Sermon on the Mount: nature and outline

This coming weekend is the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The gospel is Matthew’s well known “Sermon on the Mount.” In yesterday’s post we covered the context for the Sermon as well as some overarching views of the Sermon regarding its context and audience. Today we consider the nature and alternative outlines of the Sermon.

The Beatitudes, which begin the “Sermon on the Mount” have a tendency to lead readers/hearers of the text to assume that Matthew has constructed a general ethical code which forms the core message. Craig Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 160) notes that there are more than thirty-six discrete views about the sermon’s message. He summarizes 8 of them:

  1. The predominant medieval view, reserving a higher ethic for clergy, especially in monastic orders;
  2. Martin Luther’s view that the sermon represents an impossible demand like the law;
  3. the Anabaptist view, which applies the teachings literally for the civil sphere;
  4. the traditional liberal social gospel position;
  5. existentialist interpreters’ application of the sermon’s specific moral demands as a more general challenge to decision;
  6. Schweitzer’s view that the sermon embodies an interim ethic rooted in the mistaken expectation of imminent eschatology;
  7. the traditional dispensational application primarily to a future millennial kingdom; and
  8. the view of an “inaugurated eschatology,” in which the sermon’s ethic remains the ideal or goal, but which will never be fully realized until the consummation of the kingdom.”

It is perhaps the ethical view that is most common.  Many scholars trace this popular predominance to the influence of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy whose literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus centered on the Sermon on the Mount (The Kingdom of God Is Within You). But this ethical reading alone does not do justice to the whole of Matthew’s text. Jesus is describing a standard that is nothing less than wholeness/completeness, being like God (5:48).  As St. Irenaeus wrote in the 2nd Century, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

Jesus’ use of black-and-white categories lays down a challenge which can not simply be converted into a set of rules and regulations for life in the real world. The essence of life in the kingdom of heaven is the antithesis of a legalistic code, as 5:20 will state and 5:21-48 will repeatedly illustrate. The discourse is intended as a guide to life – but only for those who are committed to the kingdom of heaven.  And, paradoxically, even they will always find that its reach exceeds their grasp.

As you might imagine, there is no agreed upon outline of the discourse. There are three general forms which might prove helpful and seem to represent – in broad strokes – the majority of views:

R.T. France (2007, p.155) suggests:

5:3-16 the distinctiveness of the disciples
5:17-48 fulfilling the Law
6:1-8 piety, true and false
6:19-34 the priority of trust in God over material security
7:1-12 a collection of saying thematically connected to the discourse
7:13-27 four challenging contrasts
7:28-29 the conclusion

Eugene Boring (p.173) offers an alternative reading:

5:3-16 Triple Pronouncement that constitute the disciples as the eschatological community
the Beatitudes
the disciples as salt
the disciples as light and a city on a hill

5:17-7:12 Triple instructions of the Way of Life in the eschatological community
Part 1 – the Law
Part 2 – temple service
part 3 – deeds of loving service

7:13-27 Triple eschatological warnings to the community

7:28-29 Conclusion

Peter Ellis and C.H. Lohrl see a chiastic structure to Matthew narrative, but like Boring, also see a triplet structure. In their structure they locate the Lord’s Prayer as the chiastic center of the entire discourse.

Regardless of the structure assigned, this discourse deals with the character, duties, attitudes and dangers of the Christian disciple. It is a manifesto setting out the nature of life in the kingdom of heaven. As France writes (1989, p.112):

The Sermon thus makes no claim to present an ethic for all men; indeed much of it would make no sense as a universal code. It is concerned not with ethics in general, but with discipleship, with man in his obedience and devotion to God, not with a pattern for society. To interpret it legalistically as a set of rules is to miss the point; it represents a demand more radical than any legislator could conceive, going far beyond what human nature can meet, a demand for perfection (5:48). And central to it is the person of Jesus himself: for his sake the disciples are to be persecuted (5:11); he sets before them his own interpretation of the will of God (5:17–48: ‘I say to you …’); their eternal destiny depends on their relation to him (7:21–23) and their response to his teaching (7:24–27). The Sermon is thus far from being just a collection of moral precepts. It presents the radical demand of Jesus the Messiah on all who respond to his preaching of God’s kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount compels us, in the first place, to ask who he is who utters these words.


Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain 

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