Interpret the Scriptures
With Abingdon's Old & New Testament Commentaries
Introduction to The Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount is the first of the five great discourses in the Gospel and the foundation for all that follows. The Sermon presents Jesus as the teacher par excellence, in the manner of Moses, but, for Matthew, far exceeding the great lawgiver and Savior of Israel.
Matthew draws the core content of the Sermon from Q (see Luke 6:20-49) but expands it with other scattered Q sayings and material unique to Matthew. The strong Jewish-Christian flavor of this traditional material, as well as its presence in a sermon format in both Luke and Matthew, suggests that it may have originated as a compendium of Jesus' sayings intended for Christian instruction. Hans Dieter Betz, in a major commentary on the Sermon, proposes that it originated as an "epitome," or collection, of the essential teachings of Jesus. Such a literary form was known in antiquity, both in Greco-Roman and Jewish culture. Betz speculates that the original purpose of the Sermon was to instruct Jewish converts to the community on the teachings of Jesus, relating those teachings to the converts' Jewish background (by contrast, Luke's "Sermon on the Plain" explains the teachings of Jesus in relationship to a Greek background; see Betz 1995, 70-88).
Whatever the original form and function of the Sermon, Matthew's careful editing of this material, its correspondence with the surrounding structure of 4:23-9:35, and its resonance with Matthean motifs throughout the Gospel now make it an integral part of Matthew's narrative.
Determining a coherent structure for the Sermon as a whole has generated a lot of discussion. Ulrich Luz, for example, has proposed a "ring like" structure with the Lord's Prayer (6:7-15) as its center (Luz 1989, 211-13). From this core radiates a series of parallel passages based on both thematic and formal similarities. For example, the sections immediately before and after the Lord's Prayer have a similar theme of "righteousness before God" (6:1-6 and 6:16-18); the materials in the next "ring" (5:21-48 and 6:19-7:11) have a formal similarity in that each has fifty-nine lines; the next ring (5:17-20 and 7:12) has a parallel reference to the "law and the prophets"; and the outer ring (5:3-16 and 7:13-27) serves as introduction and conclusion to the Sermon. Proposals such as this are enticing but extraordinarily subtle and often depend on subjective judgments about what constitutes a "parallel."
Some features of the Sermon's structure are more evident. Most of the material has clear demarcations by content: the introduction and Beatitudes (5:1-16); the keynote principle of fulfilling the law and the prophets illustrated by six antitheses (5:17-48); teaching about almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (6:1-18); and the concluding exhortation (7:13-29). The segment in 6:19-7:12 has less evident thematic or formal unity but certainly reflects the typical motifs of the Sermon as a whole. Another characteristic to note is the emphasis on fulfillment of the "law and the prophets" that is explicitly stated in both 5:17 and 7:12, forming a clear bracket around the body of the Sermon and highlighting a fundamental theme of the Sermon as a whole. Typical groupings of three are also detectable such as in the ordering of the Beatitudes (5:3-10, 11-12, 13-16), the three acts of piety (6:1-18), and the three sets of exhortations that conclude the Sermon (7:13-14, 15-23, 24-27). This preference for "three" may also command the overall structure of the Sermon into three major sections: the introduction (5:1-16), the ethical instructions (5:17-7:12), and the concluding exhortations (7:13-29). M. E. Boring suggests that here Matthew follows the original three-part division of the Sermon found in Q, which is still detectable in Luke's version (Boring 1995, 171-73).
Based on these features a probable structure for the Sermon is as follows:
1. Introduction and proclamation of the Beatitudes (5:1-16)
2. The fulfillment of the Law (5:17-48)
3. Authentic piety and right action (6:1-7:12)
4. Exhortation and conclusion (7:13-29)
Thus the format of the Sermon is both linear and progressive. It begins with the Beatitudes, which provide a strong eschatological tone and serve as prelude to the Sermon as a whole. Then it turns to the fundamental theme of fulfillment of the law and the "greater righteousness" demanded of the disciple. A series of six "antitheses" or contrasts illustrates this theme initially, then instructions on key aspects of piety and one's fidelity to God further illustrate this theme. The discourse concludes with warnings of judgment and corresponding calls for action on the part of those who receive Jesus' words. Parallels, catchwords, and inclusions arch back and forth across this linear structure, giving the discourse both formal and thematic cohesion.Setting the Stage (5:1-2)
The first two verses (5:1-2) are transitional, connecting the discourse to the preceding epic summary of Jesus' ministry (4:23-25) and setting the stage for the Sermon that follows. Prompted by the vast "crowds" who come to him, bringing their sick and afflicted with them, Jesus goes up a mountain with his disciples, sits down in the manner of the synagogue teacher (see Matt 23:2, seat of Moses; Luke 4:20), and "opening his mouth" (NRSV: "he began to speak") begins to teach.
