The Prayer of the Righteous Person
Passage: James 5:1–5:20
Pastor Ray Lorthioir
Trinity Lutheran Church
Based on the Second Lesson for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, James 5:1-20
The Prayer of the Righteous Person
This Lord’s Day we’re in the week-long final festival that Yahweh commanded Israel to keep. It’s called Sukkot or the feast of Tabernacles. In this neighborhood, there are traditional sukkahs in many yards. It’s a tent or hut with a roof partially open to the sky. For a week Jewish families will spend as much time in their sukkas as they can — even sleeping out in them. It’s like a home camping adventure.
Thursday night, one of my orthodox Jewish neighbors invited Pastor Mendivelso and I over to his little backyard barn where about thirty men and boys gathered to celebrate this feast with song and circle dancing. It began to rain. As we left, we looked in his sukkah. Because of the lack of a solid roof, it was raining in there also. Thankfully, the barn had a solid roof.
Yahweh commanded all Israeli men to appear before Him at His tabernacle or temple three times a year on the festivals of Passover or Unleavened Bread, Shavuot or Pentecost, and Sukkot or Tabernacles. At each festival, the men were to bring personal offerings to sacrifice before the Lord.
As I’ve often mentioned, what intrigues me about these three festivals is that Yahweh used the first two to proclaim His Messiah. All the men gathered in Jerusalem witnessed Jesus die for the sins of the world as the Passover Lamb on Passover 33A.D. Again on Pentecost 33A.D., all the men gathered in Jerusalem saw Yahweh pour out His Holy Spirit on all flesh so that Jew and Gentile alike might believe in the crucified and resurrected Messiah Jesus and that all believers might live a new life in Yahweh’s righteousness.
So, what about Sukkot? Will Yahweh use this third festival to proclaim the return of Messiah, bring the present age of this earth to a close, resurrect all the dead and judge all creatures according to His justice? I suspect He will. Therefore, I believe that when all the men are gathered in Jerusalem on Sukkot, some year, maybe even this year, Jesus will return glorious, victorious and visibly establish the Kingdom of God. May we praise His name forever! May the neighbors of the church enjoy this Sukkot.
As for us, this morning we have a final reading from the book of James in our lectionary series. As we’ve seen, James is a mighty book of Judgment and Sanctification, containing much Law and little Gospel. It’s as if James assumes his hearers already know the Gospel. Therefore, he is there to expound upon the righteousness that the gospel creates by Word and the Spirit in the believer’s heart and to condemn the unrighteousness of this world. Indeed, in this morning’s lesson James has fierce things to say about those who get rich unjustly — especially by cheating their workers out of wages owed. Such people cannot be Christians according to James.
But James is not the only apostle who expounds on the wealthy. Indeed, Paul speaks to Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:17-19, “17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”
Finally, the book of James ends with some interesting teachings. First, James speaks of the power of the confession of sins and absolution. That’s Gospel. And in Lutheran theology, it’s known as the office of the Keys of the Kingdom. Therefore, James urges us to make use of confession and absolution, saying that through it comes even the power of divine healing. Indeed, we read in James 5:14-16, “14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” No doubt, James is onto something here. Untangling ourselves from the sinful choices we’ve made in the past through confession and absolution may be a key to healing of the body in the present. The Office of the Keys may play a bigger part than we realize.
And, immediately following, comes another intriguing set of verses. James 5:16-18, “16. . . The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.”
I’m not exactly certain why James compares Elijah with the likes of us or even James’ own contemporaries. For, seven hundred years and more before Jesus, Elijah was specially called by Yahweh to prophesy against the kings of Israel who were in rebellion against Him, especially King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel. Therefore, when Elijah prayed and a three year drought came upon Israel, that was the will of Yahweh. It was Yahweh’s punishment designed to get Ahab’s attention as well as the attention of all Israel. Therefore, without that drought and the breaking of it being Yahweh’s will, nothing would have happened when Elijah prayed. Subsequently, as is written in 1Kings 18, it was also Yahweh’s will to demonstrate His majesty before all Israel, calling them back to Him, by sending a monstrous all-consuming lightning bolt down precisely upon an altar that Elijah had built. Again, without it being Yahweh’s will, nothing so incredible would have happened when Elijah prayed.
