Is anyone 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. And the prayer of faith will raise the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven.
There are a couple of hermeneutical moves here that are common in conservative circles. The first is to simply ignore the text. When a nosy student asks why we don’t do this, you must mutter something under your breath about cultural context, and change the subject.
But that’s not enough. “Cultural context” is not a magical phrase that allows you to ignore a text. The text meant something, and the original readers were meant to obey it. So are we. Obedience in our context might look different, but it will look like something. It is our job to figure out what. The best place to start is with the original context.
In the original cultural context, this was not simply some religious ritual. Oils infused with various herbs and scents were common in the culture, and using such oils medicinally was also common. In other words, to the original readers, anointing with oil was not simply a religious ceremony, it was a medical treatment.
Once you know that, you can transfer the principle to our day. Imagine you have someone in your church who is a cancer patient.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, giving him chemotherapy in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven.
Of course, the oncologist giving chemotherapy is not likely to be an elder in the church — but skip that for now. Let’s suppose the doctor is indeed an elder in this case, and move on from there. Do you see the departure from our standard attitude toward medicine? The medicine is administered “in the name of the Lord,” and when the sick person recovers, the recovery is attributed to the Lord, through the prayer of faith.
So the minimal application of this culturally conditioned command is to address sickness as a spiritual as well as a physical issue.
But I wonder whether we ought not go further. After all, we have mass media and Youtube, but we still believe that going to church in person is better. We have Facebook and phones and texting and many platforms for connection, but face to face is still better than anything else, by a long shot. Would it be so surprising to find that–especially where physical and spiritual matters overlap–the first-century ways of addressing things still have something to offer us?
I think they do. And so I still practice this passage as written: anointing with oil in the name of Jesus, laying on hands, and praying for the sick. My experience has been that this is valuable; when we are simply obedient, we do better than we know.