Tevje Needed to Know
by Joel Belz
An eery discomfort links the two famous questions.
Tevje, in Fiddler on the Roof, bluntly asks his wife: “Do you love me?”
How can it not remind you of Jesus, in John 21, using the very same words to put Peter on the spot: “Do you love me?”
It’s easy to identify with both Tevje’s wife Golde and with Peter. Golde memorably — and self-righteously — responds: “For twentyfive years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?”
Peter also wants to dodge what seems to be an overly intrusive question. He stalls and bounces the ball back to Jesus. “Lord, you know I do,” he says, joining Golde in clever avoidance mode.
What links the two contexts is the call to go beyond the external structure of things and to probe deeply, getting intensely personal. Apart from all appearances, both Tevje and Jesus are asking, what’s going on in your heart? Jesus, we should note for the record, had considerably more standing to ask such a question than Tevje did.
All of us need to keep hearing Jesus asking His penetrating question. Especially those of us who have been blessed to grow up and spend most of our lives in a secure setting of sound theology, sound doctrine, sound preaching, sound teaching, and sound worldview need to hear Jesus asking us: “Apart from all that, do you love Me?”
I’ve spent my whole life in publishing and educational enterprises committed to developing and propagating the truth that, as Abraham Kuyper observed, every square inch of reality belongs to the Lord our God. For almost seventy years now, that has been a robust and invigorating basis for living life to the fullest.
But it also has the potential to prompt me to avoid Jesus’s great question. For I must report to you that it is altogether possible to be consumed with such “truthfulness” for a lifetime and still walk on the margins of that more personal love for Jesus that He intends His children to have. It is not just possible, but common, to have a God-centered worldview and still not be personally absorbed with the God who is at the focus of that view.
Too easily, we can substitute an idea for a person. Too easily, we can get more excited about a systematic theology than we do about the God at the core of that theology. Too easily, we can spend more time articulating the logic of our biblical worldview than we do talking to and adoring the person at the core of that worldview. Too easily, we can come to identify all those things — and they’re all very good things — with the essence of our relationship to our Lord. But it does not overstate the case to say that when we’re more consumed with ideas about God than we are with God Himself, we’ve headed down a dangerous path toward idolatry. We’ve started worshiping a false God.
This is precisely where the picture of marriage — and the hints from Fiddler — are so apt. Just as the answer for Golde wasn’t to quit milking the cows and doing the laundry, the answer for us is never in forfeiting the externals or in discarding all those true abstractions we’ve been blessed to know about our great God. The answer is not in becoming pietists who disdain God’s creation and know-nothings who scorn sound thinking.
The answer instead is the perpetual reminder that any successful relationship between a man and a woman depends on that mystical balance between romance on the one hand and mundane action on the other. The man is a dolt who supposes he need do nothing more than bring home a paycheck and faithfully take out the garbage on Wednesday mornings. A nd the woman who never kisses her husband unexpectedly behind the ear should fully expect that he is muttering under his breath, “Do you love me?”
All this is not a forced illustration. It was God Himself who invented the idea that marriage is a picture of His own relationship to us. And it’s a two-way picture; what we learn on either side helps us understand the other that much better.
Do you love me? Tevje needed to know. I have a hunch that Golde, after those twenty-five years, must have had the same question. Almost all of us can identify with both of them.
Jesus already knew the answer that was in Peter’s heart. But even Jesus wanted to hear Peter say it. And no matter how busy we’ve been in His kingdom, or how consumed we’ve been with knowing or teaching His truth, He wants to hear us say it as well.