Indeed, I believe it was a repetition of this lightning bolt sign of Elijah that the scribes and pharisees were looking for when they asked Jesus for a sign that He is Messiah. But Jesus refused to perform it for them, saying that instead He would show them a greater sign — the sign of the prophet Jonah: resurrection from the dead.
Nevertheless, even though I’m pretty sure God is not going to use any of us to start and stop droughts or bring down monstrous lightning bolts, the second sentence of verse 16 bears some study, namely: “the prayer of a righteous man (or woman) is powerful and effective.”
Just who is the righteous man spoken of in James? Here’s an Old Testament definition from Ezekiel 18:5-9, “5 ‘Suppose there is a righteous man who does what is just and right. 6 He does not eat at the mountain shrines or look to the idols of the house of Israel. He does not defile his neighbor's wife. . . . 7 He does not oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked. 8 He does not lend at usury or take excessive interest. He withholds his hand from doing wrong and judges fairly between man and man. 9 He follows my decrees and faithfully keeps my laws. That man is righteous; he will surely live. . . .’”
So a righteous person first of all is not an idolater. He acknowledges Yahweh as His God. Then, that person does not transgress the sexual boundaries Yahweh has established. Then that person is not abusive when it comes to lending. The righteous person refrains from stealing, and instead looks for ways to give to the poor out of his or her earnings. The righteous person honors and does all the rest of Yahweh’s commandments. On the basis of those commandments he or she can judge situations between people justly.
Here’s another definition of the righteous person from Proverbs 12:10, “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.” This says that righteous people are not cruel, but caring — and not just toward animals. For, the way a person treats animals can say much about how they treat people.
Here’s yet another definition from Psalm 37:30-31, “30 The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just. 31 The law of his God is in his heart; his feet do not slip.” We see here that what makes a person righteous is what’s in the heart. When Yahweh’s righteousness is in the heart, then that person will speak it and do it.”
Therefore, righteousness is no abstract thing. Righteousness is meant for the heart and the heart for righteousness. Righteousness does not exist apart from the heart. Righteousness does not exist apart from a moment by moment relationship with Yahweh.
But, now we come to a significant problem, however. It says in Ecclesiastes 7:20, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.” In chapter 3 of Romans, in a build up to explaining the doctrine of Justification by Grace through Faith, Paul collects a bunch of Old Testament verses that say exactly the same thing.
Sin in any form always separates us from Yahweh. It puts immovable roadblocks in the way so that Yahweh cannot come to us without bringing His judgment and wrath. Therefore, so that Yahweh can approach sinners in peace, Jesus was sent to us. All our sin was loaded on Jesus. He was crucified as God’s perfect sacrificial lamb — the perfect sacrifice for all sin, mine as well as yours. Paul expressed the result in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the key to becoming the righteousness of God. Since we heard in Ecclesiastes that righteous people do sin, we need a righteousness greater than ourselves. Again, this is Jesus. For by becoming sin for us in those few hours upon the cross, Jesus became righteousness for us.
However, there is another element necessary to become the righteousness of God — faith. Paul puts it this way in Romans 1:17, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” That’s faith in Jesus and His perfect work upon the cross. True Christians don’t live by faith in our own ability to keep God’s law. For after all it says in Ecclesiastes that every righteous person sins. Rather, we live by faith in the work of Jesus. For Jesus never sinned. Therefore, only Jesus can do and has done what is necessary to make us righteous people in God’s sight. Only Jesus can gain us entry into the Kingdom of God, both now and especially on the Day of Resurrection from the dead. This is the glorious Gospel of God.
