The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:27)

Introduction

As preachers, we only get a few opportunities to preach on the Sermon on the Mount. We get three weeks of the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 5 before Transfiguration Sunday in Year A, a portion of chapter 6 on each Ash Wednesday, and then an additional section of chapter 6 on Thanksgiving in Year B. Many preachers reference the “Sermon on the Mount” regularly, but we never get to read it from start to finish in the lectionary and as a result we don’t often look at the totality of the work.

I would argue that the Sermon on the Mount may be one of the most referred to moments of the Gospels outside of the birth of Jesus, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. And while there is a tremendous amount of scholarship on these three chapters, there is very little consensus about what this moment should mean. Some commentators, theologians, and pastors have treated it as a commanding moment, like Moses’ imparting of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. They consider it a climactic moment and the delivery of a new law, a new Moses/commandments scene. Other commentators have suggested that it is merely a series of quotes from Jesus that have been piecemealed together and don’t have much significance together outside of Matthew collecting them. But I think treating this moment at either ends of these poles does a disservice to the text. I do not think this is supposed to be the climax of Matthew, but I also don’t think it’s insignificant either.

Narrative Setting – The Mountain

Obviously, the use and image of the mountain is important to Matthew. It bookends Jesus’ ministry with his disciples with the Sermon on the Mount and then with the Great Commission. Here in the beginning, given the imagery that Matthew has used to set up who Jesus is to this point, the mountain adds emphasis to the Moses and prophet image that has been building. Even the phrase “went up the mountain” is most often associated with Moses when used in the Old Testament.[1] Therefore narratively, like Moses, Jesus’ words on the mountain must be considered as authoritative and from God.

The physical location and geographical location of the mountain are less important to Matthew. The NIB commentary writes, “Although more than one Galilean hill has been identified by Christian tradition (and tourism) as the ‘mount of the beatitudes,’ the location of the Sermon on the Mount is not geographical but theological, the mountain of revelation that corresponds both to Mt. Sinai and the mountain of 28:16 (cf. also 15:29; 17:1; 24:3 for mountains as places of revelation).”[2] While revelation is not exactly the same here as it is in the Gospel of John (seeing Jesus as the I am), the mountain is a revelatory moment of the mission and direction of God as was true of prophets before (like Moses). This Sermon will be the word of God. I also personally think the mountain location also plays into a growing Matthean theme of the disciples being set apart. Jesus’s message takes a counter cultural move away from society and this location adds to that emphasis.

Narrative Audience and Theological Implication – Not a New Law

There is a little debate whether Jesus gives this sermon only to the disciples (5:1) or if it is to the entire crowd. I feel confident that it is to the entire crowd because of the final verses in chapter 7, “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astonished at his teaching…” (7:28).[3] Narratively, this is a formative moment for Jesus and the disciples as well. Jesus is still establishing his authority as a teacher but also as a prophet to be listened to. In this regard, the Sermon on the Mount does not function as a culminating moment for Jesus and the disciples but instead a commencement.

As Jesus begins from the mountain, the Moses/Prophet image must be coming to mind for Matthew’s Jewish listeners. The law is being given. However, disagreeing with C.H. Dodd and other commentators, I do not believe that this “supersedes the old law” or is a new law.[4] More similarly to Nehemiah 8, I think the Sermon on the Mount is a retelling of the law (with interpretation). The crucial verse for this comes in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” I believe that Matthew (although it is not the sole function), is using these two chapters to bring comfort to the Jewish audience by articulating that to follow Jesus is not to throw out scripture, the law, or tradition. However, in following this prophet (in a rabbinical-like tradition), there will be an interpretation of the law that has a specific focus that contradicts other interpretations. And Jesus’ interpretation will focus on community.[5]

In Exodus the law given at Mount Sinai was given at a time when the Israelites had just fled Egypt and were wandering. They weren’t arbitrary rules from God that had no application or need. It was a law given to a community that, in their wandering, was without rules or laws. The law was given so that they could live as a community in love and thus thrive together. Here in this moment on the mountain, Jesus teaches this retelling of the law to a new community gathered. They are from all walks of life from the surrounding areas of Galilee. They are not a cohesive bunch. This telling of the law is a binding moment for this community. From a literary and rhetorical lens, we could see this as a binding moment for Matthew’s budding community as well. A Nehemiah 8 moment, where a community is coming together to hear the law for the first time or in a new way.

