Readers will be hard-pressed to find a more fun yet informative commentary.
The Gospel of Matthew: God With Us (www.likewisebooks.com)
Author: Matt Woodley
Publisher: IVP Books
Readers will be hard-pressed to find a more fun yet informative commentary than The Gospel of Matthew by Matt Woodley. The same could be said of the first volume in the Resonate series, The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town by Paul Louis Metzger. Having enjoyed these first two, I welcome the opportunity to read and review any of the planned future releases.
“Read” is the key word. Standard commentaries of the past are rightly regarded as reference works, consulted but not usually read from cover to cover. Purists may not take to this series like those who favor narrative accounts. If one was to relate this to Bible translation, this series is closer to dynamic equivalence than literal. Those who like The Message bible should appreciate that this is like a paraphrase.
Woodley reads between the lines to give a sense of a passage, which is broken into small segments. Each section focuses on a different theme or topic and can be read in just a few minutes. I read them like a devotional because they are not only short but inspirational. At the same time, they inform and accurately convey meaning, while challenging the reader and making the content applicable. The pop culture/current event references, while not overdone, make it entertaining.
I appreciate Woodley’s emphasis on following in the “little way,” a reference to St. Therese of Lisieux, “a nineteenth-century French Carmelite nun who based her faith in Jesus on a very Matthew-like approach to the spiritual life.” It reminds me that that though we all fall short in many ways, we are not disqualified. Our failures highlight our need for Christ, which is something we never get beyond. Woodley writes, “For the most part, Jesus asks us to follow him with our little faith, allowing the Father to work through our poverty of spirit, failures and suffering, our quiet obedience and trust, and our small acts of mercy toward sinners, outcasts, the poor and the forgotten. This ‘little way’ makes discipleship accessible to all of us―except the self-righteous and the alleged experts” (19).
It gives hope to “little faiths” and those that we meet in the stories that Woodley shares. They are the last and least. Their situations are compelling because of the honesty in which they are told and in the reality that they convey. It is part of what makes this commentary so readable. Even a non-religious person should be able to comprehend the message. They may even find themselves drawn to the One who says in Matthew’s gospel, “Come to me.”
This King who invites participation in his kingdom is a major theme in Matthew’s gospel, and Woodley moves it beyond a personal concern for salvation, “If the kingdom of heaven has indeed come to us in the presence of Jesus, then as his followers we will care about our choices as consumers and how those choices promote exploitation rather than compassion. I will consider these things because Jesus and his coming kingdom address large, global issues of economic justice, human rights and environmental wholeness. There is nothing that does not have kingdom implications” (56).
Occasionally, I wonder if the emphasis on social justice and related issues is actual or imposed on the Scriptures? The church has often swung between extremes. Woodley joins the chorus of those who offer a corrective to those that have overlooked these issues. The tendency is to readily see in keeping with our bent and background and be blind to other things. I appreciate Woodley’s balanced perspective.
He paints a wonderful portrait of the kingdom, but he is also realistic, “In this life, all wounds do not get healed; all aches do not get fulfilled; all wrongs do not become right; all stories do not end in triumph. In the words of the apostle Paul, we’re suspended between the coming of the kingdom and the fulfillment of the kingdom” (125).
Woodley is also relevant. I see it in relation to the Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus video, which has millions of views and sparked lots of debate. In the section titled SPIRITUAL BUT NOT RELIGIOUS he writes, “According to Jesus, this penchant for ‘church-free’ or ‘church-lite’ discipleship (let’s call it JNC, or ‘Jesus but no church’) isn’t just an innocent difference of opinion; it’s a colossal rejection of Jesus’ plan for a new genesis. Jesus restores the world through a new community, a specific, concrete group of real human beings―amazing, gifted and fabulous, as well as difficult, annoying and flawed―who live with him” (172).
In no way does he minimize the difficulty, “Loving, working for and living within his church isn’t easy. At times it feels like carrying a cross. Throughout the history of Christian spirituality much has been written about cross-bearing and self-denial, but in the context of this story, carrying our cross includes a call to enter and remain in Jesus’ broken church” (175).
He summarizes it like this, “In other words, while being fully human just like Jesus, honestly expressing my pain and disappointment, I make a choice to follow Jesus by walking the path of love. Like John of the Cross, who was wounded and betrayed by his own community, I can declare, ‘If I put love into a community I will always have love to draw out of that community.’ So I choose to put love into the community even when I don’t feel love from that community” (175).
Woodley consistently gets at the heart of Matthew’s gospel. His illuminating stories and insights have a place next to the more formal commentaries. There is a place for both and those who have one alongside the other will be well-served.