Now, there is a problem that all face who hear the good news that we are saved by faith in what Jesus has done to justify our lives before His Father. It’s perhaps best described by a passage from Ezekiel 33:13, “‘If I [Yahweh] tell the righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; he will die for the evil he has done.’”
Our Evangelist, Jerry George, is greatly concerned with precisely this situation. In his evangelistic work, he has come across all too many unbelievers who, upon hearing the good news that our sins are forgiven in Jesus Christ and that we are declared righteous before God by Jesus Christ, make the stupid assumption that once Christ’s stamp of righteousness has been stamped on us, it relieves us of any ongoing relationship with Yahweh, and we can just go on being the devil’s children, deciding good and evil for ourselves and living as we please. Put another way, unbelievers mistake salvation for a free ticket to “heaven” that permits us to go on unabated in our idolatry and evil. They think that Christ’s stamp of righteousness somehow relieves a person from actually living righteously.
This is just not so. While salvation is the stamp of Yahweh’s approval on our lives, it’s not a static stamp. It’s a dynamic stamp that creates an ongoing relationship between Yahweh and the believer through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. In Lutheran theology, this is called the “mystical union” of the believer with Messiah Jesus.
We need this dynamic union because only Jesus is powerful enough to overcome the stronghold of original sin that otherwise rules our lives. Only Jesus is powerful enough to deliver us from being our own little gods. Therefore, living by faith in Jesus Christ is a continuous, dynamic, moment by moment thing. Are we always aware of the union? No. But the Lord does His work in all those desiring His work, whether we are aware of it or not.
In this mystical union with Christ, Lord Holy Spirit writes the righteous ways of Yahweh on our hearts so that we participate in Yahweh’s righteous life. This is the baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. On our part, the mystical union is maintained through exploring God’s Word, participating in confession and absolution and partaking of His sacraments. So, the net effect of the mystical union is righteousness of life both before Yahweh and before our neighbors so that we love our neighbors as ourselves.
The Gospel flows out of the Agape Love with which Yahweh has loved us through His Son Jesus Christ — a love that has overcome every obstacle of sin to bring Yahweh to us. So, we are connected to Yahweh with His Love, by His Spirit through the grace given us by Jesus Christ. God’s grace is indeed enough for us. His gift of forgiveness of sins, righteousness and eternal righteous life is more than enough for us.
Therefore, under the New Testament, even though the righteous sin, as long as the righteous are connected with Messiah, there is repentance, forgiveness of sins and most importantly, restoration of righteousness — the righteousness of Messiah. It’s in Messiah’s righteousness, therefore, that James 5:16 is true. “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
Now, James has already warned us about our prayers. We don’t get an answer because we want to spend the answer on ourselves, rather than on the Kingdom of God. The Lord knows we need our daily bread. It’s one of the seven things He wants to give us that we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer. But the other six things are most important. Yahweh wants to give us His holy Name. He wants us to have His Kingdom. Most importantly, He wants us to have His will. He desires to forgive our sins. He desires to lead His people out of temptation. He desires that we be delivered from the power of the evil one. In these ways He can show us that He is King and that the power and glory are all His. Therefore, we need to bring our prayers more in line with these six other petitions so that God’s will might be accomplished.
In closing, then, what shall we say? Having earned righteousness for us by His obedient, sacrificial death, Jesus has been declared our righteousness by His resurrection from the dead in an immortal human body. This is the only reason Yahweh’s Holy Spirit of righteousness and fire has been poured out on us. Jesus is my righteousness, your righteousness and the righteousness of all believers everywhere and of all times. That’s the great good news James assumes we already know. Therefore, it is only by faith in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ that the prayer of the person that Jesus has made righteous by faith will accomplish anything. Under the New Testament, this is how the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Therefore, O Lord, may this be so for us in this place. Amen.
All Bible quotes are from the NIV.