The Literary Relationships in Matthew 6:19–7:11

It is widely acknowledged that between the inclusio of “Law and Prophets” language (Matt 5:17-20, 7:12), there are three sections in the Body of the Sermon on the Mount.

The first section is 5:21-48 and covers six subjects to illustrate the righteousness that surpasses what scribes and Pharisees display. The second section is 6:1-18, which talks about three disciplines to illustrate not practicing righteousness with the goal of being seen by people. The third section is 6:19–7:11 and addresses expressing trust and wisdom with regard to possessions and people.

The third section (6:19–7:11) is notoriously described as a collection of sayings with little to no design or interrelated elements. It seems to some commentators as if Matthew simply strung together some teachings of Jesus. But I don’t think 6:19–7:11 should be seen as a grouping of independent teachings without connections to each other. Even in this third section Matthew has connected his topics in literary and lexical ways.

But let’s first get the pericopes of the section in view. Scholars agree that 6:19-24 and 6:25-33 are two units , one about not storing up treasures on earth and one about not being anxious about life’s necessities. But how many sections are in 7:1-11? Some say two, some say three.

Those who see two sections say 7:1-11 divides into 7:1-6 and 7:7-11 or into 7:1-5 and 7:6-11. Those who see three sections say 7:1-11 divides into 7:1-5 and 7:6 and 7:7-11.

The common problem addressed by each option is what to do with 7:6: “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” If 7:6 belongs with the “judge not” section, then 7:1-6 is a unit. If 7:6 belongs with the prayer section, then 7:6-11 is a unit. But if 7:6 is an independent saying, not connected to what precedes or follows, then 7:6 is simply the second of three units inside 7:1-11: vv. 1-5, v. 6, vv. 7-11.

I want to argue (as Charles Talbert does) that Matthew 7:6 belongs with 7:7-11, and so 7:6-11 is a unit. This means 7:1-11 is divided into two units, not three: 7:1-5 and 7:6-11. Now if both 6:19-34 and 7:1-11 have two units, then the third large section of the Sermon on the Mount (6:19–7:11) has four parts: 6:19-24; 6:25-34; 7:1-5; 7:6-11. I think this arrangement is confirmed by literary and linguistic connections.

  1. Each of the four units (6:19-24; 6:25-34; 7:1-5; 7:6-11) begins with a negative command: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (6:19), “do not be anxious about your life” (6:25), “do not judge” (7:1), and “do not give dogs what is holy” (7:6). This commonality is significant because the two previous large sections of the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-48; 6:1-18) are also marked by similar beginnings. In 5:21-48, the pattern is essentially “You have heard it said, but I say to you” (5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). And in 6:1-18, the beginning of each discipline is essentially, “When you ______, don’t be like the hypocrites” (6:2, 5, 16).
  2. Each of the four units (6:19-24; 6:25-34; 7:1-5; 7:6-11) have a crucial positive command that relates to the negative one: “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (6:20), “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (6:33), “take the log out of your own eye” (7:5), and “ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (7:7).
  3. The first (6:19-24) and second (6:25-34) units emphasize trusting the Lord instead of becoming preoccupied with wealth and possessions. Believers shouldn’t store up treasures on earth (6:19), because you cannot serve both God and money (6:24). Believers should therefore seek first God’s kingdom (6:33) and not be anxious about having things like food or clothing (6:25), for if God adorns and feeds his creation, then how much more will he care for his people!
  4. The third (7:1-5) and fourth (7:6-11) units address how to interact wisely with insiders and with outsiders. Believers should deal with their own sin before trying to take a speck from their brother’s eye (7:5), and believers should not cast holy things and pearls before dogs and pigs (7:6).
  5. The first (6:19-24) and third (7:1-5) units address the Christian’s “eye.” Believers should not have a bad eye, for their whole body would then be full of darkness (6:22-23). Believers should also remove the log from their own eye before helping a brother with a speck (7:5).
  6. The second (6:25-34) and fourth (7:6-11) units speak of “seeking” and of God giving things. Believers should “seek” God’s kingdom, and all “these things” will be added to them (6:33). Believers should “seek,” and they will find (7:7-8), and God gives “good things” to those who ask him (7:11).
  7. In the second (6:25-34) and fourth (7:6-11) units, God gives his children food as a good father would. God feeds the birds, and we are more valuable than birds (6:26). God would never act like a prankster and substitute a stone for bread or a snake for fish (7:9-10).
  8. In the first (6:19-24) and fourth (7:6-11) units, Jesus envisions damage happening to earthly treasure. Earthly treasures can wear out or corrode because of moth and rust, or thieves can steal them (6:19). Because dogs and pigs cannot discern what is truly valuable, they may profane holy sacrificial meat or try to eat precious pearls (7:6).
  9. The third (7:1-5) and fourth (7:6-11) units have a negative command, an explanation, two rhetorical questions, and a label that may apply to the hearers. Jesus tells his hearers not to judge (7:1), explains why (7:2), asks two questions (7:3-4), and calls the hearer a “hypocrite” (7:5). Jesus also tells his hearers not to give dogs what is holy or cast pearls before swine (7:6), explains why they should pray for wisdom (7:8), asks two questions (7:9-10), and identifies the hearer as “you who are evil” (7:11).
  10. All four units (6:19-24; 6:25-34; 7:1-5; 7:6-11) use imagery in their teaching. Jesus talks about moth, rust, thieves, eyes, treasure, lamp, hearts, light, darkness, and body (6:19-24), birds, lilies, grass, and Solomon (6:25-34), measure, speck, eye, and log (7:1-5), and dogs, sacred things, pearls, pigs, bread, stone, fish, serpent, asking, seeking, and knocking (7:6-11).

There is surely more that can be said about how these four units relate to each other. Whether or not you’re convinced by my list of ten, I hoped to at least substantiate that the third large section of the Sermon on the Mount (6:19–7:11) is not a hodgepodge gathering of subjects and teachings. There are literary and linguistic features that suggest Matthew thoughtfully arranged 6:19–7:11, just like he did 5:21-48 and 6:1-18.

Are there other features you’ve observed in the large section of Matthew 6:19–7:11?

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2 thoughts on “The Literary Relationships in Matthew 6:19–7:11

  1. The outsiders (the “dogs” and “pigs”) of 7:6 are portrayed again in 7:15 as “wolves” in sheep’s clothing. Since scribes and Pharisees have been the main antagonists in Mt. 5-7, they are probably especially in mind here. The “holy” thing they should not be given could link with what is holy in 6:9 (“hallowed be thy name” i.e., it is your name, Father, that should be revered). In 23:8-10 Jesus says the scribes and Pharisees love to be called father (and master), but disciples should not use (give) such names, for they have only one Father. If disciples start calling these outsiders father, they would be giving that revered (holy) name to “dogs.”

  2. Pingback: Interpreting Pearls and Pigs – What Does Matthew 7:6 Mean? | Soli Deo Gloria

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