Mind over Matthew: Part 2

WelCom May 2017: On the liturgical calendar, this year is Year A of the Liturgical Cycle, in which we are following the Gospel of Matthew on Sundays during Ordinary Time. In…

WelCom May 2017:

Mind over Matthew: Part 2 Archdiocese of Wellington

“I am with you always” – Matthew 28:20

On the liturgical calendar, this year is Year A of the Liturgical Cycle, in which we are following the Gospel of Matthew on Sundays during Ordinary Time. In a series of articles over the next few months Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm will be addressing some basic questions about Matthew’s gospel to show how it is relevant to our lives today.

In the March edition of WelCom I addressed some of the ‘who, when, and where’ questions of Matthew’s Gospel. In this article I will explore the ‘how’; that is, the structure. While there are many structural outlines available I have chosen four and invite readers to select the one that most appeals. Keep in mind Matthew’s reassuring structural frame around the whole Gospel – the guarantee that Jesus is with us (1:23; 28:20) and, in case we forget, Matthew also reminds us near the middle (18:19-20).

Benjamin Bacon sees the Gospel as five ‘books’. These books are a mixture of narrative – Jesus’ travels, miracles, healings, exorcisms, arguments with opponents and so forth; although also containing many shorter sayings and teachings and Jesus’ discourses or sermons addressed to the disciples or a wider audience. This structure is followed in the short online presentation I suggested in my previous article (tinyurl.com/Scripture-Matt-1-13).

The five ‘books’ are between the Infancy Narrative (Matt 1-2) and the Passion-Resurrection account (Matt 26-28). Matthew lets us know that a sermon has finished by saying, ‘When Jesus finished these words…’. Jewish Christians would have recognised the ‘book’ structure as similar to the structure of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). The ‘book’ structure looks like this:

Introduction: Infancy Narrative: Chapters 1–2

Book 1

  • Narrative: Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee: chapters 3–4
  • Sermon: Sermon on the Mount: chapters 5–7

Book 2

  • Narrative: Nine miracle stories: chapters 8–9
  • Sermon: Missionary Instructions to the disciples: chapter 10

Book 3

  • Narrative: Controversy and rejection: chapters 11–12
  • Sermon: Collection of Parables: chapter 13

Book 4

  • Narrative: Last stage of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee: chapters 14–17
  • Sermon: Community Instruction: chapter 18

Book 5

  • Narrative: Jesus’ ministry in Judea and Jerusalem: chapters 19–23
  • Sermon: Sermon on the future: chapters 24–25
  • Conclusion: Passion and Resurrection Narrative: 26–28

Interestingly, the Lord’s Prayer is at the centre of the Sermon on the Mount. (The Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29) is more than just the Beatitudes section (5:1-12)). But did Jesus really deliver the whole sermon all at once? No, but perhaps Matthew has brought it all together as a structural device to support his theological purpose. Matthew was trying to show his Jewish Christians how to reconcile their Jewish heritage with their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Each of the five sermons take place in a clear setting:

  1. 1. On the mountain (5:1-7:29) Sermon on Mount
  2. 2. In a village (10:5-42) Missionary Instructions
  3. 3. By lakeshore (13:1-53) Collection of Parables
  4. 4. In the home (18:1-35) Community Instructions
  5. 5. Overlooking Jerusalem (24:1-25:46) Sermon on the Future

One of the criticisms of the ‘book’ structure approach is it consigns the Infancy and Passion-Resurrection accounts to marginal positions whereas they are central to the whole Gospel. Therefore, another scholar, Donald Senior, proposes the structure below. It includes the two ‘marginalised’ sections:

  1. 1. Matt (1:1-4:11) Origins of Jesus
  2. 2. Matt (4:12-10:42) Galilean Ministry of teaching (chapters 5–7) and healing (chapters 8–9) as a model for disciples’ ministry (chapter 10)
  3. 3. Matt (11:1-16:12) Various Responses to Jesus (rejection by Jewish opponents, faith of disciples)
  4. 4. Matt (16:13-20:34) Jesus and his disciples on the Way to Jerusalem
  5. 5. Matt (21:1-28:15) Jerusalem: Jesus’ final days of Teaching in the Temple
  6. 6. Matt (28:16-20) Galilee: Great commission; Jesus’ abiding presence.

Another scholar, Peter Ellis, proposes a chiastic structure (reverse parallelism) in which the Parables (chapter 13) are central. They mark a turning point. Until then Jesus has been talking to everyone but after that he spends more time addressing just the disciples. The structure looks like this:

  1. a. Narrative (chapters 3–4): Jesus’ birth and early life
  2. b. Sermon (chapters 5–7): Requirements for entering the Kingdom
  3. c. Narrative (chapters 8–9): Ten miracles and the call of the disciples
  4. d. Sermon (chapter 10): Jesus sends the disciples to announce the Kingdom
  5. e. Narrative (chapters 11–12): Resistance from scribes and Pharisees
  6. f. Sermon (chapter 13): Parables of the Kingdom
  7. e’ Narrative (chapters 14‒17): Peter and the disciples show acceptance of Jesus
  8. d’ Sermon (chapter 18): Jesus tells authorities how to live and forgive
  9. c’ Narrative (chapters 19–22): Further details of following Jesus
  10. b’ Sermon (chapters 23–25): Scolding of Pharisees and prediction of final coming of Kingdom
  11. a’ Narrative (chapters 26–28): Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.

“The Lord’s Prayer is at the centre of the Sermon on the Mount”

Australian biblical scholar, Brendan Byrne, views the Gospel in terms of a rejection and withdrawal pattern. Whenever Jesus or those who accept him, for example magi, face rejection or hostility by the Jewish world they withdraw to a secure place. The magi ‘withdraw’ to their own country (2:12-13). Joseph and family ‘withdraw’ to Egypt (2:14) to escape Herod. When they return, they ‘withdraw’ to Galilee (2:22) to escape Herod’s son. Jesus ‘withdraws’ four times: after John’s arrest (4:12); in the face of hostility from the Pharisees (12:15); after hearing of John’s death (14:13); after criticism from the Pharisees (15:21). The rejection and withdrawal pattern also includes acceptance by Gentiles and those on the margins. The experience of Jesus foreshadows the Gospel itself going to a more receptive Gentile world after rejection from its original hearers.

Following this pattern the structure looks like this:

  1. 1. Prologue to Jesus’ messianic ministry to Israel (1:1–4:11)
  2. 2. The Messianic Ministry of Jesus to Israel (4:12–28:15)
  3. 3. The Messianic Ministry extended to the World (28:16–2)

So what does this mean for our prayer? As a way of getting to know the Gospel better I suggest selecting one of the above structural outlines and reading a section each day. There may be a verse or passage within the section that invites you to pray with it using Lectio Divina, Imaginative Prayer, Mantra Prayer, and so forth. See also Felix Just’s suggestions (online at: tinyurl.com/Felix-Just-Suggestions).

Next month I will look at Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus.


Byrne, B. (2004). Lifting the burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the church today. Strathfield, NSW: St Paul’s Publications.

Reid, B.E. (2005). The gospel according to Matthew (Vol. 1). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Senior, D. (1996). What are they saying about Matthew? (rev. ed.) New York: Paulist Press.