As an example of these sections played out in the book, we’ll quickly look at his work in chapter 12 on Matthew 6:5-6, which discusses at the practice of prayer and hypocrisy. He notes in “Listen to the Story” that Jesus was addressing public prayer, which was a ritual part of Jewish life, rather than what might be classified as “spontaneous prayers;” he encourages the reader, since it is not common practice to pray in public and especially in these sort of ritualistic ways, to consider in which settings we might pray publically (small groups, etc.) He breaks the passage down into six sections, observance, prohibition, intent, amen…reward, alternative observance, and Father’s reward.
He explains that Jesus’ first words in 6:5a “And when you pray…” signify the ritualistic nature of their prayers; Jews would, according to custom, pray three times daily. Jesus knew that this was a part of their religious practices, and He also knew that there were some who would use these occasions to promote themselves. This is the “observance.”
Then Jesus offers a prohibition to His audience, that the style of their prayers should not be modeled after the form of the hypocrites. McKnight attests that “hypocrite,” in this sense, is one who is praying in total awareness of those observing them, rather than being absorbed in the presence of God. He likens this to his experience of participating in Easter breakfast at the White House and being completely consumed by his surroundings.
Next, Jesus indicts them of their intent, to be noticed by others, that their prayers were not meant to glorify God but to glorify themselves. Their reward, then, is that attention that they were receiving. Their prayers would not reap them any rewards with God, so they better enjoy what they were getting because that’s all that was coming.
Jesus then offers them an alternative, the stark opposite of what the hypocrites were practicing, to pray in a solitary place, somewhere potentially already in their house. And then finally, their reward would come from God. While the hypocrites might receive the glory and accolades from the crowds at the street corners and synagogues, who could gush on just how holy and pious they were, those praying in private may never receive recognition for their devotion. Only God, to whom the prayers were directed anyways, would ultimately reward them.
McKnight’s reading of this Scripture challenges the evangelical prerogative to personalize Jesus’ words to a point that the context and purposes are often missed. Jesus was not suggesting, as is often thought, that we should always pray in secret. Nor is He condemning prayer in public places. Rather, He is calling for us to reflect upon our motives in prayer, and remember that this practice is for the glory of God, not ourselves.
He then peppers the “Live the Story” section with satire, naming various types of pray-ers such as Pious Paddy who likes to over emphasize his salutations to God saying “Lahwwed and Gawwed and Geez-uusssssssh,” or Highfalutin’ Harold “whose prayers are loaded up theologically” or even Preaching Peter who uses his prayers as an opportunity to once again hammer home the thesis of his sermon. (166-167) While I laugh along at his characterizations because I can name people I know who are some of these character pray-ers, I am simultaneously impressed (if not a little uncomfortable) and his willingness to challenge the sacrosanct arena of prayer, and at the same time humbled, remembering times when I have been Preaching Peter and Highfalutin’ Harold or others.
Instead of falling into these popular categories, then, McKnight offers two suggestions for public prayer. First, one could begin with a time of silence, which can be incredibly uncomfortable for those used to word-glut prayers. Secondly, prayers need to be spoken deliberately and slowly to order one’s thoughts and allow others to absorb what is being communicated.
One thing to note in this commentary is that McKnight’s writing is not dry. He includes humor, personal stories and illustrations, which make the narrative scope really engaging. Commentaries, in general, are not usually approached by the reader with the intention of going cover-to-cover but rather used as a reference; McKnight’s entry into this series makes me want to sit down and spend time working through the chapters, rather than just pulling it out for sermon reference or Bible study.
Which leads to the question, for whom is this commentary series intended? Preachers? Scholars? Blue-haired Betty on the front pew? The answer is yes. The series is very accessible to all people. It transcends typical categorization of Biblical commentaries, often divided amongst academic studies and exegetical preaching resources and Bible study, with the latter two holding disdain for the former. Scot does an excellent job of bridging these disparate and contentious worlds without compromising the material or his style.
His work is part of a new series being released by Zondervan called The Story of God Bible Commentary. Coming on the tail of the 2011 edition of the New International Version Bible, these commentaries will use this text as their primary source. In the introduction to the series, the editors state that
“We are asking the authors to explain what the Bible says to the sorts of readers who pick up commentaries so they can understand not only what Scripture says but what it means for today. The Bible does not change, but relating it to our culture changes constantly and in differing ways in differing contexts.” (xii-xiii)
With this as my first foray into the series, I am looking forward to further entries and the potential impact that they can have on rebuilding interest in thoughtful academic study of Scripture for those outside of the seminary as well as serious moral and ethical evaluation of Scripture as it applies to the church and the world.