“Tell me the stories of Jesus,” begins the primary song. You’ve read the stories of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. You’ve heard them in church lessons and talks. You know the stories; you probably love the stories. But what if you want more? I recently used Julie M. Smith’s Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels to revitalize my study of the first books of the New Testament, and I loved it.
What Smith does more than anything else in this volume is ask questions. In Matthew 6, when Jesus recommends giving to the poor in secret, Smith asks: “Why is recognition of good works bad? Is the prohibition for the benefit of the giver or the receiver?” Or in Matthew 22, when Jesus invites Peter to “render … unto God the things that are God’s,” Smith asks: “Are humans the things that belong to God?” and then nudges the readers to take a look at Genesis 1:26 as they consider that question. One question that provoked a strong reaction for me came from Luke 6, when “the scribes and Pharisees watched [Jesus], whether he would heal on the sabbath day; that they might find an accusation against him.” Smith asks, “Do you ever find yourself acting the way the scribes and pharisees do…? What motivates them? How do you guard against developing their attitude?” As I pondered, I saw myself, in my weaker moments, looking at the behavior of those I love most, waiting to criticize. I repented (and will surely have to repent of that again)! Again and again, Smith’s questions invite the readers both to consider verses in new ways and to apply them in living a new life in line with the life and teachings of the Savior.
While questions form the heart of the book, Smith offers much more. A trained scholar in biblical studies, she intersperses her queries with insights from biblical scholarship. She’ll pose multiple explanations from multiple scholars and ask which the reader finds most likely. Or she’ll provide an insight from a scholar and ask “Do you agree?” Smith invites us not to consume scholarship but rather to engage it.
The scholarship often prompts more questions. With the story of Jesus saving the life of the woman caught in adultery in John, Smith writes that “in a rare case of unanimity, scholars conclude that 7:53-8:11 was not a part of the earliest manuscripts of John.” She then recaps five pieces of evidence, including that “the passage is missing from manuscripts that date before the fifth century (although it seems that early Christians knew of the story)” and that “in later manuscripts, it appears in several different places…suggesting that it was a ‘floating’ story that was added to different places by different copyists.” She then asks, “Can you find a different explanation for this evidence besides the theory that this story was not originally part of John? Do you interpret this story differently if you conclude that John didn’t write it?” I had heard before that this story was not in the earliest manuscripts, but Smith’s commentary and questions pushed me to move beyond dismissing the story and thinking about what it might mean even outside of John’s narrative.
That’s not all! Smith has a fabulous introduction filled with quotes from scripture and from Church leaders on the power of careful scripture study, or—as President Gordon B. Hinckley put it—“a love affair with the word of the Lord.” She provides an introduction to each book of the gospels. She includes three essays at the end, including one on the unnamed woman in Mark who anointed Jesus’ head and another on why a subset of women were included in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. The latter essay in particular stuck with me, highlighting how these women were “not the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah).” Rather, “these women are, as Jesus is, intercessors: Tamar enables Judah’s line to continue; Rahab her family into the house of Israel… Matthew thought women–and not just any women, but women with unusual, out of the ordinary lives–were worth including and their stories worth thinking about.”
Let me share a word of advice on how to read this volume. The first time I tried to read it, I was overwhelmed. There is so much to think about with each chapter that I lost momentum and eventually put the book down for a time. More recently, I opted to read a chapter from the gospels each day and then just read some of the commentary and questions. Soon, I hope to pick up the volume and do it again. Smith playfully writes, “Life is full of unanswered questions. Here are over 4,500 more of them.” You don’t have to tackle them all at once. But at the same time, don’t miss out. This is a fabulous, thoughtful companion to help you receive the fullness of the Savior, “grace for grace.”