Saturday, August 8, 2015



I’ve recently begun reading Jesus of Nazareth written in 2007 by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). The author intends eventually to write a comprehensive book about Jesus, but decided to publish the part he had finished, namely, as the rest of the title notes, “From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.” I’m working my through this enjoyable work at a leisurely pace, highlighting and underlining and writing notes in the margins.

As someone who teaches New Testament I’m well aware of many of the facts he presents, but I appreciate reading them in the broader context of this volume. Yet there are also plenty of insights that are new to me, and it is these little surprises that make the journey through the book so enjoyable. In this post I want to share one of those new ideas and reflect on it. I’m just going to present Ratzinger’s ideas mixed in with some of my own, and not worry about whose ideas are whose.

In Chapter Three, “The Gospel of the KIngdom of God,” (p.46 ff) the author begins with the background of the word “gospel,” (more precisely, the Greek word evangelion and the Latin evangelium), and asks what this term actually means. The Greek is made up of eu (good) + angelion (message). The insight for me was this: the normal translation “good news” sounds attractive, but it falls way short of what is actually meant by the word evangelium.

The Divine Augustus
The term is part of the vocabulary of the Roman emperors who understood themselves as lords, saviors, and redeemers of the world. A message issued by the emperor was called in Latin evangelium (even if its content was not particularly pleasant). The idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message, that it is not just a piece of news, but a change of the world for the better.

Things get interesting when the gospel writers adopt this word and it becomes the generic name for their writings. What they mean to tell us is this: what the emperors, who pretend to be gods, illegitimately claim, really occurs here -- a message endowed with great authority, a message that is not just talk, but reality.


I once took a graduate philosophy course in linguistic analysis in which I was
introduced to the interesting concept of a “performative utterance.” It’s not a statement of fact, not a command or a judgement or an inference. Performative speech is not simply informative, but rather causes something to happen in reality. When the umpire calls out “strike three!” that causes the pitch to be a strike rather than a ball. (I can sit in front of the t.v. and shout “ball four,” but that doesn’t make it a ball; the umpire’s call is performative, mine isn’t.)

When the bride or groom says “I do,” a marriage bond comes into being; when a novice says in church at a ceremony “I solemnly promise …,” she is now under a religious vow; when the priest says “This is my body which will be given up for you,” that’s performative language: something happens to the bread.


The gospel, too, is not just informative, sharing information or “good news” with its hearers; it is instead performative speech, it is action, efficacious power that enters into the world to change and transform. Mark speaks of “the gospel of God,” reminding us that it is not the emperors who can save the world, but God. And it is here that God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears; it is here that what the emperors merely assert, but cannot actually perform, truly takes place. For here is the real Lord of the world -- the living God -- who goes into action.

Each school day our whole student body gathers to take attendance, to pray and sing and to listen to “announcements.” But what a difference between the informative announcements about after school meetings, say, and the performative announcement of the gospel that is read each day! The stories of miracles, the parables about mustard seeds and leaven, the discourses about “the true bread that comes down from heaven,” these are God’s unique way of entering into our hearts and changing us, these are God’s way of fashioning our group into the Body of Christ.

From now on, each day when we sit there together, each with our own worries, hopes, problems and joys, listening to the “announcement” of the gospel, I’ll hear it differently, knowing that the gospel is actually making something happen, it is a divine, efficacious action that enters into the world, into our crowded gymnasium, into the heart of each one of us, to save and transform us.

Think of the announcements in your parish bulletin, and compare them with the announcement of the gospel for that day, and allow the Lord to change you through the Sacred Word as it enters your heart and as it forms the hearers into the People of God.

"Some seed fell on good ground"

If the gospel is performative, how come it doesn't seem to work? The early Church puzzled over this question, too, and preserved the parable of the Sower and the Seed to try to explain the mystery of why the Word is not always effective. The answer is that the Gospel has to fall on receptive soil if the seed is to bear fruit. The Gospel is only performative if we consent to it, if we willingly welcome it and allow it to transform us.

So we pray for one another that we may allow the powerful, performative gospel to make us into the new beings that God intends us to be.

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