One of the crown jewels of summer entertainment in St Louis is the Muny in Forest Park. How many of you have gone to the Muny before? The Muny has been in operation for almost 100 years in various forms producing and performing musicals that entertain the masses. Musicals like the Wizard of Oz, West Side Story, Les Mis, Annie, My Fair Lady, and one of my favorite musicals of all time, The Fiddler on the Roof.
The Fiddler on the Roof takes place in a small rural town in Russia in 1905 where we are introduced to the struggles of a poor milkman who only wants the best for his wife and 5 daughters.
The story of the Fiddler on the Roof centers around the life of Tevye, the town milkman, and his attempts to maintain his close family life, as well as protect their Jewish religious traditions as outside influences creep into their lives. Tevye must cope with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters who each choose husbands that are not their father’s first choices for them. To make things worse, each husband holds to a radical belief about life and love that threatens to move Tevye and his family away from the traditions that they have grown up with.
You may not realize it, but at its core, the Fiddler on the Roof explores many of the themes that are found in the presentation of the gospel. Tevye regularly seeks to understand how God relates to men and how men are to relate to one another? What is man’s standing before God? Is man’s relationship with God based on works, or something more? How should he and his family be in relationship with outsiders that are not a part of their normal community?
Tevye thinks he has the answer. And this answer is reflected in the lyrics of the song “Tradition” which begins the musical.
Tevye sings, “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. We have traditions for everything… how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl… This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask how this tradition get started. I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
In Tevye’s village, tradition sets the standards for how each family member is to behave and be in relationship with one another. The men of the village gather together and say, “Who day and night, must scramble for a living, feed the wife and children, say his daily prayers, and who has the right, as master of the house, to have the final word at home? The papa, the papas (because of) tradition.”
In response to the men, the women of the village say, “Who must know the way to make a proper home, a quiet home, a kosher home? Who must raise a family and run the home, so Papa’s free to read the holy book? The mama, the mama (because of) tradition.”
It doesn’t get any better when it comes to the children. Little boys sing, “At three I started Hebrew school, at ten I learned a trade, I hear they picked a bride for me
I hope she’s pretty.”
Little girls then sing, “And who does mama teach, to mend and tend and fix, preparing me to marry, whoever papa picks? Daughters.”
This song ends with the line, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as a fiddler on the roof!”
In Tevye’s town, everything operates on tradition. And don’t dare go against it.
One of the ways that Tevye expresses his love for tradition, and how he thinks it’s a good thing, is to say, “You know the good book says…” Whenever he does this, he usually is about to say something that will try to influence someone to keep things as the status quo. To remind them of their proper place in the big scheme of things.
Like any good soap opera, there is plenty of drama present in this musical. Throughout the story, Tevye struggles with his life as a milkman trying to support 5 daughters. He struggles with the fact that he will never be rich. He struggles with the fact that the town he lives in is poor. He struggles with ideas of love, revolution, and accepting people who don’t look or think like him. He struggles with his desires to see his daughters marry men who are well off financially so they will be able to take care of them. He struggles with the new ideas that he is introduced to by his children and how this changes his outlook towards the traditions that shaped him. Does any of this sound familiar to any of you?
As the story unfolds, we learn that the town matchmaker has found a marriage partner for Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel. Tzeitel is an attractive, strong-willed young woman. The match that has been chosen for her is anything but that. Her arranged match is Lazar Wolf, the wealthy town butcher who is fat, nasty, and as old as her father. You can imagine how Tzeitel responds. She’s not having him. The main reason for this is that Tzeitel is actually in love with Motel, a poor local tailor who is timid and afraid of Tevye.
Because of this secret love, the trio has to struggle through long held traditions. Tradition says that Tzeitel, as the first daughter of a poor family, must accept the match that is chosen for her, even if he is hairy and smells like a goat. Tradition says that Motel, the tailor, is too poor to choose love for himself. Until he owns his own business, the best that he could hope for was for the match maker to have pity on him and choose any woman that was alive and wouldn’t run from him. Motel asks the question, “Doesn’t even a poor man deserve to be happy?” Tradition says that Tevye should just be happy that a wealthy man wanted to marry his daughter, regardless of the age difference or her unhappiness. Tradition said that what was important was for her to be a wife and take care of her husband.
Eventually, Motel and Tzeitel fight tradition and express their love for one another and a miracle happens. Amidst much struggle and embarrassment, Tevye concedes and gives them his blessing to marry.
They buck tradition, but not without paying a price. Lazar Wolf attempts to publicly humiliate them because Tevye didn’t follow the traditional agreement to let him marry Tzeitel. Because Tevye allowed the young couple to choose for themselves, Lazar Wolf wants Tevye to feel the hurt and shame that he experienced himself. Clearly, fighting tradition comes at a price.
