The Main Thing

Noel Reynolds (Creative Commons)


“Tradition! Tradition!” Many of us are familiar with those words proudly exclaimed by Tevye, the main character in the beloved musical Fiddler OnThe Roof. “Tradition” is the reply when Tevya asks “And how do we keep our balance?” He continues to sing that they have traditions for how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, even how to wear clothes, such as keeping their heads covered and wearing a little prayer shawl.  Tevye says, “You may ask how this tradition got started?” “Well,” he says, “I don’t know. But it is because of our traditions that everyone knows who they are and Who God is.”

Don’t Mess with Family Traditions

I’m guessing we all grew up with a tradition or two. I mentioned one family tradition of ours  when I shared that my grandparents in Pennsylvania spent their summers shuttling us kids back and forth from NoVa so we could two-by-two spend our summer vacation with them on a lake in the southern part of the Poconos.  (It’s Our Turn Now) It was like heaven to us kids. We lived for those experiences – fishing, sleeping on cots, water skiing, rowing on the lake, attending ethnic church picnics with fabulous food, going to an outdoor Mass with guitar music on the porch of one of the neighbor’s cabins. These were strong summer traditions, and as far as us kids were concerned no one had better mess with them! One summer the lake flooded, and my brother Kevin and I were not allowed to join our grandparents until the waters subsided – well, the way I cried and wailed, you’d have thought someone cut off one of my limbs!

We all have traditions, some as simple as washing our hands before meals. Others involve weddings, funerals, birthdays, or holiday celebrations such as Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Easter. One time one of my brothers joined a friend for their family breakfast only to discover that the family had a tradition where the father, the head of the family, doled out who ate what and how much they ate. My brother thought that was kinda quirky, but it quickly evolved into criminal when the father cut the donuts in half and portioned out half of a powdered sugar donut to my brother! Suffice it to say that is not a tradition my brother has begun in his own home!

Don’t Mess with Church Traditions

Churches have traditions. And, in my experience, messing with those traditions is full of peril! At my first church assignment, I remember a well-intentioned, but unsuspecting, parish council member naively suggesting that the traditional chicken menu for a long-established Labor-Day picnic be changed to something easier, such as hot dogs and burgers. Well, I don’t think that poor innocent parishioner saw it coming, but they received such an ear-full of backlash that I am sure no one since has dared suggest tampering with the sacred century-old menu of the day! At another parish, long hours were spent discussing the crucifix … one group wanting to maintain the tradition of having a smaller cross that is carried in before Mass, while another group wanting a larger, permanent crucifix that fit their idea of a more traditional cross. Many long hours of discussion were spent on that subject, and for better or for worse, to this day, there is no life-size crucifix.

Traditions have been around for as long as there have been humans to create them. In and of themselves there’s nothing bad about them, and there can be plenty of good. In today’s Gospel from Mark (below), some Pharisees give Jesus and His disciples a hard time because, according to the Pharisees, the disciples didn’t follow the strict letter of the law when it came to a particular purification rite. Apparently this purification rite appears nowhere in the first five books of the Bible – nowhere in the entire Torah. Somewhere along the line, though, someone got it in their head that some extra means of purification was a nice thing to do. Like many traditions that begin as a simple well-intentioned gesture, it became a weapon to determine someone’s orthodoxy. Jesus wants nothing to do with it, and calls the Pharisees hypocrites. They are perfectly willing to follow God with their lips, but their own actions are found wanting. In short they “talk the talk” but do not “walk the walk.” Jesus reserves his harshest criticism against this lot and their ilk.

Keep the Proper Balance

Jesus warns that keeping the proper balance, as Tevye sang, is what is important. To remember Who it is we serve when we practice some of the little traditions we hold in such high regard. Stephen Covey wrote a book titled, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The third principle Covey encourages is, “never forget the main thing.” I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he challenged the Pharisees. It’s true that Jesus loved the Pharisees, but He loved them so much He couldn’t support the narrow place in which they had boxed themselves. Through the best of intentions, they somehow lost sight of the “big picture” – in this instance GOD! As Covey would put it, the Pharisees needed to remember that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”   And, the main thing is, Not to Lose Sight of God.

The second reading today is taken from Book of James. The reading concludes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for the orphans and the widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The community James wrote to was being reminded to keep the main thing the main thing – to remember those who are poor, those who are orphans and those who are widows – that to do so was religion at its best. To not get all caught up in purification rituals, or whether or not the crucifix is life-size, or whether you serve chicken or burgers.  To remember to keep people before religion. To keep God before all else. To keep the main thing the main thing.

Let’s keep each other in prayer that we would all keep our gaze strongly fixed on Him.

peace friends,



Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-13
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”


James 1: 17-27
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does. If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.



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