Beatitudes as Speech-Acts? (Gupta)

Beatitudes as Speech-Acts? (Gupta) October 9, 2014

I have the great honor of lecturing on the Sermon on the Mount later today. I love this material, not least because of the outstanding theological reflection from people like Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Bonhoeffer, Stott, and more recently scholars like Dale Allison, Charles Talbert, and Scot McKnight.

A thought popped in my head today about thinking about the beatitudes in terms of speech-act theory (transformative performative utterances). I had a hunch that I wasn’t the first person to come up with this idea (!). So, after a very short time nosing around, I noted that John Carroll’s relatively new Luke commentary picks up on this idea and develops it richly in view of Luke’s beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26). Here is an excerpt from Carroll:

The first two beatitudes, with their matching woes, later find parabolic enactment in 16:19-31: Lazarus and the rich man exemplify precisely the present situation, and its reversal after death, of which Jesus speaks here. It is not simply that Jesus redefines the meaning of life (and divine favor) in the present; the future will give substance to what only the imagination can perceive now. In fact, since in a sense Jesus’ words begin to create the reality of which they speak (i.e., they are performative speech acts; see Austin, Do Things with Words [sic]), the beatitudes already begin to enact the divine work of reversal to which Mary has pointed. If Jesus understands his mission from God to be the declaration of good news for the poor (4:18-19), the beatitudes show him doing just that. The woes reveal the corollary of that good news, for the status inversion of God’s reign means bad news for the wealthy and powerful (p. 150).

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