There is a question that we preachers need to ask ourselves as we dive into the specific verses of this Sermon though. Do we see this as a moral code and instruction for living (turn the other cheek, give alms, reconcile)?

Matthew’s endgame is different from the other Gospels. The “judgment” comes at the end times and not in the cross or resurrection. Jesus’ incarnation is not the ultimate coming of the kingdom, and neither is the church the coming of the kingdom. That will happen when Jesus returns. And so, commentators have questioned how the Sermon on the Mount functions and directs the church. Generations have written on this. To name a few, Albert Schweitzer posits that it serves as an interim ethic between this world and the Messianic kingdom to come.[6] C.H. Dodd argues against that and says it is not an interim ethic, but “it is the absolute ethic of the Kingdom of God, the moral principles of a new order of life.”[7] Eduard Schweizer says “Undoubtedly the Sermon on the Mount is an ethics of discipleship.[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that we are simply to “obey” the sermon.[9] Several commentators call this the “new law” (which, in my opinion, immediately contradicts 5:17). Many commentators just describe this as a collection of sayings that were never delivered in this fashion (but that doesn’t address Matthew’s rationale for compiling them this way). Ultimately R. Alan Culpepper summarizes,

Daunting as this [extensive] history is, it steers us away from both absolutist claims and efforts to set aside the demands of the Sermon. The Sermon emphasizes grace and blessing but sets a lofty standard for the people of God. It deals with present suffering and oppression but holds out the hope of eschatological reversal. The Sermon interprets Jesus’ teaching as a fulfillment of the Mosaic law. Ultimately, the [Sermon on the Mount] engages readers because they hear in it the voice of the historical Jesus.[10]

I think this statement is helpful for us as preachers because it articulates what we hear from the pews about readings from the Gospel of Matthew being harsh or judgmental. Our people get squirmy around the Sermon on the Mount, because as Culpepper said, “they hear in it the voice of the historical Jesus.” While it is very possible these sayings to go back to the historical Jesus, they also sound that way because they harken back to the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is prophetic language, which makes sense as Matthew is tying Jesus to Moses and the prophets.

That being said, Matthew appears to be leaving room for a wide range of interpretation for his audience and the reader. Ulrich Luz writes,

It is clear that the narrator Matthew involves his readers in his Jesus story. They understand the Jesus story with which they already were generally familiar as their story with Jesus. It is this story of their Lord and teacher—indeed, the story of Immanuel Jesus in which they experience God’s continuing presence with them (28:20). They do not hear it as outsiders. Thus the “inclusive” Jesus story is directly meaningful for them.[11]

This explanation from Luz helps illustrate how so many commentators and preachers come to different conclusions about the purpose of the Sermon. While Matthew’s intended audience may have a clearer understanding of the arguments and debates that were taking place internally in the community and with neighboring Jewish communities, we are not privy to those immediate thoughts. Instead, we have to rely on what little historical context and narrative context we can derive from the totality of the Gospel. 

For preachers, in the few weeks that we get the Sermon on the Mount in the lectionary, we have an opportunity to lean into the thematic points of prophecy, community, and discipleship. We can lean into the hope and conviction of prophetic language that calls us to reflect on our living together. We can lean into the grace and blessing of the beatitudes that give hope and simultaneously lean into the judgment and warnings that convict us to see the shortcomings of the world. It reminds us that God is not just pushing for the end times and eschatological kingdom. God wants us to care for each other here and now.

