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How Not To Do Things With Words

August 20, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Barbara Blodgett at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Dr. Blodgett is a minister, educator, and ethicist on the faculty at Lexington Theological Seminary. She specializes in practical and professional ethics, especially the ethics of ministry and the ethics of trust, and is the author of several books, including Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry. I thank her for the powerful message she brought to our community as we seek more faithful with our words so that they reflect the one whose actions are beyond words.


In 1962, philosopher J.L. Austen wrote a little book called How To Do Things With Words. In this book, he argued that especially when it comes to the moral life, our words are more like actions than they are like descriptions. Words accomplish things. Some of what we say may merely be statements describing or reflecting what we see around us and take for reality (“that was unfair” or “that’s nice”); but a lot of what we say creates reality. When a person says “I love you,” for example, she is not merely reporting on a state of affairs. She is, with those words, forging a bond between herself and the person to whom her words are directed. When a brother says “I will provide for you,” he is not simply issuing a prediction, he is issuing a promise. He is binding his future with that of his family’s.

In the sort of language that perhaps only fellow philosophers can love, Austen called the words we say “performative utterances” or “speech acts.” What comes out of our mouths is an act, it is a performance. We are actors, making things happen and influencing others through what we say—and—what we fail to say.

If what comes out of the mouth is a performance, then we must regretfully conclude that Joseph’s performance when he finally sees his brothers again is not his best. Many interpreters read this story from the 45th chapter of Genesis to be a crowning moment in a long family saga starring Joseph and his brothers. It’s the moment when Joseph reveals himself to be no longer a slave in Egypt but rather Jacob’s son and their brother, one brother among twelve with whom he now is finally reconciled in tearful words of love and forgiveness.

I disagree with these interpreters. Of course, on first blush Joseph’s speech sounds like a really good speech. Overcome with emotion, he cries out to everyone within earshot that he wants to be left alone with his brothers, and when alone he says, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive? Come closer to me.” Then, he names the elephant in the room: “Yes, it’s really me, your brother. The one you sold into slavery years ago. I’m back.” Seemingly without bitterness he acknowledges that awkward chapter in their family history, and he even seems to let them off the hook, saying, “don’t be distressed, don’t be angry with yourselves. God has preserved our lives.” As if to say, “That time when you threw me into a pit and almost let me die? That’s ancient history. We’re good. It’s all good.” And finally he talks about the present and the future: “I know you all have been suffering from a famine for two years, and unfortunately, I happen to know that there are going to be five more years of that. But I promise you, I will settle you in the land of Goshen, near me, and I will provide for you there. You will be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, and your herds, and all that you have.” And the brothers kiss, and they cry, and slowly they all come around and begin talking to one another. A touching scene of brotherly love and reconciliation, right?

Not so much. . . .

To understand this culminating moment, you really have to read the whole story. If you’re like me—I hadn’t read through Genesis lately—I suggest you give it a read because it’s a good one. Honestly, this book of the Bible rivals any of our contemporary soap operas. If there are any fans of Downton Abbey or Nashville out there, this story is as good as those. You’ve got a patriarch named Jacob who’s still working through issues with his twin brother Esau and his father-in-law Laban; you’ve got the 12 sons of Jacob with the one that he inexplicably favors the most, namely, Joseph. This means you’ve got eleven jealous brothers who hate Joseph just a little bit more every episode. To make matters worse, Joseph is a bit of a tattle-tale; at age 17 he had told Jacob on them, saying they were shirking their chores in the field. Jacob is also a dreamer to whom visions come, and he lords this gift over the rest of them. His brothers eventually come to hate him so much that they conspire to kill him; his life is only spared from the deadly pit when one of them comes up with the alternative idea of selling him to the Egyptians instead. They trick their father Jacob into thinking that Joseph is dead but secretly sell him into slavery in the land of Egypt.

Time passes, and Joseph becomes rather good at being an Egyptian slave. He’s handsome, he’s successful, he resists false accusations against him, and eventually he becomes Pharaoh’s second-in-command and rises to a position of significant power and authority in Egypt.

Meanwhile, a famine falls across the land, and Jacob and his remaining sons become more and more desperate to have access to the food supply being hoarded by Egypt. Joseph had foreseen the famine in one of his dreams, and had wisely convinced Pharaoh to store up some of the grain. So when his brothers approach him, not knowing it’s him, he has all the power and they have very little. As one commentator writes:

It would be difficult to overstate Joseph’s position of imperial power in this story; anyone who wants to eat must come to Joseph. He hoards the grain, and he decides who may purchase it and at what price, at a time when all of the world is riddled with famine (41:57). Once powerless at the bottom of a pit, outnumbered by brothers who hated him, Joseph now gets to decide who will live and who will die.

Instead of taking pity on his brothers, however, and using his power for good, Joseph pretends not to know who they are when they come to Egypt. He even accuses them of spying, and he has them thrown in jail. He insists that they send him Jacob’s new favorite son, Benjamin, to him. Judah, the brother who had earlier spared his life by coming up with the idea of selling him, now pleads with Joseph to spare Benjamin.

