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The Logic of Matthew 6.19–7.12: Heavenly Priorities in the Kingdom of Earth

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2020

Charles Nathan Ridlehoover*
North Raleigh Christian Academy, 7300 Perry Creek Rd., Raleigh, NC27614, USA. Email:


In Sermon studies and their discussion of structure, scholars disagree on how to understand the latter half of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6.19–7.12). This section breaks the almost seamless structure of the first half of the Sermon (5.17–6.18). In what follows, I will argue that the latter half of the Sermon displays more structure than is generally acknowledged by Graham Stanton and others and gives us key insights into the overall message of the Sermon. I will argue that the structure of the latter half of the Sermon is marked by internal structuring, thematic consistency and verbal patterning. Matthew's emphasis in this section is on disciples having heavenly priorities while on earth.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Stanton, G. N., Gospel for a New People: Studies in Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992) 298Google Scholar.

2 This article is intended to be similar to Dumbrell's, WilliamThe Logic of the Role of the Law in Matthew 5.1–20’, NovT 23 (1981) 121Google Scholar. Dumbrell shows the inner logic within the first twenty verses of chapter 5. I will argue similarly that there is an inner logic to Matt 6.19–7.12.

3 Muilenburg, J., ‘Form Criticism and Beyond’, JBL 88 (1969) 5Google Scholar.

4 Each Sermon begins with an introduction (Matt 5.1–2//Luke 6.20a), followed by the macarisms (Matt 5.3–12//Luke 6.20b–23), ‘loving your enemy’ (Matt 5.38–48//Luke 6.27–36), judging (Matt 7.1–5//Luke 6.37–42), Golden Rule (Matt 7.12//Luke 6.31), fruits (Matt 7.16–20//Luke 6.43–5), those who say ‘Lord, Lord’ (Matt 7.21//Luke 6.46), the two builders (Matt 7.24–7//Luke 6.47–9) and Sermon conclusion (Matt 7.28//Luke 7.1). See Guelich, R. A., The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding (Waco, TX: Word, 1982) 33–5Google Scholar.

5 The following structural proposals have been selected because of their sway on the field. One may be dissatisfied that some of them seem dated, but no new and significantly different proposals have been given which vary from the chosen sample set. Possible exceptions include Pennington, J., The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017) 105–34Google Scholar, especially 128–30. Also, see my recent contribution in The Lord's Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel (LNTS 616: London: T&T Clark, 2019) 29–64.

6 Grundmann, W., Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (THKNT; Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1972) 204–6Google Scholar.

7 Bornkamm, G., ‘Der Aufbau der Bergpredigt’, NTS 24 (1978) 419–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 See also Lambrecht, J., The Sermon on the Mount: Proclamation and Exhortation (GNS 14; Wilmington: Glazier, 1985) 155–64Google Scholar and Schnackenburg, R., All Things Are Possible to Believers: Reflections on the Lord's Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount (trans. Currie, J. S.; Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1995) 27–8Google Scholar. Schnackenburg is more hesitant than Lambrecht.

9 This point is made by Bornkamm, ‘Der Aufbau der Bergpredigt’, 427–30.

10 Bornkamm's connection here is problematic in two ways: (1) he splits 6.19–24 and 25–34, but these verses should in fact be seen as one section which addresses material needs and God's provision for even the ‘least of these’; (2) the emphasis in the Prayer's petition is on earth, but also clearly in heaven, while the emphasis in 6.19–24 focuses more on the earthly aspect, pointing out that man should not be subservient to wealth while on earth.

11 See also Farrer, A., St. Matthew and St. Mark (Westminster: Dacre, 1966) 174Google Scholar, Fenton, J. C., ‘Inclusio and Chiasmus in Matthew’, Studia Evangelica, vol. i (ed. Aland, K. et al. ; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1959) 174–9Google Scholar and Welch, J., ‘Chiasmus in the New Testament’, Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (ed. Welch, J.; Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1981) 211–49Google Scholar, at 236.