It is the “both/and” approach that is crucial to the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. The “both/and” that it is for here and now and a promise of the eschatological future. It is “both/and” for the individual and the community. I don’t think it is just a moral code for individuals. But we can’t ignore it as direction for individual decisions either. The Sermon on the Mount is an interpretation of communal law for Jesus’ followers so that they more fully love God and love one another. Matthew using a Moses/prophetic image, is reframing the law to guide his own community on living together. But that means communal and individual expectation. How do we individuals live in community in this broken world that God so loves?

Different Opinion of Structure

It depends on who you ask whether the commentator thinks this is a random assortment of sayings or that Matthew has created a symphony with movements. I am inclined to think that Matthew has orchestrated this with some sophistication. Eduard Schweizer doesn’t note a particular breakdown but just goes through shorter sections (i.e., Beatitudes, Salt & Light, Fulfillment of the Law, etc.).[12]

R. Alan Culpepper breaks it down into somewhat larger sections:

  1. The Blessings and Demands of the Kingdom (5:1-20)
  2. Six Transforming Initiatives (5:21-48)
  3. Righteousness in Religious Life (6:1-18)
  4. Righteousness in Relation to Material Things (6:19-34)
  5. Righteousness in Relation to One’s Neighbor (7:1-12)
  6. Warnings about the Two Ways and the Coming Judgment (7:13-27)
  7. The Crowd’s Response to Jesus’ Teaching (7:28-29).[13]

The NIB consolidates it even further into three large sections (with smaller subsections in between). The three larger sections are:

  1. Triadic Pronouncements That Constitute the Disciples as the Eschatological Community (5:3-16)
  2. Tripartite Instructions on the Way of Life in the Eschatological Community (5:17-7:12).
  3. Three Eschatological Warnings (7:13-27)[14]

My Proposed Structure

From my study of the sermon, I can see four sections that function like a symphony.

First Movement – (Section 5:3-5:16) Beatitudes & Salt, Light, and City on a Hill

The first movement is a blessing for this gathered crowd with the Beatitudes. It is also poetic and proverbial as Jesus is calling these followers salt and light for the world. I believe this is a benediction for these followers to feel confident in this mission they are about to go through.

Second Movement – (Section 5:17-6:18) – Fulfillment of Law and Prophets, “You have heard it said…,” Practice and Piety

This second movement hinges on this first verse: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” In some ways I think this is the most important verse in all of Matthew. Jesus brings the fulfillment of the law and the continuation of the prophets. As mentioned before, it is not a new law or new commandments. Jesus is extending and fulfilling the prophetic tradition. So immediately after, as we hear this next section with the words, “You have heard it said…” (5:21), we must remind ourselves that this is not a new law. This is an interpretation of the law that follows in tradition. This section focuses two things: 1) on individuals and community living together and 2) focuses on ritual and religious piety being for spiritual and not institutional purpose. This section guides the disciples in their ministry and guides Matthew’s community on how to live together as a spiritual community.

Third Movement – (Section 6:19-7:11) – Promises of God (don’t worry about your life, God will clothe you, ask and it will be given, knock and the door will be opened)

In the Beatitudes and in the second movement, there are more than enough hints that the work that you do for the kingdom will not at all be easy. In fact, the final Beatitude indicates that the pursuit of righteousness will most assuredly bring persecution. In the second movement we are called to turn the other cheek and give to anyone who wants to sue us. This third movement then reassures us of the promises of God. Because of these first two sections, we may be ready to hoard food, wealth, and seek security. But right after talking about fasting, Matthew starts the third movement with, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…” and then ‘that we cannot serve God and wealth’… and then ‘that we should not worry about what we will eat, wear, or drink.’ Matthew immediately pushes those instincts away and calls us to pay attention to the love, promise, and provision of God. ‘If God so clothes the grass of the field, will God not much more clothe you (6:30)?’ ‘Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you (7:7).’ This movement is blessed assurance for these disciples to trust in God even though they will face difficulty in this work.

