My all-time favorite Broadway musical is “Fiddler on the Roof,” which won nine Tony Awards, including best musical, score, book, direction and choreography. in 1964. It’s about Tevye the Dairyman and his attempts to maintain his family and Jewish religious traditions in a life of uncertainty and imbalance.
I must have identified the musical with my own family’s struggle of attempting to maintain traditional Japanese family values while growing up in Los Angeles with “American” friends, neighbors, and classmates influencing our lives. Chances are, if you are a Nisei father, you too would identify with Tevye’s struggles (e.g., Sansei daughters outmarriage rate around 50 percent).
Tevye was a very likable man. Quite often, he would quote (or misquote) from the “Good Book.” In one scene, Tevye says, “As Abraham said, ‘I’m a stranger in a strange land.’” “Moses said that,” scolded the rabbi’s son. “Forgive me, forgive me,” Tevye continues, “As King David said, ‘I’m slow of speech and slow of tongue.’” “That was also Moses,” said the rabbi’s son. Tevye responds, “For a man with a slow tongue, he talked a lot.”
In another scene, Tevye says, “As the Good Book says, ‘When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.” Perchik, the radical future son-in-law, says, “Where does the Book say that?” Tevye replies, “All right, all right! It doesn’t exactly say that, but someplace, it has something about a chicken.”
If Tevye were around today, he might say something like “As the Good Book says, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’” I, like Perchik, might respond, “Where does the Book say that?” Tevye might respond, “All right, all right! It doesn’t exactly say that, but someplace, it has something about God helping.”
This is the sad part, Tevye wouldn’t be alone in his misunderstanding. Eighty-one percent of Americans polled in the 1990s agreed to the statement “The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves” (The Barna Group). Would you? Actually, this is probably the most often quoted phrase that is not found in the Bible. This saying is usually attributed to Ben Franklin, quoted in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1757.
Now, here’s my point: for the most part, the remaining Nisei are all about 85-95 years of age. I have heard from a very reliable source that Japanese funeral homes (in Los Angeles) are busier than ever. Yet, like Tevye, most of the Nisei really do not have a clear understanding of what the Bible says about life after death.
“But Judd, what’s the big deal?” Well, if you were to say, “All my childhood friends are gone,” I would think it would be time to find out exactly what the Bible has to say about life after death. I think it was Richard Pryor who said, “Even if I live to be 100, that’s nothing compared to how long I’m going to be dead.”
“Say Judd, lighten up. You’re offending some and scaring others.” That’s actually my intent. For years I have been writing religious articles every Christmas and Easter, appealing to your intellect and hoping that the love of God would draw you into the Kingdom. This Easter article, to the contrary, is designed to scare the hell right out of you.
Jesus taught that hell is a real place. “But I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear.” (Luke 12:5) Now, I realize that biblical scholars and theologians disagree about what “hell” actually is, i.e., a lake of fire, eternal suffering, non-consciousness, etc., but whatever it is, I don’t want to go there (and I hope you won’t want to go there either).
Unfortunately, many good people are going to hell, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.” (Matthew 7:13) Even many church-going “Christians” won’t enter heaven’s gates. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
Now, in every major religion around the world, except Christianity, salvation is attained by man’s attempt to reach up to God. If you’re holy enough, if you sacrifice enough, if you pray enough, if you wear holy underwear, you can earn God’s favor. Even many “church-going” people are also deceived, believing that “as long as I’m a ‘good person’ and not like those ungodly people over there,” they will make it into heaven.
Nonsense!!! God does not grade on a curve. Nobody makes it into heaven because they are good enough (or better than). A German proverb says it this way: “No trees touch the sky.” If your hope to enter heaven’s gates is based upon “being a good person,” or going to church, or giving money to the poor, the Bible says, “Those who trust in themselves are fools…” (Proverbs 28:26)
While “helping ourselves” sounds logical, it is actually a “works doctrine” suggesting that man must first do his part before God will extend favor or acceptance. Actually, “helping ourselves” is a deceptive lie of Satan used to persuade people to depend on themselves and their own efforts rather than to trust in the grace of God.
The Bible teaches the opposite. Man is incapable of earning salvation through his “works,” i.e., “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23), and “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6)
Jesus said, “But I warn you — unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Matthew 5:20) In other words, you would have to have lived a life holier than Billy Graham or Mother Teresa to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Since man is incapable of reaching up to God, Christianity is the only religion that says God will reach down to man. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) In other words, God provided the “help” that we need precisely because we could not help ourselves.
Finally, God is “…not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Your Heavenly Father is reaching down to you offering the gift of eternal life through His son, Jesus Christ. All you have to do is accept it, i.e., that Christ died for your sins on the cross some 2,000 years ago.
“But Judd, you don’t understand, I’m Buddhist.” It doesn’t matter. Most of the early Christian church members were Jews. Acknowledging that they were sinners and accepting Jesus Christ as their lord and savior didn’t make them non-Jewish. Just as your acceptance of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross doesn’t make you non-Japanese.
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.