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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Story, Structure, and Plot.


Mt 1–4 opens with the title ( 1:1 ) and Jesus' genealogy ( 1:2–17 ). There follow infancy stories ( 1:18–25; 2:1–11, 12–23 ), the section on John the Baptist ( 3:1–17 ), and three additional pericopae that directly prepare for the ministry ( 4:1–11, 12–17, 18–22 ). All this material constitutes an extended introduction. We are told who Jesus was ( 1:1–18; 2:1, 4; 3:11, 17; 4:3, 6 ), where he was from ( 2:6 ), how he came into the world ( 1:18–25 ), why he came into the world ( 1:21; 2:6 ), when he came into the world ( 1:17; 2:1 ), and what he proclaimed ( 4:17 ).


The Sermon on the Mount, the first major discourse, opens with a short narrative introduction ( 4:23–5:2 ) and closes with a short narrative conclusion ( 7:28–8:1 ). The discourse proper, 5:3–7:27 , is also symmetrically centred: blessings ( 5:3–12 ) are at the beginning, warnings ( 7:13–27 ) at the end. In between there are three major sections, each one primarily a compilation of imperatives: Jesus and the law ( 5:17–48 ), Jesus on the cult ( 6:1–18 ), Jesus and social issues ( 6:19–7:12 ). The sermon contains Jesus' demands for Israel.


If the Sermon on the Mount presents us with Jesus' words, Mt 8 and 9 recount his deeds. The chapters are largely a record of Jesus' acts, particularly his compassionate miracles, which fall neatly into three sets of three: 8:1–4, 5–13, 14–15 + 8:23–7, 28–34; 9:1–8 + 9:18–26, 27–31, 32–4 . Jesus also speaks in this section, but the emphasis is upon his actions, what he does in and for Israel (cf. 8:16–17 ).


Having been informed of what Jesus said and did, we next learn, in Mt 10 , the second major discourse, what Jesus instructed his disciples, as extensions of himself, to say and do. The theme of imitation is prominent. The disciples are to proclaim what Jesus proclaimed (cf. 10:7 with 4:17 ) and do what Jesus did (cf. 10:8 with Mt 8–9 and 11:2–6 ). The disciple is like the teacher, the servant like the master ( 10:24–5 ). In Matthew Jesus is the first Christian missionary who calls others to his example.


The chapters on the words and deeds of Jesus and the words and deeds of the disciples are followed by chs. 11–12 . These record the response of ‘this generation’ to John and Jesus and the twelve. This is what the material on the Baptist ( 11:2–6, 7–15, 16–19 ) is all about, as well as the woes on Galilee ( 11:20–4 ) and the conflict stories in Mt 12 (1–8, 9–14, 22–37, 38–45 ). It all adds up to an indictment of corporate Israel: the Messiah has been rejected. But this is unexpected. In Jewish eschatology God saves Israel in the latter days. One hardly expects the Messiah to meet opposition from his own people—which explains Paul's agonizing in Rom 9–11 . Mt 13 , the parable chapter, the third great discourse, is Matthew's attempt to tackle this problem. That is, Mt 13 offers various explanations for the mixed response to the Messiah: there can be different responses to one message ( 13:1–23 ), the devil works in human hearts ( 13:24–30 ), and, if things are not right now, all will be made well in the end ( 13:31–3, 36–43, 47–50 ).


The fourth major narrative section, chs. 14–17 , follows the parable chapter. The most memorable pericope is 16:13–20 , where Jesus founds his church. This suits so well the larger context because after corporate Israel has, at least for the time being, forfeited her role in salvation-history, God must raise up a new people. That this is indeed the dominant theme of the section is hinted at not only by the ever-increasing focus upon the disciples as opposed to the crowds but also by Peter's being the rock upon which the church is built. For it is precisely in this section that he comes to the fore; see 14:28–33; 15:15; 16:13–20 ; and 17:24–7 —all insertions into Mark. Peter's emerging pre-eminence correlates with the emergence of the church.


All this is confirmed by Mt 18 , the fourth major discourse. Usually styled the ‘community’ or ‘ecclesiological’ discourse, this chapter is especially addressed to the topic of Christian fraternal relations. How often should one forgive a brother? What is the procedure for excommunicating someone? These ecclesiastical questions are appropriate precisely at this point because Jesus has just established his church.


Having founded the new community and given her teaching, it remains for Jesus to go to Jerusalem, which is what happens in the next narrative section, chs. 19–23 . The material is mostly from Mark, with the woes of ch. 23 added. The bankruptcy of the Jewish leadership and the rejection of the Messiah are to the fore.


Before the passion narrative proper, however, Jesus, in chs. 24–5 , speaks of the future, that is, the future of Israel and of the church. Here, in the fifth and last major discourse, we are taken beyond chs. 26–8 into the time beyond the narrative. The discourse foretells judgement upon Jerusalem and salvation through difficulty for the church.


Following chronological order, Matthew closes as does Mark (and Luke and John for that matter). The passion and resurrection constitute the conclusion.


The primary structure of the gospel is narrative (N) + discourse (D) + narrative (N) + discourse (D), etc., and the plot is determined by the major theme of each narrative section and each discourse. Pictorially, and in minimum compass:

1–4 N the main character introduced
5–7 D Jesus' demands upon Israel
8–9 N Jesus' deeds within and for Israel
10 D extension of ministry through words and deeds of others
11–12 N negative response
13 D explanation of negative response
14–17 N founding of new community
18 D instructions to the new community
19–23 N commencement of the passion
24–5 D the future: judgement and salvation
26–8 N conclusion: the passion and resurrection.
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