which prevent the application of their minds to God. “And if he be in sins,” most likely, includes all kinds of sin, mortal or venial; for, owing to some cause, his mortal sins may not have been remitted by penance, and the sacrament may have been invalidly administered: in that case, this prayer of faith, joined to the anointing with oil, will remit them, “they shall be forgiven him.”

Proof of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.—From this passage is derived a most satisfactory proof, in favour of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. We have all the conditions necessary to constitute a Sacrament of the New Law, viz., a sensible external rite—“anointing with oil,”—coupled with the prayer of faith, pronounced over the sick man. A permanent rite—St. James places no limitation as to time, nor are we to affix any limitation to the continuance of the precept, given here by the Apostle, any more than to the other precepts, laid down by him in this Epistle. Besides, the rite has been permanently continued in the Church. A rite, collative of sanctifying grace, as appears from the words, “if he be in sins, they will be forgiven,” which can be done only by the infusion of sanctifying grace. The same follows from the words, “the prayer of faith will save the sick man,” which most probably, mean—saving him in the life to come, wherein is implied the conferring of sanctifying grace or its increase. A rite also, instituted by Christ; since St. James could not have instituted a means of grace; he only promulgated this sacred rite instituted by his Divine Master, “in nomine Domini.” The rite, therefore, here promulgated by St. James, and to which he makes it imperative on Christians to resort, in dangerous illness, has all the conditions requisite to constitute a Sacrament of the New Law.

The Council of Trent treating on this subject (SS. xiv. c. 1, &c.) teaches—“that the Sacrament of Extreme Unction has been insinuated by Mark, and promulgated by James, the Apostle. From the words of this verse, ‘is any man sick,’ &c., as handed down to us, and interpreted from apostolical tradition, the Church teaches us the matter, form, minister, effect of this sacrament. The matter is oil, consecrated by the bishop; … the form is the words, ‘per istam unctionem,’ &c.; ‘the prayer of faith;’ the effect is conveyed in the words, ‘the prayer of faith will save the sick man; the Lord shall raise him up, and his sins shall be forgiven,’ which means, that the grace and unction of the Holy Ghost wipes away his sins (or faults), if there be any remaining to be expiated, and also the relics of sin; and alleviates and strengthens the soul of the sick man, by exciting in him a great confidence in God’s mercy, owing to which he bears more patiently the inconveniences and labours of his sickness, and resists more easily the temptations of the devil, ‘and sometimes obtains health of body, when it will be expedient for the salvation of his soul.’ ”—(SS. xiv. c. 2).

The ministers are either bishops or priests, duly ordained by the imposition of hands. “Let him call in the priests of the Church.” That by the word “priests,” are meant those who have received holy orders in the Church—“Priests ordained by the bishop”—and not the elders of the people, is clear from the fact, that in the New Testament the word, presbyter, is employed to designate an office of some kind; and when there is question of Ecclesiastical functions, it refers to those who are ordained, as is seen in the Acts, Epistles of St. Paul. 1 Epistle of St. Peter, chap. 3, and St. John, Epistles 2 and 3; and here, they are called, Presbyteri Ecclesiæ. The tradition of the Church has placed beyond all doubt the interpretation given of “presbyter,” which the Council of Trent (ibidem, canon iv.) has defined, as a matter of faith, to be the true meaning. St. James says, “Let him call in the priests,” i.e., some one of the priests. This change of number is often to be met with in SS. Scripture. Thus, it is said (Mark. chap. 15:32). “They that were crucified with him reviled him,” although only one of them did so, Thus, Hebrews, 11, it is said, “they closed the mouths of lions,” although we read only of one, viz., Daniel, having done so; also, “they were cut asunder,” although, it happened only to Isaias.

The objections raised by heretics against the Catholic doctrine and interpretation of this passage, hardly deserve refutation. The false interpretation of those who say that St. James prescribes anointing with the generous oil of Palestine, as a means of natural cure, cannot stand for a moment; for, in that case, why call in the “priests of the Church?” Would not physicians or nurses answer better? Moreover, why prescribe the anointing with oil in every case? In some cases of disease, the use of oil is decidedly noxious and injurious. Again, St. James is not merely addressing the Jews of Palestine, but “the twelve tribes” scattered all over the earth, even in cold regions, where such oil could not be had.

