Did the title of this post just criticize Jesus’s homiletical technique? I prefer to think of it as a critique of Matthew’s editorial choices! Chapter seven is a sort of mishmash of pericopes. It’s like ending a sermon by saying “oh, and here’s a bunch of other stuff I wanted to say even though it doesn’t really fit the theme of the sermon.” Note to any preacher wannabes: This is not a good way to end a sermon. Jesus can do it if wants because he’s God incarnate. You are not. Matthew can do it because he’s trying to preserve every last thing he knows about what God incarnate said. You are not.
You remember what a pericope is, right? A pericope is a stand-alone unit of text. Think about the parables. They are independent stories whose meaning doesn’t necessarily depend on where they are placed within the larger story. Pericopes were probably originally part of an oral traditon. In the beginning Christians didn’t have written scriptures — except for the Jewish Bible, of course — they just told stories about Jesus. Say, did you hear that one about how Jesus wiggled his way out of answering that tough question about paying taxes? Do you know the story about how Jesus healed the blind man? Did you know that Jesus said “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged”?
Matthew, Mark, and Luke make use of many common pericopes, and Matthew and Luke have even more in common (that’s the Q source), but they move them around in the story to different locations in order to communicate different things. These differences often tell us a lot about the different audiences for the three evangelists.
At the end of the Sermon on the Mount we find a collection of sayings pericopes — pericopes that contain something Jesus said (as opposed to something he did, something that happened to him, or a narrative about a conversation).
In chapter seven we find sayings about judgment (1-5), holiness (6), assurance that the needs of the community will be met (7-11), a summary of the law (12 – more on this later), the strenuous character of Christian life (13-14), a warning about false prophets (15-20) and those who do not live the strenuous life (21-23), and an admonition to hear and act on the words of Jesus (24-27).
Notice that the middle sayings are all related to the high demands of the law. Remember that in the first century there are other prominent evangelists who disagree with Matthew about how the law functions for Christians. Luke understands the law differently. Paul explicitly disagrees with this view. Matthew may well think of them as those who say “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name,” but who did not keep the law.
Finally in verses 28 and 29 the sermon comes to an end. Note two things about this ending. First, “the crowds were astounded.” What crowds? At the beginning of the sermon Jesus saw the crowds and went up the mountain with just his disciples. Did the crowds follow them up and gather while Jesus preached? That would be very different from what happened to Moses when he went up the mountain. Do you think Matthew means to say something about that? Or, did Matthew just forget that the crowds weren’t there two chapters ago?