For the first fourteen years of my teaching career, I taught 7th graders in middle school. I honestly loved most of it—even the dreaded “advisement” or “homeroom” class. One year, a 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 once when one of the kids asked whether, if you were forced to choose only one, would you rather be especially kind or especially intelligent. It was a great discussion—one that lasted most of the week.
I was surprised that—by a wide margin– most of my students chose being 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 something like this: 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 try to hurt anyone. Even if “jerks” seem to get away with murder, the fact is that there is usually hurt behind their meanness, and that’s the real waste of a life. Without knowing it, she was describing the embodiment of grace.
This assessment came from a twelve-year-old. And to think, some people believe middle schoolers are incapable of anything but emotional neediness. So wrong.
In our reading from Deuteronomy this Sunday, Moses is making plain the importance of choices and understanding the consequences of our decisions to this Israelites. Here, Moses reminds the Israelites that they have entered a covenantal relationship with God, and that entails blessings for obedience, but curses for faithlessness.
The choice before all of us, as Deuteronomy dramatically puts it, is that between death and 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. Then there would inevitably lead to a long list of “don’ts”—don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t swear, don’t wear slacks (for the ladies), don’t read Catcher in the Rye, don’t 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 perfect. Yet, through grace, God loves us anyway.
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 not just a reward but a life-giving gift. Choosing life means this: love God, walk in God’s ways, observe God’s commandments. And always, always be kind.