The false interpretation of Calvin, who understands the passage to refer to the grace of healing miraculously, accorded in the infant Church, and which has long since ceased, is equally unfounded; for, the grace of healing, and, in general, the grace of miracles, only extended to corporal and not to spiritual effects. Moreover, in the distribution of these gratiæ gratis datæ, which continued only for a time in the Church, St. Paul tells us, that the Spirit distributed them to each one at will.—1 Cor. 12 Hence, most likely, priests were not the only persons endowed with the gift of healing, nor was it probably conferred on all priests. Why, then, should St. James tell them, “call in the priests?” He should rather have told them, call in such as had the gift of healing miraculously. Again, we do not find those who were endowed with the gift of healing, commanded or advised to make use of it for all the sick, nor were the sick ordered to seek for a cure from those who had this gift. Thus, St. Paul, who had this gift, did not cure Timothy (1 Tim. 5:23), nor Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20), nor Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:27); whereas, here is issued a general precept, to all the sick, when dangerously ill, “to bring in the priests of the Church.” Again, Christ promised his disciples, after his resurrection, that by imposing hands on the sick, they would cure them (St. Mark, last chapter). And in the different cures performed by Christ’s disciples, in virtue of this promise after his resurrection, we find no instance of the application of oil. Why, then, should St. James restrict the exercise of this power to the ceremony of anointing with oil? It is, therefore, clear that St. James does not here refer to the exercise of any such power; but that he promulgates one of the sacraments of the New Law, instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ as a means of grace, of strengthening the dying Christian against the horrors of despair, and the violence of the approaching combat, when the enemy of his salvation shall strain every nerve to effect his destruction.

From this, we see the great and tremendous responsibility of those who are charged with the care of the dying sick to have the Sacrament of Extreme Unction administered—a sacrament which saves the patient, at least in the life to come, and in this life too, if administered in time, should it be expedient for his salvation; alleviates and strengthens the soul of the sick man, by assuaging his pains, invigorating his spirit, pouring into his soul the balm of consolation and hope, and enabling him to direct his mind to God; finally, “remits his sins, if there be any to be remitted.” How many are the souls saved by this sacrament, which deprived of it, would be damned? Surely those who are negligent to have the priests called in, will render “soul for soul, blood for blood.” The different questions raised about the mode in which this sacrament operates the remission of sins, and the quality of the sins which it remits, &c., more properly belong to Treatises of Theology, where these and other such questions are fully and professedly explained.

Jas 5:16 Confess therefore your sins one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working.

Confess, then, your faults to one another, both for the purposes of mutual counsel, and the assistance of your prayers; or, confess your sins to such as are empowered to absolve from them, that is, the priests of the Church, and pray for each other, particularly the just for sinners, that freed from their sins, they may come to God and be saved; for, the fervent and earnest prayer of the just man has great efficacy with God.

“Confess, therefore, your sins one to another.” “Therefore,” is omitted in some Greek readings. It is found in the Vatican MS. The words may mean, acknowledge your offences against one another, and mutually beg pardon of each other. Similar is the precept in the Gospel (Matt. 5), “if your brother shall sin against thee,” &c. Others understand the words to have reference to the confession of our faults to our brethren, for the purpose of seeking counsel, or of obtaining the assistance of their prayers; and this latter reason is suggested by St. James, “pray one for another,” &c. This practice or acknowledging their faults within due limits is observed in religious communities, with great spiritual advantage. The practice of mutually confessing their sins is followed by the priest and the people at the beginning of Mass. “Confitcor Deo … et tibi, pater … et vobis fratres.” By others, the passage is understood of the confession of sins to a priest, in the sacrament of penance; and then, “one to another” is to be understood (as the Greek corresponding word, αλληλοις, frequently is), in accommodation to the subject matter of the precept, of such as are empowered to hear confession and bestow absolution. These are alone the priests and bishops, “whose sins you shall forgive, shall be forgiven, and whose sins you shall retain,” &c. “One to another,” has the restricted meaning assigned to it here in several passages of Scripture, thus: (Romans, 15:7), “receive one another,” though it only refers to the strong supporting the weak; (1 Thes. 5:11), “comfort one another”; (Ephes. 5), “be subject to one another.” And St. James says, “confess to one another.” in order to remove the shame of confessing our sins, by showing that it is not to angels or beings of a higher nature we are confessing; but to weak mortal men like ourselves, and perhaps also to show that the priests too are bound by this precept. At all events, whether this latter interpretation be the true one or not matters but very little, as far as the warrant for absolving from sins, on the part of the priests is concerned. It is from the words of Christ to his Apostles, “receive you the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive,” &c., and from the constant tradition of the Church, that the existence of this power is clearly demonstrated. “And pray one for another.” This is specially to be understood of the just praying for sinners. “That you may be saved,” i.e. obtain conversion to God, and the great gift of final perseverance. “For the continual prayer of the just,” &c. The Greek word for “continual,” ενεργουμενη, means, fervent, earnest. “Availeth much” with God; because, he is his favourite and friend.

