Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom. If you obey the commandments of the Lord…you will live. (Deut 30:15-16)
Sounds like a simple enough choice. But obedience doesn’t come too naturally – we question authority as children, rebel as teenagers, think ourselves out of the need to obey as adults. What are the commandments of the Lord? In Moses’ time there were the Ten on the tablets; Christ summarises them to just two: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength”, and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”.
I eschewed the wilderness of the beach today to enter the wilderness of a classroom of 12-year olds. I’ve known them for about 6 months now, and they’ve almost all made the move from inquisitive children to stand-offish teens with astounding punctuality. What hasn’t changed is their penchant for “why” questions – though there has been a shift to experimental impudence. There was genuine bafflement in our circle of ten today however, when discussing the Gospel for this Sunday – Christ’s temptations in the desert. “Why”, asked one kid, “didn’t Jesus just tell Satan to go away? Surely that would have worked.” Good question, young padawan. I flip the question back at the group. “Why do you think Jesus responded the way he did? Why didn’t he pull rank on Satan?” I’m met with mutters and shrugs, the universal teen language. Then a girl raises her hand. She’d already read the whole handout, ignoring most of the chatter of the previous discussion. “He keeps quoting the Old Testament. He can’t…won’t disobey those rules.” Spot on. “And why is that?” Even read-ahead girl is stumped. To be honest, even though I knew the answer – in order to live a fully human experience, Christ chose to face temptation as we have to, with the Word of God as His (and our) only weapon – I couldn’t claim to understand it fully. Intellectually and scripturally Christ’s repartee with the devil made sense, and was the only way, really, the Messiah could have dealt with the situation. But could any of us hope to do the same? To obey the dictates of the Law with such faith in its righteousness? One of the boys picks up on the current of skepticism running round the circle. “He won’t disobey the rules, because he knows God is real, and he knows the rules are true”. Another boy jumps to challenge that thought: “But if Jesus knows all of that…does that mean He doesn’t have to have faith?” “Ah. Well technically, yes. Since faith is “seeing through a glass darkly”, and since Jesus, though fully human, doesn’t lose His divinity, He does not have faith in the sense that we understand ourselves to have faith – He has knowledge of the Father, and faith in Him the way you trust in your parents.” The kids aren’t sure what to do with this, and I’m not sure I’ve handled it as well as I could have. I consider introducing them to ascending Christology, then decide it’s not worth the confusion for now. I’m also pretty sure the conversation has come off the tracks – this was supposed to be about resisting temptation, to segue nicely into an activity about Lent. Luckily, I’m rescued by the usually silent one: “Really though, at the end it’s all about obeying. There’s no difference between him obeying because he knows it’s true and us obeying because we choose to believe it’s true.” Obedience! Choice! Belief! We’re back on solid(ish) ground.
Discussing faith, religion, and Scripture with 12-year olds is a scary experience, but one I’d recommend. They ask the questions you forgot you had, and don’t take too kindly to choices as given by Moses above. “But how about if…” is a common response to any black-or-white scenario, and I’m glad for that. The world isn’t black and white, their reality certainly isn’t, and our predominant culture makes it less and less comfortable to accept even the basic tenets of our faith. Blind obedience is (rightly) discouraged in their homes and in school, and, I hope, in our churches too. Popular culture disparages obedience, and like the 12-year olds we need to learn to tread the often grey line between being led astray and refusing a guide in the form of Christ and His Church. Oboedientia et pax – Blessed Pope John Paul XXIII’s motto of obedience and peace – hints at the fruits of learned obedience to God’s commandments – obedience through faith, a faith developed through the study of Scripture and Tradition. This Lent I pray I learn to swallow my pride, and to obey.