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An Interesting Structure

by Jeffrey Stivason • March 3, 2015 •

I am preaching through Matthew’s gospel these days and glad to have the Alliance Column from David Hall, First Truths from the First Gospel for the journey.  I am currently in the Sermon on the Mount.  Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve laid eyes on this well-known and well-loved text and it certainly isn’t the first time I’ve taught through it.  But it is the first time that I have had the particular insight that I want to share with you.

First let’s go over some basics.  The Sermon has an easily identifiable structure.  It has an introduction (5:1-16) and a conclusion (7:13-8:1) and a body with three points (5:17-7:12).  The body of the sermon is roped off by a linguistic marker called an inclusio, which is a word or phrase that bookends a section of text.  In this case, “the law or/and the prophets” in 5:17 and 7:12 mark the opening and the closing of the Sermon’s body.  The three sections in between are also easily distinguished but it is to the first point of the sermon that I want to draw your attention.  Grab a Bible and open it to Matthew 5:17-48.   

After the introductory portion (vv. 17-20), there are six sub-points all focusing on how the scribes and Pharisees annul or loosen the law in contrast to the way in which Jesus fulfills the law.  The six sub-points are murder, adultery, divorce, vows, not resisting an evil person, and loving enemies.  Now, if you read commentaries and books on this section there appears to be no rhyme or reason for this assemblage of topics.  Apparently, or so we surmise, the Lord randomly chose these topics to illustrate the way in which the religious elite sought to annul the law.

But is that the case?  Is there really no rhyme or reason for this grouping of topics?

Well, I want to suggest that there is an explanation for this grouping. Do me a favor, grab a piece of paper and put the following down exactly as I have them listed here.

1.     Murder (v. 21)                   4.  Vows (v. 33)
2.     Adultery (v. 27)                 5.  Not Resisting an evil person (v. 38)
3.     Divorce (v. 31)                   6.  Loving enemies (v. 43)

Now that we have these in front of us let’s connect the dots.  I’ll start with murder.  What is the fulfillment of the law “do not murder?”  Well, it is of course, love your enemy.  That’s what it means to take this command to its telos or fulfillment because when you love even your enemy there is no opportunity for murder.  So, we can draw a line from number 1 to number 6.

Take a look at number 3.  There we find the matter of divorce.  Now, if we would not divorce our spouse what would that entail?  It would require fulfilling our vow to our spouse as we are told to do in number 4.  So, draw a line from number 3 to number 4.  Now, you begin to see a pattern developing.  In fact, the technical term would be a chiasmus or the repetition of ideas in reverse sequence (A B B A).   Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re saying, “Well, we see how the chiasm would work if number 2 and 5 weren’t there!  What do you propose to do with them?” 

That is a fair question.  What do we do with them?  After all, adultery and not resisting an evil person don’t seem to have the working relationship that the others enjoyed.  At first glance they seem to be two disparate topics.  But get a little closer and you begin to uncover some interesting relational things between number 2 and 5.  For starters, the texts pertaining to adultery and not resisting an evil person both make reference to an “eye,” which is a very striking thing in itself.  But let’s think a little deeper. 

In the case of both adultery and not resisting an evil person we are to resist ourselves.  What do I mean?  Well, with regard to adultery we are to resist our desire for another person.  But in the case of an evil person it is no different.  We are to resist ourselves again but this time by not resisting an evil person (v. 39).  What is more, in the case of adultery we are to resist ourselves to the point of cutting off or plucking out body parts (metaphorically speaking!).  But in the case of not resisting an evil person our resistance to self takes the form of cutting ourselves off from our belongings, cloaks and tunics and the like. 

What is happening here?

In both cases Jesus brings us back to the second great commandment, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and in the process he teaches us how to love our neighbor.  To put it succinctly, we love those closest to us (our spouse) and those furthest away (our enemy) by resisting ourselves.  Now, that is simple discipleship as defined by Jesus (Matthew 16:24-26).  So, we can draw a line from number 2 to number 5. 

Thus, if we look at the first point of the Sermon in this way we don’t have six discrete topics but rather six topics arranged in a chiasm (A B C C B A) which focus on loving our neighbor by resisting ourselves.  Take a look at the completed chiasm.

1. Murder (v. 21)   A                   C 4. Vows (v. 33)
2. Adultery (v. 27) B                   B 5. Not Resisting an evil person (v. 38)
3. Divorce (v. 31)  C                   A 6. Loving enemies (v. 43)

In fact, just to connect the dots even further, if you peak ahead to the Sermon’s second point (6:1-18) you will discover another interesting thing – the three sub-points (giving alms, prayer, and fasting) all focus on the first great commandment!  Brothers and sisters, let us who have hungered and thirsted for the righteousness (Matthew 5:6) of the One who came to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15) love our neighbor by resisting ourselves!     

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