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Do things with words
John Langshaw Austin was a British philosopher of language. He was well-known for his book, How to do things with words. Its title in the French translation is more provocative: Quand dire, c’est faire. In this book, he paid special attention to the context of a saying and its effect. He showed us the threefold level of a statement: text, context and effect. For him, the same sentence has different effects on people depending on the contexts. If a young man tells his fiancée, “I will see you tomorrow,” he is promising her happiness. The result of this saying is the joy of waiting. But if special counsel Robert Muller uses the same sentence to someone who is under investigation, he is making a threat! The result of what is said in this context is anxiety.
Effect or non-effect
In today’s Gospel, Jesus asked people to pay attention to the effect, or more precisely the non-effect, of a teaching. For Jesus, the scribes and the Pharisees separated their words from their context. They used the chair of Moses to reinforce the authority of their teaching but they emptied it by not making any personal commitment. Their words could be spoken by anyone in any circumstances. Separated from their original context, their words were neutral and vanished into thin air.
Saying or doing
The scribes and the Pharisees forgot that their doing was already in their saying. Their words lost value when they didn’t convey an obligation to act. Their words were up in the air when they were not embodied by concrete actions. Their words were not words as such when they were separated from actions. Their words were no longer theirs because they needed to be taken over by those they taught.
Example or counter-example
In the Gospels, the scribes and the Pharisees are often mentioned as counter-examples. As we read the evangelical stories, we become more and more Jesus’ disciples if we seek to avoid their way of being. We become more and more human if we stay away from their attitude. They are an example not to follow. While observing their behavior, we can ask ourselves this question: when we say a word, do we really pay attention to its context and its effect? If what we say doesn’t carry with it our lives and convictions, let’s not be surprised that it doesn’t have any effect.
Being the eternal Word made flesh, Jesus Christ lives among us as someone who perfectly embodies the unity of word and action. For him, word and action are united to one another in a sacramental way. For him, to say and to do is the same. His word nourishes our thought while his action urges us to act. His word helps us to find a meaning to our action and his action leads us to a deeper reflection on our word. The Word of God is always at work so that our work can be always attuned to his Word!
Prayer: God of eternal Word, help us to unify our words and actions according to your desire.
Resolution: Pay attention to the context and the effect of what I say to others.