James 5:16-20 / Luke 11:5-13
Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another, that you may be saved: for the continual prayer of a just man availeth much.
One of the stories gathered by the brothers Grimm is curious in that, while the text is quite short, it had no ending, and indeed we might reasonably think that the story continues even to the present day. The story is called "Der Fuchs und die Gänse (The Fox and the Geese)," and is altogether a simple tale. A fox comes across nine fat geese all gathered together. Unable to escape the hungry fox, who is unmoved by their petitions not to be killed, one of them takes heart and requests that the geese be allowed one last prayer for the forgiveness of their sins. The fox is moved by this pious request, and he agrees not to eat them until they have finished their prayer. Und wenn sie ausgebetet haben, soll das Märchen weitererzählt werden, sie beten aber alleweile noch immer fort. In the words of Margaret Taylor's translation, "When they have done praying, the story will be continued further, but at present they are still praying without stopping."
In his epistle, James assures us of the power of prayer, reminding us of the mighty works produced by the prayers of the prophet Elijah, at whose prayer Israel was both afflicted by three and a half hears of drought and subsequently delivered from the same. However, while Elijah's impressive acts of prayer, not the least of which the calling down of fire from heaven, not once but several times, may give James warrant to have confidence in the continual prayer of a just man, this apostle seems altogether disinterested in directing our prayers to the same end. On the contrary, what James implores of his readers is the prayer for salvation, not merely of one's own self, but of the whole people of God: pray for one another, that you may be saved. Indeed, the very act of leading anyone who strays from the faith, in deed as much as in thought, back into truth is, by its very nature, a leading of oneself back to God — he must know that he who causeth a sinner to be converted from the error of his way shall save his soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins.
Like the prayer of the brothers Grimm's geese, or the continual prayer of James' just man, so too should we find our prayer life. We can be, of course, drawn away from thinking about salvation by all sorts of concerns, some sinful, some merely trivial, some necessary but quotidian, some urgent or catastrophic. If we follow the whole of James' epistle, we know that James is not advocating a turn away from making practical responses to the needs of the world, and we know he is a hard critic for those who take comfort in having prayed for the hungry or naked without a care for actually giving him food, clothing, or shelter. Even so, James reminds us here, as do in their own way the clever and pious geese at prayer before a now quite hungry fox, that whatever we seek from prayer, indeed whatever else we do during the day, the one irreplaceable need and desire must be that we, and all whom we know, might live forever in the joyful presence of the risen Lord.
The geese, the brothers Grimm tell us, have not yet finished their tale, for their prayer continues alleweile noch immer fort. We would do well to follow their lead, and in our prayer for salvation, of ourselves and one for another, not to imagine that our story is over, that we or anyone we meet are either safe and in the clear or beyond deliverance. What we can know is that the fox who desires to devour us need not have the final word, and when the story ends we may yet find ourselves happy and whole, able to turn the page of that tale and begin the one that never ends, turning our ceaseless petition to ceaseless praise before the throne and the Lamb once slain, who dies no more.