Matthew favors mountain settings as places where dramatic revelations take place (see 4:8; 15:29-31; 17:1-8; 28:16-20; see Donaldson 1985). In this context it is likely that Matthew also intends to wrap Jesus in the mantle of Moses and the revelation on Sinai (Exod 19:3, 12; 24:15, 18; 34:1-2, 4; Allison 1993). The discourse will be directed to the "disciples" but the "crowds" are not abandoned. At the end of the discourse, the "crowds" reappear and are "astounded at his teaching" (7:28). The relationship of the "crowds" and "disciples" in Matthew is not clearly defined. For most of Jesus' ministry the crowds seem to be a neutral entity and often respond favorably to Jesus. Their role will take a decisive turn, however, in the Passion narrative (see 27:20-26). While the "disciples" are explicitly called to follow Jesus (4:18-22) and have the benefit of witnessing his mission and hearing his words, the "crowds," too, are the object of Jesus' ministry and seem to represent the wider community, first of all Israel and ultimately all those to whom he is sent. The Sermon, therefore, is not intended solely for an elite group but is directed to the world (Luz 1995, 42-45).The Beatitudes of the Kingdom of Heaven (5:3-12)
The Beatitudes (5:3-10) and the related sayings on discipleship (5:11-16) serve as a prelude to the Sermon. They underscore the eschatological perspective of Jesus' mission, lifting up those virtues, attitudes, and characteristic actions that define authentic discipleship as taught by Jesus. The first eight Beatitudes are stated in the third person (vv. 1-10); the ninth beatitude is in the second person and leads into direct instructions for the disciples (vv. 11-16). The literary form, declaring "blessed" those who exhibit a particular behavior or disposition, has biblical precedents, particularly in the Wisdom and prophetic literature (see, e.g., Sir 25:7-9; 48:1-11; Isa 30:18; 32:20). Similar literary forms can be traced far back in hellenistic literature such as the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and particularly in some expressions of the Egyptian cult of Isis (Betz 1995, 97-105). The Beatitudes in the Sermon are closer (but not identical) to the prophetic perspective whereby those are declared blessed whose present circumstances will be reversed by God in the end time. Standing at the beginning of the discourse, the Beatitudes give the Sermon a strong eschatological flavor, declaring "blessed" now those who, because of their experience, virtues, and commitments, will fully experience the reign of God in the end time.
Matthew draws some of this material from Q (5:3, cf. Luke 6:20; 5:4, cf. Luke 6:21; 5:6, cf. Luke 6:21; 5:11-12, cf. Luke 6:22-23) and Mark (5:13, cf. Mark 9:49-50; 5:14-16, cf. Mark 4:21). In Luke's version the Beatitudes are directly linked to corresponding "woes" but Matthew has only Beatitudes, seeming to reserve "woes" for Jesus' sharp attack on the Pharisees and scribes in 23:13-23. Several of Matthew's Beatitudes (5:5, 7-10) have no parallel in Luke and are reflective of traditional biblical virtues that have particular force for Matthew.
The "kingdom of heaven" is mentioned in the first (5:3) and the eighth (5:10) Beatitudes, framing these core declarations and linking them to the fundamental motif of the kingdom announced in preceding scenes (4:17, 23). Another key Matthean motif-"righteousness"-is cited in the fourth and eighth Beatitudes, providing another link to opening scenes of the Gospel (3:15) and anticipating Jesus' teaching in 5:20. The sayings on discipleship that conclude this section (5:11-16) have a transitional function, moving the reader from the magisterial declarations of the Beatitudes to focus on Jesus' instruction of the disciples in the body of the Sermon.Conclusion
The situations, actions, and virtues blessed in these verses all have strong roots in biblical tradition and reflect Matthew's ethical perspective. The formulation "poor in spirit" (in contrast to Luke's straightforward "poor") in the first Beatitude (v. 3) evokes not only the traditional theme of God's care for the poor (see, e.g., Exod 22:25-27; 23:11; Lev 19:9-10; Deut 15:7-11; Isa 61:1), but emphasizes the ethical disposition of trust and dependence on God. "Those who mourn" is a generalized reference to those who have suffered loss or oppression and is strongly reminiscent of Isa 61:1-3 where God promises to vindicate and comfort those who mourn in Zion. The blessing of the "meek" stresses an ethical stance of humility, a virtue that will describe Jesus himself in Matthew's Gospel (see 11:29; 21:5); the promise that they will "inherit the earth" echoes Ps 37:11 (see also Isa 60:21; Jub. 22:14; 32:19). The designation "hunger and thirst for righteousness" (emphasis added; contrast Luke 6:21, "you who are hungry now") again reflects Matthew's abiding ethical interest: Those who strive for righteousness are in accord with Jesus' own commitment (3:15) and with his fundamental teaching (5:20). "Mercy" is also a consistent Matthean emphasis illustrated in Jesus' own compassionate ministry (see, e.g., 9:13; 12:7); by contrast, the Pharisees are excoriated for neglecting it (23:23). Experiencing judgment from God in accord with exactly what one practices is also typical of Matthew (see, e.g., the parable of 18:23-35 and the Lord's Prayer in 6:12, 14-15). To be "pure in heart" implies single-minded devotion to God; echoing Ps 24, such obedience is characteristic of those "who seek the face of the God of Jacob" and will be vindicated Ps 24:3-6; also Pss. 51:10; 73:1). The blessing on the "peacemakers" will be amplified in the Sermon (5:21-26, 43-48) and is in accord with Matthew's strong emphasis on reconciliation. The peacemakers will be called "children of God" because they act in accord with God's own reconciling love and thus prove to be God's sons and daughters (5:45). The kingdom of heaven belongs to those "persecuted for righteousness' sake" (v. 10); warnings of persecution from both Gentile and Jewish authorities are given to the disciples in the mission discourse (see 10:16-31) and the eschatological discourse (24:9; see also 23:34).