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Posted December 14, 2004

Book: Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7
Author: Charles H. Talbert
University of South Carolina Press, pp. 181

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

In Reading the Sermon on the Mount, Charles H. Talbert explores the religious message put forth in the first large teaching section of the Gospel according to Matthew and finds it to have a relevance often overlooked in academic studies. Seeking to hear and understand the text of Matthew 5-7 as someone living in the Mediterranean about 100 c.e. would have encountered it, Talbert aruges for a broader interpretation of the Sermon than scholars typically advance. He suggests that the Sermon cannot be reduced to a discussion of ethics but includes considerations of piety. He contends that it is a text about covenant fidelity to God and to other humans, in which Jesus seeks to affect perceptions, dispositions, and intentions. The text thus functions rather than as a compendium of obligations.

To prepare readers for a thorough examination of the Sermon, Talbert investigates Matthew’s relation to Judaism and inquires into the composition of the audience who received Jesus’ charge. He also takes into account the order of Jesus’ discourse, the distinction between character formation and decision making, and the question of whether or not the Jesus who speaks in the Sermon is a legalist.

In his reading of the text, Talbert attends to the six large units of thought in Matthew 507, exploring the relationship of each to possible concerns of character formation and decision making. Section by section, he analyzes form and content, comparing Jesus’ directives with similar statements in Jewish and Greco-Roman literature. Talbert concludes that only when the text is read in three contexts — the whole of Matthew, the whole of the New Testament, and the entire biblical plot — can the Sermon on the Mount make a contribution to decision making.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Matthew 4:18-5:2 consists of two types of stories about gathering disciples (4:18-22 — summons; 4:23 — 25 attraction) followed by Jesus’ preparation for teaching them (5:1-2). On the one hand, some circles understood the gathering of disciples in terms of a summons and a response. Diogenes Laertius, for example, tells of Socrates’ call of Xenophon. The story goes that Socrates met Xenophon in a narrow passage and that he stretched out his stick to bar the way, while he inquired where every kind of food was sold. Upon receiving a reply, he put another question. “And where do men become good and honorable?” Xenophon was puzzled. “Then follow me,” said Socrates, “and learn.” From that time on he was a pupil of Socrates. The reader of the canonical Gospels will recognize this type of call story in Mark 1:16-20. In Matthew 4:18-22, therefore, the ancient auditor would have recognized Jesus’ summons of Peter, Andrew, James, and John and their following him.

On the other hand, other circles viewed the gathering of disciples in terms of attraction by magnetism. Epictetus, for example, asks: “Does a philosopher invite people to a lecture? — Is it not rather the case that, as the sun draws its own sustenance to itself, so he also draw to himself those to whom he is to do good? What physician ever invites a patient to come and be healed by him?” Philostratus has Damis come to the philosopher, exhorting him to follow God as he (Damis) will follow Apollonius. When Eliezer desires to study with Yohanan ben Zakkai, it is because of the fame of the rabbi. Indeed, the characteristic of the rabbinic tradition is to locate the initiative with the person wanting to study with the rabbi. The reader of the Gospels will recognize the attraction type of story in John 1:36-39, 40-42, 45-49, and also here in Matthew 4:23-25.

Table of Contents:

Part One

Getting Ready to Read the Sermon on the Mount
1. The setting of the Sermon: What is Matthew’s relation to Judaism?
2. The context of the Sermon: Who speaks and to whom?
3. The structure of the Sermon: In what order does Jesus speak?
4. The function of the Sermon: Character, formation and decision making
5. Is Matthew a Legalist? Enablelment of obedience in response to the Sermon

Part Two

A Reading of the Sermon on the Mount
6. A portrait of disciples with promises and expectations: Matthew 5:3-16
7. The antitheses with their heading: Matt. 5:17-48
8. True piety: Mat. 6:1-18
9. God and possessions: Mat. 6:19-34
10. Judging — condemnation and discernment: Matt. 7:1-12
11. Exhortations, warnings, and closing Matt. 7:13-27; 7:28-8:1
12. A precis: Matt. 4:18-8:1