If this wasn’t stressful enough, we find out that Tevye’s 2nd daughter, Hodel, is also in love. And, the object of her affection is a safe choice, or so we think. Perchik is a teacher of the law, and he is given free room and board for tutoring Tevye’s 2 youngest daughters in the Hebrew laws. Perchik’s problem is that he teaches ideas that are radical and do not line up with the traditional thinking of the town.
But this doesn’t stop Hodel from falling in love with him. Actually, it seems to make him that much more attractive in her eyes. Eventually, Perchik decides to travel to Kiev to participate in revolutionary fighting that is occurring. But, before he leaves, he proposes to Hodel and she accepts. She does this without seeking her father’s permission. She is willing to wait for Perchik to travel to Kiev and eventually send for her so they can start their family in a new, distant land.
Here are two more people struggling against tradition. Tradition says that there was no room in the town for radical thinkers who rocked the boat. Tradition says that a good man, one who is worth his salt, worked/tilled/toiled away in a manual labor job attempting to make a living for his family. A good man didn’t chase dreams and try to change the world. He simply hoped that one day the weight of the world wouldn’t crush him. And a good woman didn’t go out with a man who lived otherwise.
How does Tevye respond to this marriage proposal? He is indignant and refuses to allow this to happen. But, the unimaginable occurs again. Hodel and Perchik tell him that they are not asking for his permission, only his blessing. They are liberated enough to decide for themselves. But, they want to know that he understands why they are doing this. Tevye relents, acknowledging that the world is changing and he must be willing to change too. He gives them his blessing and permission.
Tradition said that they were to stay in the town, have babies, and raise a family. Not explore the world and try to change it. But, they believe that it is their destiny to do more. And so, they do it.
If all of this wasn’t stressful enough, we find out that Tevye’s 3rd daughter, Chava, is in love, as well. But, her choice of a mate will test their families in ways that they never imagined. A tailor is an okay spouse for the first daughter from a poor family. A radical teacher of the law is not perfect, but at least he knows what the good book says. But, Chava’s affection is directed towards someone who is wholly unacceptable. He’s a gentile named Fyedka.
They met one day after she was accosted by a group of Russian field workers, and he came to her rescue. He confides to her that he has been watching her from afar. He sees her at the market and knows that she likes to read. He even shares one of his favorite books with her. They begin a secret relationship and grow closer. Eventually they decide that they will get married, as well. Like any good Hebrew of the time, Tevye refuses to let this happen. No good Jewish girl will marry outside of her culture. So Chava elopes with her true love. After she returns to her father’s house, Tevye refuses to speak to her and tells his family to consider her as dead.
Tradition dictated that only certain people were worth having relationships with. And if you violated this tradition, you were no longer a part of the family. Because of love for the wrong person, a father lost a daughter, a daughter lost her father, and a family was broken apart.
By the end of Fiddler on the Roof, these various clashes with tradition left what was once a strong family separated, estranged, and longing for reunion.
Does any of this sound familiar to anyone? Can any of these plots twists and turns be found anywhere else? More specifically, do we find any of these types of issues and tensions revolving around traditions in the Bible? As you can imagine, my answer is going to be yes. We find some of these same issues in the context of the gospel passage that was read from Mark 2 this morning.
Tradition is at the center of the conflicts that occur between Christ and His antagonists, the experts in the law.
In Mark 2, we are told that while Christ was in a home teaching a large group of people, four men brought their paralyzed friend to him to be healed. But, due to the great number of people in the house, these men couldn’t get in through the front door. So, they decided to go through the roof, eventually lowering their friend down to Jesus through a hole that they made. Christ responded to their actions of faith by telling the paralyzed man that his sins “were forgiven.”
This pronouncement of forgiven sin did not go over well with the experts in the law. There response was “How dare He say that. Doesn’t he know what the good book says? Only God can forgive sins. Who does He think he is?”
They, like everyone else, had been waiting for the Messiah to come. He would come with power and authority from heaven. He would come with power and authority to heal broken bodies and forgive sins. Who was Jesus to claim this authority?
You see, their tradition told them that when the Messiah did come, he would come with not only power and authority, but with pomp and circumstance. He would come as a conquering king. Not as a carpenter. And most definitely not as a servant who associated with people that dug holes in other people’s roofs. Due to their expectations from their traditions, they couldn’t see the lengths that God’s love and plan were willing to go.
Later on in Mark 2, Jesus calls Levi (Matthew) to follow Him as one of His disciples. The problem with this was that Levi (Matthew) was a tax collector. He was the lowest of the low. Eventually, Jesus went to Levi’s house for dinner. While there, they were joined by other lowlifes and sinners. When the experts in the law found out about this, they were livid. “Doesn’t Jesus know that the good book says that you shouldn’t hang around lowlifes and sinners? Why is He doing this to Himself?”