12 Goulder, M. D., Midrash and Lection in Matthew (London: SPCK, 1974) 252Google Scholar.

13 Goulder, Midrash and Lection, 254.

14 Green, H. B., Matthew, Poet of the Beatitudes (JSNTSupp Series 203; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000) 258Google Scholar.

15 Green, Poet of the Beatitudes, 258–9.

16 Carter, W., What Are They Saying about Matthew's Sermon on the Mount? (New York: Paulist, 1994) 38–9Google Scholar.

17 Goulder, Midrash and Lection, 264.

18 Goulder, Midrash and Lection, 265. Goulder actually says that it is the most difficult passage in the entire Gospel of Matthew.

19 See Allison, D. C., ‘The Structure of the Sermon on the Mount’, JBL 106 (1987) 423–45Google Scholar; Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination (New York: Herder & Herder, 1999) 27–57; and ‘The Configuration of the Sermon on the Mount and its Meaning’, Studies in Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005) 173–215.

20 Allison, ‘Structure of the Sermon’, 435.

21 Stassen, G. H., ‘The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (5:21–7:12)’, JBL 122 (2003) 267308Google Scholar.

22 Stassen, G. H. and Gushee, D. P., Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003)Google Scholar.

23 Stassen, ‘Fourteen Triads’, 268–9.

24 Stassen, ‘Fourteen Triads’, 267–8.

25 Stassen, ‘Fourteen Triads’, 275.

26 Stassen, ‘Fourteen Triads’, 275.

27 Stassen does not deal with the sections of the Sermon outside of 5.21-7.12.

28 Cf. Thom, J. C., ‘Dyads, Triads, and Other Compositional Beasts in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7)’, The New Testament Interpreted: Essays in Honour of Bernard C. Lategan (ed. Breytenbach, C., Thom, J. C. and Punt, J. (Leiden: Brill, 2006) 291–308Google Scholar, at 294. In the parenthesis, the verses represent the triadic structure as presented by Stassen.

29 Carter, What Are They Saying?, 47.

30 Stassen, ‘Fourteen Triads’, 298

31 Stassen, ‘Fourteen Triads’, 268.

32 Cf. Stanton, Gospel for a New People, 77–84.

33 Stassen, ‘Fourteen Triads’, 270.

34 Luz, U., Matthew 1–7: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007) 289Google Scholar.

35 Stassen, ‘Fourteen Triads’, 294.

36 This comment may seem contradictory to my earlier critiques, but the only digression to the Sermon's triadic structure is 6.25–33 and 7.7–11.

37 Within these individual sections, Luz splits the first (Matt 5.21–48) into two sets of three (Matt 5.21–26, 27–30, 31–2//5.33–7, 38–42, 43–7). He states (Matthew 1–7, 226) that each of the two sets has almost the same number of letters and only slightly differentiates in word total (1,131/1,130 letters; 258/244 words). There is also a similar introduction to each triad (verses 21, 33: ‘you have heard that it was said to the ancients’).

38 Other examples include Jesus’ insistence on being full of light (6.22–3) and loving God more than comforts (6.24). The teaching in Matt 6.25–34 concerning worry/anxiety speaks prima facie to food, drink and clothing, but at the heart of this teaching is Jesus’ instruction to ‘seek first the kingdom and righteousness’ (verse 34). Matt 7.1–5 gives instruction on avoiding judgements without considering one's own faults. Matt 7.6 encourages care with the gospel and 7.7–11 speaks to trusting in the Father's good provisions.

39 Kelal statements function as headings for sections by establishing the thesis and summarising the teaching which proceeds. This patterning is consistent throughout the body of the Sermon. Although not in view in the present section, the three marks of piety in chapter 6 begin with the commendation to guard one's displays of righteousness (6.1) and conclude with 6.19–21. Recent work on the kelal patterning in the Sermon's structure can be found in Pennington, Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, 105–34; see especially 128–30. Pennington, interestingly, splits 6.19–34 and 7.1–12, but with the caveat that the two sections are still one unit. The kelals for these respective sections are 6.19–21 and 7.1–2.

