Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven (James 5:13-15, NRSV).
My country, Grenada, recently experienced what was called its first Covid-19 wave. With no community spread, we had no local deaths for all of 2020; however, between August to October 2021, the country succumbed to the Delta variant which left over 190 persons dead, and hundreds hospitalised. At the height of the recent unprecedented cases of morbidity and mortality, the churches and the Government of Grenada called for two days of national prayer. Although I support prayer to God at all times, I was convinced that God had already provided the answer to our prayers, and what we needed was not supplication but compliance and responsible human action.
When we pray to God, how do we expect God to respond? Do we expect God to come down, Godself and wipe away the virus? No, God works in and through that which God has created and placed at our disposal in nature. This is the case in the account we have in James 5.
James says if we are in trouble, we should pray. There is a lot in this passage that needs unpacking which we cannot do here now, like, for instance, “is the prayer of elders more efficacious than those of other believers?” and how do we understand the phrase “this prayer made in faith will heal the sick; the Lord will restore them to health, ….” There is a lot that is assumed in the passage, though not expressed. I do want to focus on verse 14 where James said, “Are any among you sick? They should send for the church elders, who will pray for them and rub olive oil on them in the name of the Lord” (Jas 5:14).
This passage in James shows how the church combined the medicinal and the religious. The elders of the Church represented the religious, and the olive oil represented the medicinal. Olive oil was part of every aspect of the lives of the people in biblical Israel. According to the authors of Life in Biblical Israel, King and Stager, Olive Oil was used as “a dietary staple, medicine, and fuel for ceramic lamps; as a base for cosmetics, perfumes, and oils; and in ritual contexts such as the anointing of kings at their coronation, as libation offerings, and as fuel for sanctuary lamps.”
Thomas Lancaster in a piece entitled “Anointing with Oil” said that “In the medicinal lore of the Talmud, an application of olive oil is recommended for a whole host of disorders. Anointing with oil was a common, homeopathic remedy, [and] Olive oil was thought to have a medicinal effect on wounds, to be a cure for invalids, Sickness, and even bowel problems …. Anointing with oil provides general health benefits to its users.”
Oil was used in a medicinal manner to aid in the recovery of the sick, and it was applied by the religious leaders of the community. The Covid-19 vaccine is a prophylaxis provided through God-given knowledge and elements found in nature. I concede that in some cases, the vaccine does not prevent sickness, but it does reduce morbidity and decreases the possibility of mortality. Religious leaders have the responsibility to bring to bear both the spiritual and other resources available for healing. To do otherwise is to renege on our responsibility to care for the whole person.
It is unfortunate that some have seen accepting the efficacy of the vaccine and participating in the national vaccination drive as compromising their faith. May God give us all wisdom and patience as we work together, church and civil authorities, to do what is in the best interest of all for God’s glory and the good of His people.
 Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001. P. 97.
 D. Thomas Lancaster. Anointing with Oil: Is anointing the sick with oil supposed to be a spiritual/ritual act? Anointing with Oil | Discover | First Fruits of Zion (ffoz.org)
The Rev. Dr. R. Osbert James, OBE, is the minister and moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Grenada. He is married to Anna, and the father of Jonathan and Chrystal