Jesus responds and tells them that healthy people don’t need a doctor. Only sick people do. These people are sick and they want to be healed, physically and spiritually. They need Him. They know they need Him. And He was going to help them.
The tradition of the experts in the law said that only certain people deserved love and fellowship. And these people were not the ones who deserved it. Their tradition told them that people like Levi (Matthew) didn’t deserve the courtesy of forgiveness and redemption, and Christ’s decision to participate in this type of thing would be His downfall.
Then we come to the passage that was read earlier. The disciples of John and a group of Pharisees were fasting. The question was asked, “Jesus, why don’t your disciples fast like them?” Now, you may be wondering why this was an issue. The experts in the law were conditioned by tradition to fast twice a week. But where did this tradition come from?
God, in the past had given a command that everyone was required to fast. But, God said that this act of fasting was to occur only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). Not twice a week. The Pharisees had taken God’s simple straight-forward command and ran with it, making it into a legalistic tradition to show how spiritual they were and how unspiritual others were. Additionally, while fasting they wore tattered clothes, put dirt on their faces, and moaned/chanted annoyingly to bring attention to their pious selfless acts.
Christ responded by telling them that His followers had no reason to be sad or without hope. God was present with them. The Son of God was leading them. Instead of fasting, or being sad, they had the freedom to celebrate and appreciate God’s presence before them. The reason for them fasting was being fulfilled before their eyes in the atoning life of Christ.
Christ knew that this was a radical notion for them and I believe that He did not expect them to either “get it” or accept it. He told them that no one would sew a new patch of cloth onto an old garment because when it is washed, the new patch would shrink, tearing away from the old portion of the cloth. In the Old Testament, garments symbolized the covering of man’s sin before God. In essence, Christ was telling them that their old traditions were not sufficient covering. What He was doing would serve man better than their tradition. But unfortunately, what Christ was doing would not work alongside what they were doing.
He also told them that new wine doesn’t go into old wineskins. When wine was poured into a wineskin, which was made from a goat’s stomach, it would begin the fermentation process, bubbling and expanding. New wineskins could handle this expansion and contraction because they were pliable and flexible. Old wineskins, which were stiff and brittle due to time, would break, tear, and burst spilling its valuable contents.
In essence, Christ was telling them that His coming, His life, His miracles, His kingdom, His purpose on earth would not fit with theirs, and He would be in constant conflict with their traditions. He would contradict the things they thought they knew. He would question the things that they were certain about. Christ’s ministry would turn their world upside down. He would not fit into preconceived notions or legal systems
The really sad thing is that Christ was the fulfillment of the traditions that the experts in the law had formed. He was the Messiah that they had built their traditions for, and around, in the first place. As in the Fiddler on the Roof, strict adherence to tradition led to conflict, tension, and eventual pain and suffering.
So, Terrell, are you saying that tradition is a bad thing? Are you saying that tradition should be ignored? Are you saying that tradition should be thrown out? Are you saying that tradition should be forgotten?
No, I’m not. I believe that tradition is, and can be, a good thing. Actually, it can be a very good thing. Because of tradition, we are able to preserve our history and know our past. Because of tradition, we are able to have pride in the actions of our mothers and forefathers. Because of tradition, we have a solid foundation on which to build our future.
Tradition can be a very good thing, as long as it is kept in perspective. When tradition hinders the movement of God among God’s people, there is a problem. Tradition should never trump the great command of God to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and to love others like you love yourself. Tradition should never trump the great commission which tells us to go into the world and share the good news of God’s love to all people. Tradition should never trump the great Comforter, the Holy Spirit, who seeks to lead us into God’s service.
So, the question is, do you/I/we hold to any traditions, any preconceived ways of thinking and acting that would hinder our effectiveness on God’s behalf? Are you able to see people as the objects of God’s love? Are you able to recognize opportunity as a cog in the wheel of God’s providence?
Or, are you deterred from loving, fellowshipping, or helping/partnering with someone because of their political views, their socio-economic status, or their views on education and healthcare or immigration?
Are there any traditions that are present at WGBC or long-held personal practices that you and I have that can stop us from hearing God speak to us about ourselves and our community? Are there any traditions or personal practices that would stop us from seeing other people as God sees them? Are there any traditions present that would keep us from stepping out on faith and entering into God’s plan for this church and community?
Remember, the good book says…………………….Actually, I probably don’t need to tell you what the good book says. I think all of us know what the good book says. And it’s up to each one of us to follow it.
Will you pray with me?
Father, we know what your book says. It says that you are creator and king. And you want to be in relationship with us through your Son, Jesus. And once we become a part of your family, you want us to share that good news with other people. Father, teach us, show us, encourage us to let you be God, and that the things that we hold to, the things that we believe, would only help to strengthen our relationship with you, and others. Amen