Fourth Movement – (7:12-7:27) – Hints of the Eschaton

It can’t be the Gospel of Matthew if there isn’t a hint of the eschatological end times. And so, there is no other way for the Sermon on the Mount to be finished. Verse 7:12 may feel like it’s out of place or that it should fit in another section but in many ways, it is a brilliant transition to the fourth movement. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” It is this work of the kingdom, caring for our neighbors and caring for our community (as the law and the prophets have told us since the beginning), that is the road that connects us to the eschaton and the kingdom of God (and verse 13 calls this road difficult). Whether we take it as Matthew’s eschatological end time or take it as learnings for now, these warnings are understandable immediately. Even now we can understand how false prophets would distract and lead folks astray from the hard road of discipleship. We need not look farther than the prosperity gospel for that. It is in the hearing the words of Jesus (the words that resonate and reverberate with the spirit of the prophets and the passing down of the law) that will allow us to call upon the name of the Lord and build the foundation of the kingdom on rock (7:24-27). Matthew writes these words about the end times, but they can impact our ministry here and now all the same.

Overall

The structure of Blessing, Teaching, Promise, and Eschatological Conviction rhetorically function to allow the listener to feel empowered through the authority of Christ and to continue in the tradition of the law and the prophets. The Sermon on the Mount is a commencement address in Matthew to usher in the kingdom of heaven through our discipleship.

Conclusion

From my work throughout Matthew and from my work deliberately looking at the Sermon on the Mount, I feel that Matthew intentionally structured these chapters in this way and in this order. I do not see the Sermon as random, and I don’t think it was artificially edited together later. However, unlike other commentators (like C.H. Dodd and Bonhoeffer), I don’t think the Sermon on the Mount functions as a separate and distinct teaching. It shouldn’t be removed from the rest of Matthew and shouldn’t be viewed as the climactic moment of Matthew.

The Sermon on the Mount narratively and theologically serves to give prophetic authority to Jesus and to be a unifying and commencement moment for the disciples and crowd who have newly gathered together. For the listener/reader, it serves a similar purpose. We hear the great authority of Jesus and hear how we are called to live in our spiritual communities as disciples of Christ. This particular understanding also helps us to not misstep and consider the Sermon on the Mount to be a new law that replaces the law of Moses. But by viewing this moment through a lens of a community coming together around the law, we see how Jesus is a continuation and fulfillment of the law and prophets (5:17) and not abolishing or replacing them. The law of Moses and the law of Jesus are the same and both drive us to live in community through love of God and love of neighbor.

Finally, there are many ways to view the structure of the Sermon on the Mount. I find that Matthew has intentionally created sections that transition into one another and rhetorically allow the listener/reader to feel empowered to follow these teachings and the tradition of the law and the prophets. We are the continuation of the prophetic tradition and are called to continue proclaiming the coming kingdom of heaven.

There is so much more that could be said about this incredible portion of the Gospel and there are so many commentaries out there with different takes. I hope that this short exegetical paper has done some justice to look at the narrative and structural purpose of this wonderful scene in scripture.


[1]The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994), 175.

[2] NIB, 175.

[3] R. Alan Culpepper, Matthew: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), 84.

[4] Culpepper, 83.

[5] Eduard Schweizer argues, “Matthew’s separate treatment of the Golden Rule (7:12) show how important it is to him. It in face means that love for one’s neighbor is the solution to the whole problem of the Law.” I think he is correct that Matthew is deeming it important, but Matthew/Jesus is not arguing that the Law is a problem and the whole Sermon focuses on community in one way or another.

Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1975), 73.

[6] Culpepper, 82.

[7] C.H. Dodd, History and Gospel, (London: Nisbet, 1938), 125.

[8] Eduard Schweizer, 78.

[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Rev. Ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 168.

[10] Culpepper, 83.

[11] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, ed. Helmut Koester, trans. James E. Crouch (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 18.

[12] Schweizer, 78.

[13] Culpepper, 84-161.

[14] NIB, 173.

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