"So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it."
- Is 55:11
The oracle of Isaiah in today’s first reading describes an act which biblically pertains to the authority of God: performative speech. This is where words are spoken which, in their being said, cause to be what they declare or command. A ready example from Scripture is Genesis 1:3 – “And God said ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” Another is from Mark chapter 2 when Jesus heals the paralytic – “I say to you, ‘Rise, pick up your mat, and go home.’” Throughout the Gospels, we find Jesus using performative speech – to heal, to effect changes in weather, to forgive sins—which necessitates the scribes and Pharisees asking, “By what authority [does he] do this?” (Mt 21:23; Mk 11:28; Lk 20:2). The answer is none other than the authority of God himself.
We find performative speech present in and relevant to our daily lives as well. Two of the most important instances involve the phrases “This is my body given up for you” and “I absolve you of your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In both cases, the priest is speaking in persona Christi and thus by the authority of God. The power of the Holy Spirit working through the priest changes the species of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ when the priest says these words. Our sins are forgiven in the confessional for the same reason.
However, Jesus puts forward a strict caveat on our forgiveness in today’s Gospel. “"If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions" (Mt 6:15). In this process of forgiving others for hurting us, we too use a sort of performative speech, exercising our royal priesthood given us through baptism. But what is forgiveness really? Are we to deny that past wrongs ever occurred? Are we to call evil acts ‘good’? No, but perhaps a way forward is to offer our offenders a second chance, or 70 times 7 chances, to make amends. Opening the door and extending the invitation to the other party prior to their act of contrition imitates the mercy granted to us by Jesus Christ. “Though we were still sinners…” (Rom 5:8). This means opening ourselves to the possibility of being hurt again by the same person and even in the same way. That’s going to sting—like a lance piercing our side straight to the heart. Yet if we follow this path to the end, a path which places us squarely next to Christ on Golgotha, he has assured us in today’s gospel that we will receive the Father’s forgiveness. Perhaps we shall even hear the same performative speech as did the good thief, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Lk 23:43).