So all this sad and sorry tale of brothers behaving badly forms the background context for our passage today. It kind of puts Joseph’s revelation in a different light, in my opinion. Now that we’ve heard the back story, let’s think about his speech again. In keeping with his character, Joseph is self-congratulatory: “God has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” He’s directive: “Hurry up, and go to my father, and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph.’” And he even becomes rather paternalistic: “I’ll provide for you, so you won’t come to poverty.” I don’t know about you, but I would think the brothers might be listening to all this and wondering what manipulation their brother now has up his sleeve.

It is striking that the brothers say nothing throughout this entire encounter with Joseph. Their silence has got to be an anxious silence. As the text says, “The brothers were so dumbfounded at finding themselves face to face with Joseph that they could not answer.” When he says, “You’ve had two years of famine and there will be another five, but I will take care of you. God has made me a lord over Pharaoh and a ruler of all Egypt” can we really hear in this an olive branch, a genuine reconciliation, or are we hearing a veiled threat? That is, “If you don’t come with me, lord and ruler over the land, you will starve.” Maybe a threat, maybe not. But if this is supposed to be some super-charged, emotional reconciliation episode between long-separated family members, Joseph has at best bumbled his way through the scene.


If what comes out of the mouth is a performance, then we must also regretfully conclude that Jesus’s performance when he encounters the Canaanite woman is not his best.

She approaches Jesus pleading that he heal her daughter of her demon. Other people have approached Jesus for healing, of course, but this encounter is different. Jesus is reluctant to help. Frankly, he gets kind of cranky. He’s got the woman on one side shouting at him and his disciples on the other side urging him to send her away. He appears to be swayed more by his disciples, for what he finally says is that he didn’t come to help people like her and that helping her would be like taking children’s food and throwing it to a dog. Ouch!

My therapist has taught me that: saying “ouch” as a way to respond to less-than-kind utterances that come my way out of the mouths of less-than-sensitive family members. She says that if someone says something hurtful and unkind to me, I should just say “Ouch.” Not match their insensitivity with some equally insensitive and hostile response of my own, but still stand my ground. “Ouch” communicates to them that they have overstepped and have hurt me with their inappropriate words, but it also keeps me in relationship. It offers them a chance to heal the wound their words have caused. It demonstrates that I am willing to struggle with them through their own reluctance to be as loving and helpful as they might be.

That’s what the Canaanite woman does. In response to words that any reader, ancient or modern, would take to be pretty bad, pretty harsh, she kneels before Jesus and asks again, “Lord, help me. Even dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table.” “Give me a crumb,” she insists. Usually in the gospels it’s Jesus offering a retort to the hostile questioner; now he’s the hostile questioner and she is the one offering the retort. But she is down on her knees doing so. Her willingness to hang in with this less-than-helpful savior finally moves Jesus, and he recognizes her faith and casts the demon out of her daughter.

* * *

Two stories of people saying words to each other that are fumbling at best, mean and hurtful at worst. What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what can defile us.

In 2003, philosopher Onora O’Neill delivered a series of lectures at Yale called “How Not to Do Things with Words,” a deliberate twist on the title of J.L. Austen’s book. I have borrowed her title for my sermon today. O’Neill paid homage in her lectures to Austen’s earlier work on the performative nature of language. When we speak promises and threats, truths and lies, words of forgiveness and healing, it’s just like using sticks and stones. But this does not mean our words are always forthright. The curse of us humans is that we get sneaky with our words. We often use words like an actor puts on disguises: to get away with something that we don’t want to just come right out and say. Take threats, for example. Rarely when we utter threats do we do so transparently. Instead, we make them sound like promises. We veil our threats. A threat is a disguised promise. A threat is to a promise as a lie is to the truth. Just as liars depend on our belief that what comes out of our mouths will be true, so too those who threaten us depend on our belief that our word will be reliable.

This is what Joseph did. Joseph’s brothers are not freed from their fear of him at the end of his speech. They remain afraid. They are still afraid a good five chapters later, in Genesis 50. They still think that Joseph seeks revenge on them for selling him into slavery in Egypt. Only at the very, very end of the long book of Genesis, when Joseph is on his deathbed, is their fear truly assuaged. “Fear not,” he says to them, “for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (50:20).

Thankfully, our God does not have to do things with words. God’s actions are beyond words. God can achieve good no matter what we humans say and do. And that is finally where the good news in these stories can be found. Just as the Gospel message affirms that it’s not what we eat that makes us clean or unclean, holy or unholy, in communion with God or outside God’s communion, so too the message in our stories is that God’s love transcends all that we do. God can achieve good no matter what we humans say and do to one another. God’s mercy reaches even further than we can imagine. God can even achieve good through the actions and words of we bumbling humans and our awkward speech acts. God uses us to show mercy, love, and forgiveness.

I would not be an ethicist if I didn’t think that our words mattered. How to do and not do things with words matters. But in the end, our words are finite like we are. We have a God who is infinite, and whose love is infinite.

God is the ultimate actor in these stories. God finally restores a family. God finally elicits a mother’s faith and heals a daughter. And for this, finally, all we can say is: Thanks be to God!


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