Since my first child entered high school, I have volunteered at St. Augustine Academy to help teach Moral Theology. The first year, I simply used the Didache’s textbook, Our Moral Life in Christ, but found it unsuitable at provoking and sustaining lively discussions. Like any good textbook, it tries to simplify and clarify difficult ideas. Precisely for that reason, it often fails to meet the real difficulties that questioning students have.
For the last several years, I have complemented the Didache text with an element of Scripture study that has enlivened and deepened our discussions, while connecting the study of moral theology more intimately to our life in Christ. We read the story of the giving of the Commandments and Ordinances (Exodus 19-24), episodes from the lives of David and Elijah, The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and descriptions of life in Christ from St. Paul (Col. 3:1-4:6, Eph. 4-6).
In previous years, I began our discussion of Exodus 19-20 by asking, “Why is God telling them these things in chapter 20?” This led the class to look back at Chapter 19 and notice that Moses seems to be introducing the people to the God who had rescued them from Egypt. We then consider how God presents Himself, how the people react and what role Moses plays in their relationship.
This year, I didn’t even have to ask a question. One student first asked, “I know the song, “On Eagles’ Wings” from Mass. Here God says, ‘You have seen…how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.’ What does that mean?” This led us into a discussion about God’s conflicting presentation of Himself as both their rescuer who made it so easy for them to leave Egypt (though we also noted that they had to walk a long way!) and yet as a powerful and frightening figure who will kill anyone who steps on the mountain without being called. Is He a God of fear? This doesn’t seem like the God of the New Testament, whom we meet in Jesus.
Through the discussion, we came to see that God does not want them simply to be afraid of Him; He has called them to Himself and wants to have a more intimate relationship with Him, the kind He already has with Moses and will begin to have with some of the priests and elders. He wants to form them as a nation especially devoted to Him. He wants to make them a “kingdom of priests”, so that they can be a witness to His holiness before the rest of the world. But this relationship has to be on His terms. He has to initiate it, and to invite the people to approach Him by stages, as He sees they are ready. So, yes, He is a God to be afraid of, because He is very powerful and insists on being in charge. Yet that is only the beginning of the relationship. In Jesus, we don’t see a new God, but are invited to enter into the more complete and intimate relationship that God had with Moses.
I love discussions of great works, especially the Scriptures, because they invite hard questions, questions that mean something to the students, and allow us to begin to plumb together the mysteries of our life.