On Illness and Suffering. Matthew 9:1-8; James 5:10-20

Illness and Suffering: 

The Epistle Reading of James 5:10—20 and The Gospel Reading of Matthew 9:1-8

     The entire Epistle of James is an instructional pastoral letter written to all people of Jewish or Gentile birth that have become Christians. In this Epistle, the people are instructed in how Christians should conduct themselves in matters of work, faith, and personal dealings with others; as well as, how to respond to trials, temptations, and illness.

     A portion of this Epistle that is read for a liturgy that is served during a feast day of a prophet, addresses illness and suffering (James 5:13-15) and uses the prophets and the perseverance of Job as an example of suffering with patience, James 5:10-11.   The Holy Fathers of the church advise that in time of suffering and illness one must contact the elders of the church because the Apostolic Tradition is to call the elders to anoint the sick with the oil of mercy and to pray for healing.

     The use of olive oil for healing predates Christianity. In the ancient world, Philo, a first century Jewish writer, documents that Olive oil was commonly mixed with other ingredients for healing the sick in pre-Christian cultures. The different between the pre-Christian usage of oil for healing and the Christian usage of oil for healing is that the Christians integrated prayer and thanksgiving when anointing of the sick with the oil (Holy Unction).

     Within Scripture during Jesus’ time on earth, the Apostles anointed with oil for the healing of the sick, Mark 6:13. The earliest Christian reference we have for using the liturgical practice of healing with oil after the period of the New Testament writings is in the Apostolic Tradition of Hyppolytus dating possibly to the third century.   The earliest Byzantine liturgical manuscript containing prayers for the anointing of the sick, Codex Barberini 337, contains five prayers: three prayers are for the sick and two prayers are for the blessing of the oil which apparently occurred at the Eucharistic Liturgy immediately following the consecration of the bread and wine.

     Throughout the centuries that followed, the service of anointing for healing continued to evolve and by the fourteen century, the anointing service reached the form that is currently used in the church today.   The most apparent aspect of the current rite of healing is the connection made between sickness and sin – and – healing and forgiveness which are stressed in today’s Epistle reading in James where anointing with the oil is mentioned with confession of sins and prayers for each other. In the Gospel reading given during the Liturgy on a feast day of a prophet, Matthew 9:1-8, Jesus heals the Paralytic after forgiving his sins—Jesus says, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven…..”, and the Paralytic was healed. The forgiveness of sins is inexplicably tied to healing in the New Testament; and this healing work continues in the church in modern times.

References: The Anointing of the Sick, Paul Meyendorff, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, Daniel Hinshaw, The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, Hierotheos, Ancient Christian Commentary, New Testament, XI and Ia, James, JKV