The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
It might seem strange to some of us this morning, that a deep expression of Biblical wisdom could be found in a Broadway musical. In the case of Fiddler on the Roof, we’d be wrong to think that! Fiddler is like the heart of the Old Testament set to music!
Wisdom, in the Biblical sense, is not a cushioned life indifferent to the reality that is in and around us. Wisdom is not the fine art of serene detachment. No! Wisdom is life peeled and cored, life sliced and diced.
With wisdom comes the obligation to deal with life head on and head up, with an open-eyed, honest-hearted, courageous conviction. As Wisdom says in the Good Book, “My mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips … I walk in the way of righteousness, in the paths of justice.”
So Wisdom is not so much a gift as it is a task. Wisdom calls us to know ourselves, to squeeze out of every moment in life whatever lessons life holds for us, calling forth whatever responses life demands of us in each moment. Wisdom summons each of us to be everything we have been created by God to be.
So, then, wisdom is life lived at its most demanding. Wisdom, “the fear of the Lord,” means astonishment, wonder, awe, and, sometimes…oftentimes?…not-quite-entirely-comfortable with what God does in my life and in the life of everyone around me. And there you have, in a nutshell, the picture of Tevye and his story in Fiddler on the Roof.
Tradition! That’s the form wisdom takes in this musical. Tradition! It’s the wisdom of the ages in Israel, handed on from generation to generation. And all the laughter and all the tears that come from the story of Fiddler, come as that tradition, that wisdom, succeeds and fails in shaping the lives of Tevye and the others. The laughter and the tears come as that tradition lifts up gently, amusingly, but also as that tradition smacks down heavily, inflexibly, upon the characters in this musical. Oh, it is a moving story!
And for those with the ears to hear…for not everyone can hear it; but for those with the ears to hear, for those who know how divine Wisdom took on human flesh in Jesus, for those who know how Israel gave birth to Messiah, who know how Tradition went to the cross and died, yet was reborn new and more glorious on the Third Day…well…for us, suddenly the story of Fiddler is not merely a Jewish story, but it is a story for God’s whole Israel, old and new, Jew and Gentile alike!
It is a story for us! Us, who walk in the path of wisdom, in the tradition, the way of Jesus Christ. It is a story for us in all the astonishment, wonder, awe, and…the being-not-quite-entirely-comfortable with God’s ways in our lives. We are like Tevye, wondering why God could not part with a small fortune to ease our poverty. Like Tevye’s daughters, who face the fear and wonder of marriage and family. Like Tevye’s wife, Golde, who figures that if you just do what you’re expected to do, life should sort itself out…but then chafes noisily because life doesn’t do that.
Life is never so tidy…not for Tevye and his family, not for the children of Israel, not for the followers of Messiah. Life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us. Wisdom says, “Of course it does! L’chaim! To life!” And wise is the person who has learned to lift his or her own glass of schnapps, “L’chaim! To life!”
Because there, there in our blessing and bruising, there on the circuitous path of life down which God leads us, with all of its joys and demands, there we meet Wisdom made flesh, God with us…whether we are joyful, or whether our hearts lie panting on the floor! God with us…wisdom incarnate. Holding to the past and yet always stepping into His future. Leading, prodding, pursuing us…sinking His teeth, His nails, into each of us, and yet, all along the way, giving us a new life…His life.
Ah…without Him, our Tradition made flesh, our Wisdom incarnate…without Jesus the Messiah, God with us…well…without Him, our own lives would be as shaky…as a fiddler on the roof!