40 Hagner notes that the first section of 6.19–24 consists of three logia (verses 19–21; 22–3; 24). Verses 22–3 and verse 24 should be read together. Hagner, D., Matthew 1–3 (Dallas: Word, 1993) 156Google Scholar. See also Luz, Matthew 1–7, 330.

41 The first variant is in verse 25: ἢ τί πίητε. Although these small words have significant attestation in the manuscript evidence, they were most likely added as a secondary emendation to balance the immediately preceding phrase, τί φάγητε (cf. Davies, W. D. and Allison, D. C., Matthew 1–7 (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988) 646Google Scholar). This would create continuity with verse 31, in which the two phrases are paired. The other variant is in verse 33, where τοῦ θεοῦ is used to describe the accusative τὴν βασιλείαν.

42 See Luz, Matthew 1–7, 226

43 Betz, H. D., Sermon on the Mount: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, including the Sermon on the Plan. Matthew 5:3–7:27 and Luke 6:20–49 (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1995) 65Google Scholar.

44 Betz, Sermon on the Mount, 54–7.

45 Davies and Allison, Matthew 1–7, 625–7.

46 Pennington, J., Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009)Google Scholar.

47 Although the first half of the Sermon's ordering is not displayed, the beginning halves of each Sermon show significantly more overlap/ordering.

48 The source-critical discussion is difficult at this point. My own inclination would be to see Luke as drawing from Matthew's overall Sermon or a source similar to Matthew's ordering. Of course, the opposite could be argued: that Matthew redacted Luke's material for his own thematic purposes. In this latter case, the point would strengthen my overall case concerning Matthew's intentions to ‘bring together’ this section of the Sermon, but absolute certainty is difficult to substantiate. For more on this issue, see Wenham, D., ‘The Rock on Which to Build: Some Mainly Pauline Observations about the Sermon on the Mount’, Built upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew (ed. Gurtner, D. M. and Nolland, J.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 187–206Google Scholar.

49 The reference to ‘deeds of loving-kindness’ is a translation decision by Allison based on the work of Goldin, J. Goldin. Cf. J., ‘The Three Pillars of Simeon the Righteous’, PAAJR 27 (1958) 4356Google Scholar. Goldin summarises that the three areas that matter most are the law, the cult and the social acts of benevolence.

50 Allison, ‘Structure of the Sermon on the Mount’, 443.

51 Rowland, C., Christian Origins: An Account of the Setting and Character of the Most Important Messianic Sect of Judaism (London: SPCK, 1985) 299–301Google Scholar comments: ‘The disentanglement of the relationship between the Christians and the rabbis of Jamnia is a task which still awaits completion, though, of course, the paucity of information at our disposal makes the completion of it a very difficult enterprise.’

52 Luz, Matthew 1–7, 172–3.

53 Pennington, Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, 132.

54 One may object that this proposed title is too general and could just as easily apply to the entire Sermon. First, this critique could be used to undermine common titles used to describe Matt 5.17–48 (‘Jesus’ Teaching on the Law’) and Matt 6.1–18 (‘Practice of Proper Piety’). Generally speaking, the entire Sermon is about Jesus interpreting the Law and proper piety, yet there are specific kelals in these respective sections (5.17–49//6.1) which require the section's theme. Second, the concentration of heaven/earth references is more present in Matt 6.19–7.12 than in other sections.

55 For an alternative explanation, consider Mattison, W. C. III, The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology: A Virtue Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2017) 161–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Mattison makes a similar argument to the one suggested here but builds his structure around the theme of single-mindedness. Because of his concerns with Thomistic moral theology, the aforementioned virtue becomes the guiding factor for his structural proposal. Further, Mattison (op. cit., 163) states: ‘The verses examined in this chapter are unified by the theme of seeking first the kingdom and its righteousness, with the ensuing impact of such prioritization on all other activities of the disciple.’ His suggestion is not opposed to my own, but rather highlights different aspects of this section. Mattison argues for an ordering of priorities and single-minded devotion to those priorities. I am assuming these insights and seeking to add a dialogical and spatial element with recourse to clues offered by the Lord's Prayer.

56 The Prayer's centrality is conceded by Pennington, but he only mentions this significance without expounding upon the insight (Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, 131–2).