Most scholars recognize that there are five major teaching blocks in Matthew’s Gospel. There are more teachings woven into the narrative of the account, but there are five distinct blocks of teaching that Matthew has gathered in a more thematic fashion: Sermon on the Mount (ch 5-7), Sending of the Disciples (ch 10), Parables of the Kingdom (ch 13), Conduct in the Kingdom (ch 18), and Pictures of Judgment (24-25). Much of the content here can be found in varying amounts in the other synoptics. In Luke and Mark, the similar content is often spread throughout the narrative rather than consolidated into themed blocks. But Matthew’s groupings are not merely themed within their respective blocks, they seem to be arranged in a very particular structure relative to one another (the other blocks).
While there is still a fair amount of debate around the subject, a number of scholars have suggested that the five blocks are arranged in a chiastic structure – which would not be surprising as chiasm is a rather common form of parallelism found in ancient Hebrew, and Matthew contains a number of strong Hebrew characteristics. As I understand it, chiastic parallelism works like a group of nested brackets with the outermost brackets containing similar words, themes, or ideas (even contrasting ideas), likewise the next two brackets, and so on until you reach the middle (either a middle pair or a single entity, either is acceptable). The trick is to identify the middle element or couplet as that serves as the central theme toward which the rest of the couplets point in some way. The structure looks like this: A, B, C, B’, A’ where A and A’ are related as are B and B’. C is the central theme through which we understand levels A /A’ and B/B’ while these simultaneously inform one another and give a more nuanced picture of the whole. So, our example with Matthew’s teaching blocks might look like this:
A – Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) – or covenantal blessings with respect to a new ‘law’
…..B – Sending of the Disciples (Matt 10) – or responsibility toward those not yet in the Kingdom
……….C – Parables of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 13) – the central theme of the structure
…..B’ – Internal Instructions (Matt 18) – or responsibility toward those within the Kingdom
A’ – Pictures of Judgement (Matt 24, 25) – or covenantal curses with respect to a new ‘law’
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty slick. The A/A’ level draws an analogy to the covenantal blessings and curses described in Deuteronomy with respect to the Law of Moses. Keep in mind it is an analogy, not a direct correspondence as we will see in a later post. It stands as something familiar for the largely Jewish audience to relate the Kingdom to (Matthew is, after all, wanting to be understood by those he’s writing to). The B/B’ level describes our conduct and attitudes toward those both outside and within the community (much as the Mosaic code gave rules governing relationships both inside and outside the community). Our understanding here is still centered on the Kingdom of Heaven, but these ‘relational codes’ are also viewed in light of the covenant blessings and curses. And, perhaps, these ‘relational codes’ help us to understand the nature of the Kingdom in a more focused way than the broader ‘laws.’ And of course, all this is descriptive of the Kingdom of Heaven – which is described as being present, of inestimable value, and still a work in progress (among other things). Admittedly, this is a first run for me at incorporating Matthew’s teaching blocks into a chiastic structure (I blog as much to help bring clarity to my own thinking as anything else, to the extent that its helpful to anyone else …. all the better). I’m still not fully satisfied with the way I’ve teased out the B/B’ level and I’m sure a lot more attention could be given to other aspects of the model. I welcome any thoughts you might have in this regard (I firmly believe that Scripture was never intended to be studied and understood in isolation, but always within the context of an engaged community – so have at it)!
A final thought with regard to these structural observations. The history of western theology often runs perilously close to a self-contained philosophy – as if through our cleverness we could simply think our way up to God. Philosophy has its place, and thinking is important, but life in Christ can never be reduced to these alone. Fortunately, Matthew doesn’t let us get too carried away with our own cleverness or even the intentional patterns he uses. Before the teachings begin, after they end, and woven between their blocks Matthew insists that the teachings, even the Kingdom of Heaven itself be rooted in the specific birth, life, death, and resurrection of a particular man, at a particular time, in a particular place. Apart from Him, the teachings are simply another set of nice ideas and the Kingdom another world view competing for a place at the table. These teachings hold authority for one reason. The Kingdom stands on the strength of that same reason. That reason is a person – and we don’t think our way toward people, we engage them through relationship. Matthew uses his structures as tools to help us better understand this Jesus and the nature of His Kingdom so that we may more fully engage Him in the relationship He calls us to. As He Himself challenged those He walked among – come, follow Him!
– Pastor Jim Kushner