Levels of Analysis in the Sermon on the Mount: A brief outline

What is the Sermon on the Mount? How do we read it? What I have in mind is Matthew 5-7. Let’s leave Luke 6 out for now. Below are some potential layers of analysis for understanding the Sermon on the Mount. Now, the most simple way to read it is: hear these words and do them. But to do so requires a life of reflection.

  1. Literary-Rhetorical Levels
    1. The sermon is nested in Matthew’s gospel. So it’s place in Matthew’s story of Jesus must be considered. 
      1. In its context, the Sermon is Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom of God in non-parabolic format. 
      2. It is presented as a layer of evidence that Jesus is the Messiah who has authority.
        1. First because it contains Jesus’ interpretation of the Old Testament (hermeneutical skill). 
        2. Second, because it is presented as truth of the sort the Messiah would teach (divine revelation). 
      3. It is presented as a summary of Jesus’ vision of happiness, righteousness, human perfection, and wisdom. 
      4. As such, the contents are presented as an expression of an idea to be sought, but a constitution to be instantly applied. The guiding metaphor for relating to Jesus in Matthew is of discipleship, not legal judgment. 
      5. It is presented, then, as the foundation upon which the church is built (Matthew 7 and Matthew 16).
      6. It is taught on a mountain, in the hearing of crowds, to disciples who are called to preach the same message. And so it is a retelling of the Moses’ receipt of the law from God on Sinai. 
    2. The sermon, in Matthew, is elaborated upon in the narrative of Matthew in key ways. 
    3. In Matthew, the Sermon is self-consciously intertextual with the Old Testament, so those resonances must be taken into account. 
    4. Though I used to be skeptical of attempts to do this, the Sermon fits quite nicely into Aristotelian rhetorical form. Jesus appeals to commonly accepted facts, begins with an exordium, gives a narration of facts, makes a proposition statement, gives examples, uses a sort of recursive-self referential outline to clarify-elaborate on key terms, and concludes with an emotional call to action.
      1. Looking at the rhetoric can help us understand Jesus’ main point(s).
      2. Looking at the rhetoric can help us understand which parts of the Sermon are appeals to emotion over appeals to fact.
      3. Looking at the rhetoric through the lens of ancient social norms can help us grasp what function the Sermon has in his ministry. 
  2. Theologically
    1. As a book in the Bible, the Sermon is meant, by those who placed it in the canon to be interpreted within the frame work provided by the Bible even in the absence of intertextuality. The golden rule might be be informed by material in the Psalms or the personal covenant in Ruth, for instance. 
    2. Since the canon of Scripture came together in a theological milieu which included discussion of the Trinity, theosis as the goal of salvation, and the Incarnation of the Logos in Jesus, it’s important to discern these themes in the Sermon.
      1. Incarnation: The life is Jesus is necessarily divine revelation because Jesus is God incarnate. But the teaching of Jesus can still be the result of careful human thought and consideration because Jesus is also fully human. Both elements are important to consider. Understanding the human reasoning behind the sermon in how we experience it as divine revelation.
      2. Trinity: The Sermon is presented as the Son making known the culture of the Trinity as instantiated among sinful human beings. See also Matthew 11:26-30. Jesus is
      3. Theosis: Jesus says, in the Sermon, that his disciples will ‘see God,’ ‘be called sons of God,’ and that they should ‘be perfect’ like God. And so the Sermon is about how we approach the being of God as creatures. Jesus also uses the word ‘μακαριος’ which carries the connotation of ‘blissful’ as used in contemporary philosophy to describe the gods. 
  3. Philosophically
    1. As ancient philosophical discourse
      Ancient Greek philosophy (Stoic, Platonic, Aristotelian, and Epicurian) dealt with certain key issues:

      1. Blissfulness/Blessedness- Jesus describes his vision of blessing/bliss in Matthew 5:3-10 and bookends those beatitudes with ‘the kingdom of heaven.’
      2. Virtue – Jesus never uses the word virtue, but his sermon does touch on righteousness and prudence, and these terms are associated with Jewish virtue ethics in contemporary literature. 
      3. The Passions – Jesus never uses this word, but his topics include: anger, lust, hatred, the need for approval, and anxiety. 
      4. Politics – Jesus is dealing with conflict resolution, group solidarity, resource management, and personal piety within the context of a divinely sanctioned community: the kingdom of God. He is, in the Aristotelian sense, producing an ethical foundation for a constitution of people. 
    2. Ancient philosophical discourse tended to refer people to the Logos, but individuals like Parmenides weren’t afraid to claim divine inspiration as a rhetorical technique.
      1. Jesus, while showing his work (he gives reasons for his pronouncements) still places himself in a place of implicit divine authority, ‘I say unto you.’ and ‘I will say to you, depart…’ In this sense, Jesus is operating as philosopher/Prophet, but also as the Logos behind both. 
      2. To bring your mind into closer conformity to the Logos, ancient philosophy recommended philosophical exercises: hiding good deeds, time alone, meditation on the day’s duties to avoid worrying over the future, considering one’s misdeeds, making amends for wrongs done, taking criticism well, keeping promises when inconvenient, and so-on. Jesus does precisely this. 
      3. On the ancient understanding, the Old Testament was/is a body of philosophy (see The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony). Jesus is furthering that discussion, operating as a voice among many, but also as the Voice.  
    3. Jesus touches, albeit briefly on the topics most germane to human happiness, and so that naturally brings the Sermon into conversation with Christian and non-Christian discourse on metaphysics, psychology, ethics, and politics. 
  4. Sociologically/Historically
    1. In the sermon, we have a window into Jesus’ aims as a player in history (see The Aims of Jesus by Ben Meyer…not enough people read this). 
    2. Historical background (obviously) will give some window into what Jesus was getting at. Particularly in conjunction with rhetorical and literary analyses. In the Sermon are explicit and implicit critiques of other forms of Israelite practice contemporary with Jesus.
    3. If Jesus conceives of his kingdom as a people, in a place, with a king, and a culture, then the Sermon can be conceived of, not merely as ethical or theological discourse, but as strategy. The Sermon includes some aspects of how to appropriately maintain the reputation of God’s people in an honor shame culture with competing strategies for acquiring status within the meta-group of the Roman world. I can think of four items that cover this well: Neyrey’s book Honor and Shame in the Gospel of MatthewThe Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic GospelsThe Micro-sociology of Charisma, and The Power Tactics of Jesus ChristOther items of interest include Stephen Bram’s Biblical Games with his emphasis on Game Theory applied to biblical narrative and Game Theory and the Humanities: Bridging Two Worlds.

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