So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.
The Question: Some scholars have identified the following structure to the Sermon on the Mount: righteousness with neighbors (Matthew 5), righteousness with God (Matthew 6), and commandments (Matthew 7). Do you think this is an accurate representation of this sermon? If so, does the structure have a theological message? Do you think this structure originated in Jesus’ sermon as he delivered it, or is it the creation of Matthew’s editing?
(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)
I realize that the practice of outlining a text might give you painful flashbacks to fifth grade, but you should consider incorporating it into your scripture study just the same. With the exception of (most of) the Book of Proverbs, the scriptures are not just one verse (or just own passage) after another. Instead, there is usually a train of thought, a pattern—yes, an outline—to the material.
Now, we can’t always determine what this outline is—we can’t get inside Jesus’ (or Matthew’s) head and determine how the information was originally organized. But the trying has benefit in itself even if the outcome is inconclusive: when you are trying to outline the scriptures, you are trying to determine (a) what the main idea of a passage is and (b) how that main idea relates to the next passage. Those are valuable exercises, even if you end up flummoxed at what the outline should be.
Further, I’d wager very few people have asked themselves the “how does this passage relate to the previous passage?” question, which means that you’ve given yourself something new to chew on with this exercise—not only should that make your study more interesting, but when you ponder these questions where the answers are not automatic, you create a space where the Spirit can speak to you. That’s what we usually call pondering. (By the way, this is my main objection to the approach of asking questions to which we all already know the answer: if you aren’t pondering options, you aren’t really open to the Spirit speaking to you. You are just reciting.) Especially in church classrooms, these questions can spark interesting discussions and new insights.
Commentaries are full of proposed outlines. Don’t treat these as infallible, of course, but do work through them and see if you think the data fits. This can be another good pondering opportunity: you’ve probably never read Matthew 5 before while asking yourself whether all of the verses do or do not fit the theme of righteousness with neighbors–or what might be a better theme for that chapter instead.
But don’t stop there! Identifying the outline is great, but it’s only a first step. If you decide that the Sermon on the Mount (or whatever you are studying) does follow an outline, the next thing to do is to explore the implications: what do you learn from the arrangement of the material? With an outline, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But you have to determine what the relationship is. How do the pieces of the outline relate: are they causal? Chronological? In order of importance? Something else? In this case, does righteousness with neighbors need to come before righteousness with God? If not, why does Mt 6 come after Mt 5? Why aren’t the commands first—wouldn’t that be the ‘obvious’ way to organize this material? So why do the commands come last in this case? What else can you learn from the arrangement of the material?