I'm reminded of that conversation as I reflect on yesterday's Old Testament reading, the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. God is setting out the laws that will begin to form this new nation, not in the still, small, voice which will come to Elijah many years from now, but with a pyrotechnic show that lights up the mountaintop, and has the people begging Moses not to make them talk to God. He's too scary, they say, He frightens us. Moses replies by telling them that they should not be afraid. "God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin." (Exodus 20:20)
The image immediately came to mind of a teacher on the first day of class. Old school tactics encouraged teachers to lay down the law, to "put the fear of God" into the students on the first day, and then gradually lighten up. In other words, to make sure that an external motivation for learning was strongly put in place. The teacher was there to make sure that learning occurred, and would not flinch from using her authority should the need arise.
But that isn't the only strategy for first day interactions in the classroom. My middle daughter, who is currently getting certified for substitute teaching, after attending training told they were encouraged to establish classroom rapport by individually connecting with each student as they entered the classroom the first day. The students will know that the teacher cares about them, and will respond from within that framework.
My guess is that it depends upon the group of students. If you have students who are eager to learn, loved and respected at home they will respond to this individualized approach. But if you have a group of students who by and large have little discipline or love in their backgrounds and have been turned off from learning, a stronger hand might be more helpful to begin with. Either way, the teacher will be successful if the motivating desire is for the students to fall in love with learning and to use the knowledge they gain to fulfill the their potential for a full and meaningful life. (more after the break)
Back to the Israelites. As a people who have been in slavery up until a few days ago, they have learned to live in fear. The fear of Pharoah, who could change their labor contract (ha!) on a whim, but even more, could inflict genocide on all the male children, had been the central motivational factor in their lives. The miracles Moses performed before the court of the Egyptian ruler were meant to change the focus of power from that of an enslaving monarch, to that of a loving God whose goal is full and meaningful life for all of Israel's children. (And through them, the whole world!) But how was that change to occur?
Moses tells the people at Sinai, that one of God's strategies is to transfer the fear of Pharoah onto the fear of God. But this is not the end point. Reading through the Bible, we see that God's longing is to move from external motivations for a life of righteousness, (the reward and punishment system) into internal motivations (a self - expressed desire to live a life of love). As the Israelites learn to love the law, they realize its purpose is to help them become "whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense." These are the closing words of the Psalmist in Psalm 19, which has a large section devoted to the description of the Lord's law - perfect, sure, just, clear, clean, and true. The commands of God are to be desired more than gold, and are sweeter than the honeycomb, enlightening those who follow them, and bringing a great reward.
When Jesus comes, he introduces himself as the Torah incarnate (the word of God made flesh) who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, descriptors Jews would have attached to the Law and Prophets. God has reached the endgame, that we will finally become not only like God, but even share in the very essence of God. Jesus gives us the example of one who lives from a deeper place than the law - from the spirit of the law, God's own Spirit of love. As Jesus leaves his disciples, he promises to send the very Spirit that filled him to strengthen and support, even at times to plant, God's desires deep within them (and us).
From instilling an external motivation of fear of punishment, to providing the means for internal motivation, God has been moving through the centuries, calling people into the life of love. Some people seem to have an innate desire to live in love; these are the ones who find the Old Testament motivations of fear and punishment unmotivating. In fact, they would rather go it their own than to hang out with a God who uses these tactics. If this is the case, perhaps it's helpful to start at the end of the story, look at John's epistles, for instance, where living in God and living in love become synonymous, or the centering verse of Galatians, "the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love."
But there are those who do not have strong internal desires to love as God describes love. Or maybe those desires have been overwritten by fear or a sense of powerlessness so that they are no longer accessible. If that's the case, it may be necessary to start with God's words given to Moses. To be caught by the seriousness of what happens when these "rules" are broken, and then to learn to love the rules, and finally to love and emulate the God whose love is the end of all rules save two - love God and love others as self (implication: love self, God and others).
Is it wrong to offer free Pizza to all students who complete their summer reading? It appears that the answer is yes and no. Wrong for those who already love to read, and the first step toward encouraging a love of reading for those who haven't already caught the benefits of this habit. Of first importance in this scenario is the love of reading. Is it wrong to talk about the fear of God? It depends. For a time it might be helpful, But it is certainly not the end of the story. For God's laws have always been motivated by a deep love, and a desire to share this life of love (this love of life) together.