Scholars such as W.R.F. Browning have suggested that the Gospel of Matthew can be divided into five major sections, each one representing a discourse or series of teachings spoken Jesus.
The division is useful, since the five “discourses” follow each other serially (in order) in the first Gospel. They also divide Matthew into a series of five themes that are useful categories for understanding the mission of Christ in the Gospels.
The five discourses in Matthew are:1. The Sermon in the Mount. Mt. 5:1 to 7:28 2. The Missionary Discourse. Mt. 10:1-42 3. The “Kingdom of Heaven” Parables. Mt 13:1-53 4. The Community Discourse. Mt 17:22 to 18:35 5. The Sermon in the Temple. Mt 21:1 to 25:46
I need to update this post and comment that this five-part division suggested by scholars does not explain itself fully. True, there are five sections where Jesus speaks in an extended manner. However, two of the sections are very substantial, while the other three only span one chapter.
Most importantly, scholars often fail to point out that the first and last discourses, what I call the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon in the Temple, are also the twin capstones to the preaching ministry of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. The Sermon on the Mount initiates the ministry of Jesus, while the Sermon in the Temple concludes the ministry of Jesus. The theological importance of these two “sermons” cannot be over-stated, and they are far more comprehensive than the other three discourses.
1. The Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount is the longest uninterrupted discourse given by Jesus to a single audience. Though Jesus is not a rabbi (he is not formally trained), he assumes the role of the rabbi, and teaches a great crowd, from a hillside near Lake Galilee, on Jewish law. Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by ascending the mountain, in a manner reminiscent of the prophecy in Isaiah 2. Please see my post here on the Beatitudes for further comment.
Jesus then proceeds to teach his followers as to what constitutes discipleship, as the Gospel of Matthew understands it. Discipleship is the most prominent theme in Matthew’s Gospel, and the Sermon on the Mount is a compendium of advice on discipleship. R.T. France believes that the Sermon on the Mount ought to be re-named The Sermon on Discipleship.
2. The Missionary Discourse
The Missionary discourse is simply a series of passages in chapter 10, all of which are related to the apostolic work of his disciples. Chapter 10 is also known as “The Instruction of the Apostles.” One of the more famous sayings from the Missionary Discourse is, and if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town(Mt. 10:14). Jesus also advises, When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour (Mt 10:17).
3. The “Kingdom of Heaven” Parables of Chapter 13.
Matthew assembles a series of parables spoken by Jesus into a single section in paragraph 13. According to the Sacred Author, Jesus taught his audience by the sea, using parables as an instructional tool. He first presents two extended parables: a) the parable of the sower, and then b) the parable of the man who sows good seed. He then uses two more analogies to explain the Kingdom of Heaven: the mustard seed and leaven.
After the crowd is dispersed, the the disciples ask him to to explain the parable of the man who sows good seed (Mt 13:36-43). Jesus suggests that the angels will, at the end of time, harvest the wheat, which is of good seed. By contrast, the weeds (of bad seed), will be thrown into the fire. “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” He finally compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a pearl, to a net thrown in to the sea, and to treasure buried in a field.
4. The Discourse on Church Leadership: the “Community Discourse.”
This fourth discourse, the heart of which is chapter 18, provides the faithful with some counsel on Christian leadership. Jesus tells his disciples not to establish a false hierarchy based on the perception of “greatness.” He tells his disciples to be as humble as children. More importantly, he warns his disciples not to give scandal to children.
Jesus then offers three warnings to his disciples, couched in the form of parables, on the matter of Christian ministry. He tells his disciples to go after the “lost sheep” and those who have strayed. He urges his disciples to reconcile with those who have hurt them. And finally, he warns the disciples not to lord it over each other in an unforgiving way.
5. The Sermon in the Temple.
Also known as the apocalyptic discourse, This last section is not a sermon. It is a wide-ranging encounter between Jesus, the Temple leaders, the crowds in the Temple, and his own disciples. However, the entire discourse is continuous, beginning with chapter 21 and ending with chapter 25. Scholars have improperly limited the fifth discourse to the final section, chapter 25. In fact, chapters 21 to 25 are a single thematic unit. The passages contained within chapters 21 to 25 should not and cannot be removed from their original context of an encounter between Jesus and the Temple leaders in the Temple.
The Sermon in the Temple begins with the triumphal entry of Jesus in Jerusalem, on a donkey. He proceeds directly to the Temple, and publicly debates the chief Priests, the scribes and the Pharisees. After debating the religious authorities, he turns to the crowd in the Temple and addresses them. Finally, Jesus leaves the Temple with the disciples, he prophecies that the Temple will be destroyed, and then he predicts “the last things” in the apocalyptic discourse of chapter 25. It is generally accepted that the apocalytic discourse is a prediction of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.