Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
For the first 14 years of my teaching career, I taught middle school, and I actually loved much of it—even the dreaded “advisement” or “homeroom” class. One year, our seventh grade teacher cohort designed some modules that taught logic and ethics, and those modules generated some of the best discussions I ever had outside of a reading class with that age of students.
I still remember this discussion we once after one of the kids asked whether, if you were forced to choose only one, you would rather be really kind or really intelligent. It was a great discussion—one that actually lasted most of the week. I was surprised that most of my students chose being really kind over having “high intelligence.” The consensus eventually was that you can overcome having high academic aptitude by hard work, but there was no shortcut to kindness. One of my students put it this way: If one life is all we get, then we should live it in a way that our consciences are clean and we have the comfort of knowing we are trying to be good people who don’t hurt anyone. Even if other people who are jerks seem to get away with murder, the fact is that there is almost always a lot of hurt behind their meanness, and that’s the real waste of a life.
One of the things we talked about in helping kids to feel responsible and empowered was the fact that we may not be able to choose how people treat us, but we do have choices in how we respond, and that in fact that power to choose is a much bigger power than the power of those who try to hurt us. This was a powerful realization to young adolescents. When we were children, our choices were limited, but as we grew in knowledge and wisdom, we earned more freedom and had more options placed before us.
In our reading from Deuteronomy this Sunday, Moses is making plain the important of choices and understanding the consequences of our decisions to this Israelites. Here, Moses reminds the Israelites, as they are ready to enter into the Promised Land, that they have a very important choice: obedience to God, or disobedience. The Israelites have entered into a covenantal relationship with God, and that entails blessings for obedience, but curses for faithlessness.
This section of Deuteronomy is from the conclusion of Moses’s “valedictory” address—a farewell address at the end of his life and ministry. The verses we see here sum up the Deuteronomic theology. Here are juxtaposed blessing and curse, as Israel chooses by its faithfulness- or lack thereof. God is the constant in this covenant—if the covenant is broken, it will be broken through human stubbornness and lack of faithfulness.
The choice before all of us, as our reading makes clear, is that between embracing hopelessness and therefore death, and or hopefulness and therefore life. This can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In the hands of preachers of my youth, this was part of what was known as “retribution theology,” where sin led inevitably to hell after death. Our relationship with God was based on a simple sort of justice: do good- receive heaven; do bad-receive hell. What happened after one died was emphasized—heaven, or hell? Then there would inevitably lead to a long list of “don’ts”—don’t drink, smoke, swear, fornicate, wear slacks (for the ladies), read Catcher in the Rye, watch The Life of Brian—all would lead to damnation. Punishment awaited the slightest misstep. Yet misstep we did. The problem is that this system is simple, and God is not simple. This system has no place for grace. None of us are worthy— yet God loves us anyway.
It would be nice if everything was as easy as Deuteronomy suggests though—the faithful get rewarded, the wicked get punished; those who keep their word are blessed, and those who deal falsely with God or their neighbors get cursed. Yet even children know that that is not how the world works, and elsewhere in the Bible this reality is confirmed, such as in the Book of Job.
Instead, as mature persons of faith, we are invited into the reality that being a faithful person is worthwhile even if hard times befall you, because being a faithful person who lives a compassionate, open-hearted life is in itself a reward. In Deuteronomy this Sunday, that compassionate, open hearted life rests upon three pillars: love God, walk in God’s ways, observe God’s commandments. These three things really boil down to the same thing: faithfulness. We are reminded to choose life and choose blessing by holding on to our faith even if it is only by a hair. I am not sure that engaging in disobedience and faithlessness to God is actually choosing death—it seems more like refusing to live into love, and refusing to accept the promise of God’s unending love to us.
Choose life. Choose kindness. Choose love.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.