This is the second (of seven) brief overviews from a study I’m leading at my church on Matthew’s gospel. It is a literary analysis that focuses on how the story is put together, while still touching on individual passages at times. This is a summary of the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus begins his ministry by taking up John the Baptist’s message (3.2; 4.17)—“Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the first of three major shifts in the gospel narrative, which occur at 4.17, 16.21 and 26.16 and are revealed by the same Greek phrase that occurs in all three verses: “From that time…”
In 4.18-22, Jesus calls his first disciples and their response functions as an example of a radical discipleship (Bultmann) that is willing to abandon anything that might hinder them from embracing Jesus’ vision of how the world should be and to let go of everything that could prevent them from becoming like their rabbi.
The Sermon (Mt 5-7) is a composition of the writer and later redactors of the gospel who have put together a unified discourse of the many things Jesus said as he journeyed around teaching and healing (actions summarized in 4.23-25).
The sermon begins with blessings (5.3-16) that reveal the character traits of those who respond positively to Jesus and his message, and it ends with curses or warnings (7.13-27) that reveal the character traits of those who respond negatively to Jesus and his message. These two passages form an introduction and a conclusion to the “body” of the sermon. This also recalls the OT framing of torah around blessings and curses (cf. Deuteronomy), and the four-fold “two ways” in the warnings section (7.13-27) recalls the OT theme of the parting of two ways (e.g Psalm 1).
The middle portion of the sermon (5.17-7.12) is set apart by the blessings and curses that frame it, and the body of the sermon is framed by the statements in 5.17 and 7.12, both of which reference “fulfilling the teachings of torah and the prophets.” 5.17-20 is the thesis of the sermon: Jesus will reveal the “higher righteousness” (the right interpretation and application of torah). This is revealed in four parts: 5.21-48 (social righteousness about how we relate to our neighbor); 6.1-18 (religious righteousness about how we practice our piety); 6.19-34 (economic righteousness about how we relate to our possessions); 7.1-11 (social righteousness about how we assess/judge our neighbor). The thesis of 5.17-20 is then repeated in 7.12 through an overarching principle that embodies the heart of torah: “treat others as you want to be treated.”