The Sweetest Thing of All
Updated: Dec 6, 2018
As I’ve mentioned before, one of the best things my parents did for my brother, Pete, and me, during our childhood was to take us to see live theatre. Why? Because going to the theatre was an opportunity to dream, to grow, to laugh and to cry, to be challenged and inspired, and to expand one’s mind.
My wife, Suzanne and I continued that tradition with our own children. Casey and April have been blessed by the outstanding musicals, dramas and comedies of PCPA (The Pacific Conservatory of the Preforming Arts). Our own, Nancy Johnson, has played a huge part in helping to provide live theatre in our community through her support of PCPA.
Three time Pulitzer Prize winning American playwright and novelist, Thornton Wilder, once wrote: “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share, with another, the sense of what it is to be a human being.
The actor, William Dafoe, who has worked on stage and screen, nominated for three Academy Awards over his sterling career, once said:
“Great theatre is about challenging how we think and encouraging us to [dream] about a world we aspire to.”
Friends, When I was 12-years-old I saw an amazing play one summer night outdoors in a huge park in Portland, Oregon. The play: “Fiddler On The Roof.” I’ve had a chance to see it several times since on screen and live on stage including a wonderful production by local actors of PCPA.
As most of you know, Fiddler On The Roof, is a story about a Jewish Patriarch, Tevye, who struggles to hold on to his values in an ever-changing world. The setting of the play is a small Ukrainian village, around 1910. A reviewer offers this brief summary of the setting and plot:
“It's pre-revolutionary Russia in the largely Jewish community of Anatevka…whose residents are ruled by community and cultural traditions.
“For poor dairy farmer Tevye and his wife Golde, those traditions include getting the town matchmaker, Yente, to ultimately find their five daughters…suitable wealthy husbands, especially important since the girls will have no dowries.
“Tzeitel, not yet twenty, doesn't like that Yente only chooses old men [for a possible match with her and her sisters.] [Adding to the drama of the situation] Tzeitel is in love, not with a wealthy man, but with the poor tailor, Motel and he with her.
“Motel doesn't believe Tevye would approve of a union between him and Tzeitel because of
Motel's poor socioeconomic state, and without someone arranging the union as tradition demands.”
Friends, Tevye has struggled all his life to support his family. He is a proud and hardworking man who is sustained by the religious and cultural traditions in which he has been raised. His people’s traditions are his spiritual foundation.
Yet, despite his struggles, Tevye has a terrific sense of humor and outlook on life--referring to life in Anatevka as being one which is “as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”
And interestingly, Tevye talks to God quite a bit in the play. On one occasion while referring to the suffering that his fellow Jews have endured at the hands of others Tevye looks up and says to God:
“I know. I know. We are your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't you choose someone else?"
Tevye loves his daughters and wants them to marry well and avoid the life of poverty he has endured. In a wonderfully entertaining song from the play, Tevye dares to dream of what his life might be like if he was a wealthy man. Tevye says to the good Lord above:
"Dear God, you made many,
many poor people.
I realize, of course,
that it's no shame to be poor.
But it's no great honor either!
So, would it have been so terrible
if I had a small fortune?"
Here are a few lyrics from the delightful song Tevye sings:
“If I were a rich man,. All day long I'd biddy biddy bum. If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn't have to work hard. If I were a…rich, Yidle-didle man.
I'd build a big tall house
with rooms by the dozen, right in the middle of the town.
A fine tin roof with real
wooden floors below.
There would be one long
staircase just going up, And one even longer coming down,
and one more leading
nowhere, just for show.
I'd fill my yard with chicks and
turkeys and geese and ducks For the whole town to see and hear.
And each loud "cheep" and "swaqwk"
and "honk" and "quack"
Would land like a trumpet on the ear, as if to say,
"Here lives a wealthy man…"
The most important men in town
would come to fawn on me!
They would ask me to advise them, Like a Solomon the Wise. Posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes!
And it won't make one bit of
difference if i answer right or wrong. When you're rich, they think
you really know!”
Near the end of his song Tevye sings:
If I were rich,
I'd have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat
by the Eastern wall.
And I'd discuss the holy books
with the learned men,
several hours every day.
‘That’ would be the
sweetest thing of all.”
Friends, that song says so much about Tevye’s character.
Like many people who lived in poverty in his day, as well as our own day, Tevye dreams of not having to work so hard each day merely to survive.
And of having “a big tall house with rooms by the dozen!”
He dreams of owning property, including, land with many animals.
Tevye, who has been ignored most of his life, dreams of being a person whose wisdom and experience is respected, valued and sought after.
And he wants his daughters to enjoy a life of comfort and ease. What father wouldn’t--especially one who has endured great poverty?
And yet, what reveals Tevye’s unique character is what he suggests would be “the sweetest thing of all” if he was a rich man.
“The sweetest thing of all” would not be to own a big house, or a farm, nor to achieve public acclaim and respect—No, “the sweetest thing of all” in Tevye’s mind would be to have more leisure time to spend with God.
More time to read the holy book and to discuss its merits with the learned men.
Indeed, more time just to sit in the synagogue and pray.
Tevye’s words here suggest that wealth can accompany a life of faith. That you don’t have to be poor to live a life pleasing to God.
That you can keep your priorities straight and hold on to your values even if you are a wealthy person.
The problem with great wealth is that it can easily muddy one’s outlook on the world and other people—it can skew one’s values and distort one’s purpose for living.
