Fiddler on the Roof Theology

Romans 6 presents the right way to win the battle against sin through the ongoing recognition that, by virtue of spiritual union with Christ, the believer in Jesus Christ is “dead” to sin and “alive” to God. Since we know these things to be true, we must embrace them by faith. “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).

The classic screenplay Fiddler on the Roof provides a fitting illustration. The main character, Tevye, is a Jewish man living in Tsarist Russia. The heart of the film is Tevye’s struggle to accept the cultural changes that are turning his world upside down, especially through the non-arranged marriages of three of his five daughters. We empathize with his internal pain as we watch “tradition,” the glue that held his little world together, begin to dissolve before his very eyes. Tzeitel, the oldest daughter, is in love with Motel, the tailor, but no one knows except the two of them. So, when the matchmaker informs Tzeitel’s parents that the village butcher, Lazar Wolf, is interested in their daughter, they get very excited. Though he is old and she is young, he is wealthy, so at least their daughter, who was raised in poverty, will never know hunger again. For this reason, Tevye makes a bargain with the butcher. Of course, when Tzeitel is informed of her parents’ choice of a husband, she is horrified and begs and pleads with her father not to make her marry Lazar Wolf because she is really in love with Motel and, after all, they “gave each other a pledge.” Reluctantly, not wanting to see his daughter miserable her whole life, Tevye breaks his agreement with the butcher and lets his daughter marry the timid tailor.

The second daughter’s name is Hodel and her affections soon become attached to a young, outspoken man named Perchik. Perchik is motivated by a desire to preserve freedom through revolution and, as a result of his actions, is thrown into prison and shipped to Siberia. When he writes to request that Hodel come to him, she chooses to leave her family and travel across the frozen wasteland to join him in marriage. By this time, Tevye has reluctantly begun to accept this new practice of a man and a woman choosing for themselves whom they should marry. But even Hodel’s engagement could never have prepared him for his final daughter’s choice.

Chava is the youngest daughter in the story whose affections turn toward a fellow lover of books, Fyedka. However, there is a vast gulf between her choice and that of her older sisters. They married fellow Jews. Fyedka, however, is a Gentile, forbidden territory for a young Jewish girl. But her father’s command to not marry outside the faith falls on stubborn ears and Chava and Fyedka elope. Tevye learns of it while walking in the field behind his plow. As Golde, his wife, runs toward him shouting, he asks what is wrong and she informs him of their youngest daughter’s marriage. As a father, he is absolutely bewildered. Then, as a look of resolve crosses his face, he says, “Chava is dead to us. We’ll forget her. Go home.” Now in the story, his daughter is not really dead, but she is dead to him. And according to the custom of his day, she will not be spoken of again and she will not be welcomed into his home because she is reckoned as dead and her father will consciously resist any memory of her.

In the same way, as disciples of Christ we must consider the old sin nature as dead since “we have died with Christ” (v. 8). Therefore, we must continually count, or reckon, this to be so by embracing the reality of our position in Christ by faith. Just as Tevye rejected his daughter, we must reject the flesh. We must not welcome it into our homes. We must not let sin reign in our mortal bodies in order to obey its lusts (v. 12). We must stop presenting the members of our bodies to sin, and instead present ourselves “to God as those alive from the dead” (v. 13). The old man must be dead to us! Likewise, we must consider ourselves alive to God. Since believers have been made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), our new nature, empowered by the Holy Spirit, has the capacity to live free from sin’s enslavement. “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22).

[Originally published in Counseling One Another: A theology of inter-personal discipleship]

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