Homily: Informative and Performative Speech

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B–2018


Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Moses spoke to all the people, saying:  “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen.  This is exactly what you requested of the Lord, your God, at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let us not again hear the voice of the Lord, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’  And the Lord said to me, ‘This was well said.  I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.’”  Whoever will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.  But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.”


1 Corinthians 7:32-35

Brothers and sisters:  I should like you to be free of anxieties.  An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord.  But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided.  An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit.  A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.  I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction.


Mark 1:21-28

Then they came to Capernaum, and on the sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.  The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.  In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet!  Come out of him!”  The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.  All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this?  A new teaching with authority.  He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”  His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.


Let’s say you are on the baseball team and are scheduled to play at St. George’s. You arrive with the team and get suited up and move out onto the playing field. Both teams are ready to play. Then the St. George’s coach approaches Mr. Gittus and says that no umpires have shown up. He suggests that the scheduled game go on anyway.

Coach Gittus thinks that’s a little odd, but being the good sport he is, he agrees and the game begins.

What do you suppose would happen?

Very rapidly the game would fall apart. One player would call a strike. Someone else would call it a ball. A base runner would slide into first and someone would shout “Safe!” Someone else would yell “Out!” The flow of the game would stop and in very short order the situation would become hopeless confusion.

The religious situation in Israel at the time of Jesus was confused like that. Religious tradition affected every aspect of the lives of the people, yet they knew little of the Torah, on which Israel’s life was built. The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, consisting of chief priests, elders, and scribes, had little interest in religious leadership, guidance or education. It was a time of spiritual confusion yet it was a time of great expectation. Many felt that the messiah’s appearance was imminent. People were on the alert.

Given the situation, it’s easy to understand the excitement when people heard Jesus speak in the synagogue in Capernaum that day. What did they hear that astounded them? They were astonished because he taught then as one with authority, an authority that even extended to driving an unclean spirit out of a man with nothing but a word.

In every language we find, in fact, two kinds of words..

There is informative speech and there is performative speech.

An example of an informative utterance would be “The sun is shining”. Another is “The sky is blue”. Informative speech describes exiting situations.

Our speech is performative when we do things with words; when we actually accomplish something with them. For instance a performative statement would be when a state police officer says “You are under arrest.” The words of the sentence give rise to a new reality altogether.

Let’s look again at the example of baseball, this time with umpires.

As his player slides into third base, coach Gittus cries out “Safe!” But his is just another voice in the crowd. His word is only informative. He is describing a state of affairs as he sees it. Nothing more.

The umpire’s word, on the other hand is performative. By shouting “Out! the base runner is out. The authority if the umpire has changed the flow of the game with a word. Not an atom or molecule of the base runner is altered, but he has in truth undergone a radical change.

This is an example of how human language affects natural things.

Supernaturally, God employs words as well. But his word in every case is both informative and performative. It expresses reality and it also makes real what it expresses.

Because God is pure actuality his word is an act, a profoundly creative act of love. In fact his Word proceeds from him in the form of a divine Person, we call him (and he calls himself) the Son, the Son of the Father, the Word through whom and for whom all things were created.

The community hearing and witnessing Jesus in the synagogue that day in Capernaum received a great grace. They recognized at least in a remote way that this Jesus in some way truly spoke the word of God. They marveled at “A new teaching, with authority”.

And they were right. The ‘newness” consisted in exactly in this: Jesus is not simply a holy man whose words describe God. He makes God present. His hearers wondered at his authority. This resulted not by his saying a word by his being the Word, the same Word that calms the sea, raises the dead and forgives sin.

On the night before he died Jesus performed his most extraordinary Word-act. By speaking the words “This is my body, this is my blood” he made bread and wine his flesh. Not an atom or a molecule changed but they became on the level of being his gift to us of himself for our salvation.

Jesus’ words have not passed out of existence or vanished into history. They endure in the Church through its preaching, its teaching, its sacraments and above all in the Eucharistic liturgy in which we are about to participate.

The Eucharist is the sacramental prolongation if his Incarnation. It is his way of uniting us in his gift and drawing us into the process of transformation that starts with the gifts, moves on to include us, and then spreads out to the world ‘until he comes again’.

D. Gregory Havill, OSB

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