Last night, Trish and I watched Fiddler on the Roof. We laughed as Tevye used all his “good ‘ole boy” wisdom and fatherly grace to lead his family through massive change, trying desperately to both cling to to his traditions and to do what was right for those he loved.
Tevye was wise enough to know that traditions are important and that they hold our communities together. Tevye is a good man. Righteous people like him almost always work to keep traditions alive. Almost always.
In times of rapid change, tradition can keep people (and the institutions they serve) tied to an old world that will soon be gone. Tevye’s centuries-old world of Russian Judaism was about to disappear. As the decades of the twentieth century passed, the heavy hands of anti-Semitism and modernism would work together to batter this ancient community into smithereens.
What do people do in such times?
In the first three chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel, the characters reel from the rapid changes they must face. Joseph must decide between Jewish tradition and the word of an angel about whether he will or will not move forward with his engagement to Mary. Herod must decide between his love of power and the opportunity before him to welcome God’s messiah. The people of Jerusalem must decide whether to accept a strange priest named John who wears funny clothes and eats weird food.
“The ax is laid at the foot of the tree,” John boldly shouts. It’s a Bob Dylan lyric for 1st century Judea!“The times; they are a changin’,” John is saying to his generation.
This will be one of the great themes that runs throughout the entire New Testament. God is on the move; an old world is quickly giving way to a new one. So what does a person do if he wants to remain faithful to his God and to his faith when the times are a changin’?
Those Jews who reject John the Baptist and Jesus, simply want to hold on to their faith.
Those Jews who accept John the Baptist and Jesus want to be faithful to God’s call. It is easy to look back and judge these people but are we any different than them? Do we know what to do in our times – these times of such fundamental and unceasing change?
The radicals call us to change because they are bored. The traditionalists warn us against change because they are afraid. So which will we do – hold on to tradition or move on with change?
I believe in tradition and cultural roots. Like Tevye, I think that tradition, protocol, and social grace help maintain civilization and promote healthy community. That’s why I call myself a conservative – I want to conserve what my ancestors worked hard to build. However, also like Tevye, I am responsible for the health of real human beings, some of which do not always fit into the neat boxes our traditions offer them.
Tradition does not make much room for a single mom trying to raise godly children while she works so many hours a day hardly even seeing her kids. Tradition does not tell me how to include those who do not yet speak my language into my church family. Tradition does not tell me how to adjust to a globalized economy in which I don’t know my banker or even which institution really owns my house. Tradition doesn’t always tell me how to deal with all the things that technology, massive economic reshuffling and stunning new scientific discoveries have brought into my life.
When the times are changing as quickly as they are now, tradition can be a comforting walk down an old path. We just have to keep it from becoming a pathological structure of denial – a stubborn refusal to believe that much of our old world is already gone and is never coming back.
When the ax is laid at the root of the tree, we have to decide to listen with fresh ears to the voice of him who is “crying in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
It takes both courage and wisdom to keep one’s balance in such times: like a fiddler, dancing on a roof.