Jas 5:17 Elijah was a man of like passions with us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain; and it rained not on the earth for three years and six months.

Of the truth of this latter assertion, we have a striking proof in the case of the Prophet Elias who, though a mortal man, subject to the same passions of soul, and bodily wants with ourselves, still obtained by fervent prayer, that rain would not descend on the earth, for three years and six months.

He shows, by the example of Elias, the truth of the assertion, that the fervent prayer of the just man avails much. “He was a passible man, like unto us,” subject to the same passions of soul—but of course kept under control—and wants of body; hence, he was hungry, thirsty, subject to the other common wants and miseries of this mortal life. “And with prayer he prayed,” a Hebrew form for, he fervently prayed, “that it might not rain,” &c. (3 Kings, chap. 17). There is a slight difference in the Greek, from our Vulgate. In the Greek, the words “upon the earth” are joined to the latter part of the verse, thus: “And it rained not upon the earth, for three years and six months.” The sense is the same in both.

Jas 5:18 And he prayed again; and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.

And having again fervently prayed for rain, the heaven gave its rain, and the earth produced its fruit.

“And he prayed again.” After Achab and his people did penance, “Elias prayed fervently for rain; casting himself upon the earth, he placed his face between his knees.”—(1 Kings, 18:42). From the efficacious and fervent prayers of Elias, for the opening and shutting of the heavens, St. James wishes us to infer, that we should employ more earnestness, to obtain by our joint prayers, a matter of far greater consequence—viz., the salvation of our brethren.

Jas 5:19 My brethren, if any among you do err from the truth, and one convert him;

My brethren, should any among you stray from the path of truth, either in the order of faith or morality; and if any one convert him to the right path from his evil ways,

But prayer is not the only means to be employed for their conversion. “Err from the truth,” whether practical or speculative—as regards faith or morals.

Jas 5:20 let him know, that he which converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins.

Let him know, that whosover shall effect the conversion of a sinner, from the error of his way, will save his soul from spiritual death here, and eternal death hereafter, and shall cover—by being the instrument in effecting their total remission before God—the multitude of his transgressions.

“Shall save his soul from death,” i.e., spiritual death here, and eternal death and torments hereafter. In most Greek copies, “his,” is wanting; shall save a soul, which is more valuable than all material creation put together. It is found in the Vatican MS. αὑτοῦ. In the Greek copies in which it is used, “his” may also mean according to the breathing, whether smooth or rough, placed over it, his own. It is better, however, understand it of the soul of our neighbour, which is supposed to have been in danger. And the same is conformable to the words, “if your brother shall hear you … you shall have gained your brother,” (Matthew, 18). “And shall cover a multitude of sins,” by being instrumental in their remission; for, the covering of sins with God supposes their total remission (vide Ep. ad Rom. ch. 4). It is disputed whose sins are referred to here, whether those of the man who is converted, or of the person who converts him. It more likely refers to the former; the idea is the same as that conveyed (1 Peter, 4:8), “charity covereth a multitude of sins,” i.e., of our neighbour’s defects. And there as well as here, allusion is made to (Proverbs. 10:2), “hatred begets disputes—charity covers all faults.” Hence, the meaning of the passage is, that the man who is instrumental in the conversion of a sinner, performs the meritorious work of saving a soul, and covering the multitude of the sins of the person thus converted. No doubt, indirectly reference is made to the sins of the man who exercises the good work of converting his neighbour; for by this act of charity, he will obtain from God the remission of his own sins, or an increase of grace to persevere in justice, and the remission of the temporal penalties, due to his sins already remitted.

From this passage we can see the great merit of labouring for the salvation of souls. By the Prophet Abdais (verse 21), such persons are called “saviours”; and justly, for, they are continuing the great work in which our Redeemer and Saviour had been engaged during his mortal life, and in which he shed the last drop of his most precious blood. They are “the coadjutors of God” (1 Cor. 3:8). They resemble the angels, whose ministry is employed about such, as are to be saved—(Hebrews, 1:14). The merit of this sublime occupation can be estimated from the priceless value of immortal souls, one of which is prized more highly in the sight of God than all the riches of creation put together. It is the most sublime exercise of charity, and one of the surest proofs we can give that we sincerely love God, who is so deserving of the love of our entire hearts.—“Si amas me, pasce oves meas.” To this faithful discharge of this exalted function of saving souls is attached a special crown, a bright aureola in heaven. “Qui erudierint multos ad justitiam, fulgebunt quasi stellæ in perpetuas eternitates”—Daniel. “Qui fecerit et docuerit, hic magnus vocabitur in regno cœlorum.”—St. Matthew, 5


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