Book Review: Lent for Everyone, Matthew, Year A
Author: NT Wright
Publisher:Westminister John Knox Press
Pages: (e-book) 162
[I want to make life easier for you, and I don't want the federal government knocking on your door in the middle of the evening asking why you are reading a book review that didn't inform you that the author of said review received a free copy of the book being reviewed in exchange for a review on his blog, so there you go; you have been told. Now you are safe.]
The thing I appreciate the most about NT Wright's work is that he knows full well how to keep the focus on a text as a whole. In other words, even though this devotional focuses on specific passages of the Gospel of Matthew, what we call pericopes, Wright has an amazing ability to keep all of these stories of Jesus focused in on the one particular and important point he believes Matthew is making: "From start to finish, Matthew's story is about the strange way in which Jesus became king" (64). And Wright does this over and over and over again in this book–which makes the book easy to read, easy to understand, and makes Matthew's Gospel come to life because we are thus able to avoid all sorts of hermeneutical chicanes that other writers place before us when they write devotionals or commentaries.
He manages to keep our eyes focused on this central theme of Matthew's Gospel from start to finish. It guides all of his exegetical and devotional purposes. It strengthens his application of the passages he addresses–because the application is always around the same theme. It gives laser-sharp clarity and accuracy to sections of Scripture that might otherwise be unclear to the reader. It unclutters the cluttered up theology that other authors have given to us when they try to read Matthew (or Mark, or Luke, or John) as if he were making a point about a theological system developed hundreds or thousands of years after his writing of the Gospel (Matthew was writing about Jesus!) To be sure, Matthew probably had some theological purpose in writing; however, I seriously doubt it is anything other than what NT Wright has told us in this (and many others beside) book.
From start to finish, Matthew's story is about the strange way in which Jesus became king. The first two chapters make it clear that he is the king from the line of David, at whose birth Gentile sages come to worship. The closing scene of the gospel makes it clear that with his resurrection and ascension Jesus has now 'come in his kingdom': 'all authority in heaven and on earth', he says, 'has been given to me.' Our problem in the modern world has been that we have taken it for granted that Jesus is not, in any sense, currently 'king of the world.' (It certainly doesn't look like it, we tell ourselves.) So we have assumed that he must have been talking about something else. Something that didn't happen. (64)
This is exactly why I love reading the work of NT Wright. The passages that cause other bible scholars to turn hermeneutical somersaults in order to interpret them, fit cohesively and coherently in Wright's framework of 'this is how Jesus became king.' Furthermore, this is demonstrably so throughout the course of all his writing, not just in this small offering.
Moreover, he's not content to merely leave us wondering, staring up at the sky like Jesus' dazed and confused disciples as it were, what to do with this information. If Jesus is king, and Wright's contention is that he is king, king indeed, then this has profound implications for the church and should more than superficially alter the way we live, and move, and have our being in this world: "What should the church be doing today that would make people realize that 'heaven' is actually in charge here and now?" (8) He continues:
The whole gospel, once more, is written in order to give the answer to that. Again, it's an answer many people today have not begun to think about. Ask yourself this question: how did Jesus come to this point of being king? The answer is obvious. He didn't do it in the way the disciples expected, in the way the crowds wanted, in the way which the chief priests and Pilate assumed he would behave. He didn't follow the normal human path to power, pushing and shoving his way forward, fighting and killing until his position was established. He came as the Servant, the one who took people's infirmities and diseases on to himself, the one who suffered insults and mocking and torture and death. He was obedient, throughout his life, to a different vision of power, a different sort of kingdom-dream. And his resurrection not only show that he was right. It established his kingdom, his type of kingdom, once and for all. (148)
So if heaven is in charge now (Wright continually brings us back to the so-called 'Lord's Prayer' where Jesus teaches us to pray, 'your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven'), what are we doing? Believing? Teaching? Waiting for? Praying? "And what we most want–the strange phenomenon of which prayer itself is a supreme example!–is that his kingdom should come and his will be done on earth as in heaven. When we pray, we pray for that goal but we also pray within that promise" (18). These devotionals, knit together around the central square of Jesus is King here and now, continually redirect our attention back to that central square–one cannot go far in this book without encountering this theme. It's like when Jesus' family comes looking for him and he is seated in the center with people all around himself: he is the center (Mark 3:31-35). And it is to this center (see also Revelation 4) that Wright continually redirects our vision, our focus.
Another important feature of this short book is the manner in which Wright integrated Psalms into the weekly readings. Wright's book A Case for the Psalms (see my review here) was a great book too, but the sort of devotional writing we get in Lent for Everyone is, in my opinion, superior and for precisely the reason I mention above: he continually brings us back to the idea of Jesus being the King and heaven being in charge here and now. (Wright specifically addresses all or parts of Psalms 32, 121, 95, 23, 130 and 31.) Frankly, I cannot speak or write more enthusiastically about the work of NT Wright. The depths he is able to sound in such a short space is, in my opinion, simply profound. Every page leaves me wanting.
A final note about style is that at the end of each day's reading, there is a short prayer, 1-3 lines, and directly linked to the reading just accomplished. These are short prayers, but helpful in that they, again, give a laser sharp focus to the main objective of Matthew's Gospel.
I will close on this note. I have read many commentaries, devotionals, and theologies in my short time on earth. Most of their authors are content to break apart the literary unit of the book being examined and comment, verse by verse, on the text, and tell the reader what each word means in each verse as if the author (be it Matthew or Mark or Paul or whoever) sat down and merely collected a bunch of tales and pasted them together on a papyrus without any sense of what makes good literature. Rarely, and I mean this sincerely, rarely do the commentaries approach the text as a whole, as a complete unit of literature that serves its own purpose and stands alone, if at the same time as part of a larger story, in that purpose. That's what makes Wright's work different and better. He never forgets that we are reading literature, a different type of literature, but literature nonetheless. And he continually reminds us that good authors write with, usually, a singular purpose. Matthew is no different.
Matthew is Matthew. Mark and Luke and John are important, occasionally reference is made to them, and they are necessary as a part of the Gospel story. But Matthew is Matthew and that is enough. Matthew has his own story to tell and he tells it well enough without having to rely on other Gospels to 'fill in missing parts.' There are no missing parts in Matthew. NT Wright's ability to bear all that in mind, from front to back, makes me come back to his work over and over again. I think you will too.