Great, or even little Wealth, can take the focus of a person away from a single-minded devotion to God, to instead, a focus solely on serving one’s self—one’s ambitions—to insuring one’s comfort and security at all costs.
Such is the predicament of the wealthy person we see Jesus encounter and challenge in our second lesson from the gospel of Mark. If we take him at his word—this wealthy leader described by Mark has lived a good and quite remarkable life! From his youth on he has been a diligent student of the Law of Moses and passed with flying colors all the challenges to his faith. For indeed, he has never murdered anyone nor committed adultery.
He has never stolen from anyone nor bore false witness i.e. lied.
He has never defrauded anyone.
He has even been steadfast in honoring his mother and father.
He’s a good person! Honest, sincere, trustworthy and obedient to God.
He’s also rich.
And in his case, that’s a problem.
Jesus seems have looked into this man’s heart and discovered there a love for money which will be a stumbling block for him in following Jesus and in his quest to inherit eternal life.
For after Jesus, lovingly, according to Mark, tells this good man that he lacks only one thing—that in order to be faithful to God, to follow Jesus, he must sell what he has and give to the poor. Mark says this rich man “walks away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
Friends, notice, there’s no “prosperity gospel” in this passage—that message which is so popular with evangelical pastors! You know, the idea that if you give generously to the church you will get even greater wealth—not in heaven, mind you, but right here on earth!
Friends, wealth or lack of wealth is not a sign of God’s blessing, favor or of God’s anger.
On this point it’s important to remember, the Apostle Paul doesn’t say in First Timothy, that “money is the root of all evil.”
Paul says that the love of money, the unquenchable need for money, the passionate desire to have money above all else in life, is the root of all evil.
The Bible is clear: You can’t love God and money—it’s one or the other.
For “the love of money” is that which contributes to the presence and continuation of greater harm, suffering, and injustice in God’s world. The love of money causes you to be selfish, greedy, self-centered concerned only with your own life—how your stocks, your bonds, your financial portfolio is doing—who cares about your neighbor’s.
Such people exclaim: The stock markets up! That’s all that matters! Global warming? Who cares? If we drill for oil, frack, we will make millions! That’s all that matters!
Jesus challenged the rich leader to love God more than he loved the profits, the pleasure and the security that his great possessions gave him.
Now friends, there’s nothing wrong with obtaining wealth through hard work or even inheritance—and in enjoying the pleasure and security it makes possible for you.
The danger with great wealth, in Jesus’ view—is to make pleasure and security the purpose of your life.
For you might miss the true joy of life.
Consider this: by the way, I have permission to share this true story with you.
I have a friend who worked hard and obtained great wealth—yet one day said to me, wistfully—
“Bob, I wish I had seen more of my boy’s little league games and my daughter’s dance recitals.
“It just eats me up.
“My kids lived in a beautiful house, went to the best schools, but I learned later if life what they ached for was more time with me, their dad.
Friends, These kids appreciated the comforts that their Dad’s hard work achieved—they just wished that they could have spent more time with him.
Time which can never be made up. I wonder how much time that rich man in our scripture lesson spent with his wife and his children.
Jesus seemed to know that this particular rich man needed to reflect on what it means to live a life pleasing to God. Especially since he’s so concerned about “inheriting eternal life.”
Jesus wouldn’t have said those same words to every rich person he encountered: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”
Jesus didn’t talk in generalities. His teachings were aimed at the person or group of people who surrounded him in the moment.
Jesus met plenty of wealthy people who used their wealth not only for personal gain but to help others—even him.
Like those who invited him into their homes and wined and dined him.
And those who were eager to support his fledgling ministry. Many of them wealthy women.
I think Jesus, a carpenter, would have loved the character Tevye, his honesty, his commitment to his family, his faith, and his sense of humor.
If Jesus could have seen, Fiddler On The Roof, I think he would have smiled at Tevye’s dream of building with his own hands, a “big tall house with rooms by the dozen; one with a fine tin roof with real wooden floors below; a house with one long staircase just going up and even a longer one coming down—and one more leading nowhere—just for show.
I think that Jesus would have laughed at Tevye’s dream of a big yard full of loud skawking animals for the whole town to see and hear. And understanding how the poor often feel neglected and ignored—Jesus would have appreciated Tevye’s vision of the most important men in town listening to him, showing respect to him, seeking his wisdom and insights.
And I believe it’s very likely that Tevye’s expression of what, to him, would be “the sweetest thing of all” about being rich, would have brought a tear to Jesus’ eyes.
For we know that Jesus could be deeply moved when he was in the presence of great grief as well as in the presence of tremendous faith, humility, generosity or kindness.
To that point, the shortest verse in the New Testament is John 11:35 where we read: “Jesus wept”—referring to the time when a dear friend of Jesus’ had died and he saw the man’s family and friends grieving four days later.
So surely Jesus would have thought to himself regarding the words of his fellow Jew: “Good for you, Tevye,” and Jesus may have teared up when he heard Tevye sing, wistfully:
“If I were rich…I’d have the time that I lack to sit in
the synagogue and pray.
“And maybe have a seat
at the western wall. [Holy Ground]
“I'd discuss the holy books
with the learned men,
several hours every day.”
[Yes time for worship, prayer, and study—time for God:]
‘That’ would be the
sweetest thing of all.”