What Are Phylacteries Anyway?
By Katie Westenberg
They do everything to be seen by others: They enlarge their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. Matthew 23:5
These words in Matthew are the variety that I am often quick to skip over. Like a lengthy genealogy in the book of Numbers or a chapter of Levitical law I am tempted to skim over ancient words that are long lost in modern vocabulary.
What are phylacteries anyhow?
It turns out they were small scrolls of parchment containing the law. The Pharisees wore them around their necks and wrists as reminders - reminders to themselves and, most importantly, the world around them. These men valued the scriptures.
Around this time, the Pharisees began to think if a little was good, more is most certainly better and they started making their phylacteries a little bigger - larger reminders to themselves and again, the world around them.
I’ve never seen a phylactery in my corner of the world. It’s not exactly on trend to dangle law from your wrist these days or “lengthen our tassels”. But before we skip over this passage too quickly, it would be wise to look past the unusual words. Jesus was speaking less of trends and styles and more of a heart issue here.
Later on in chapter 23 he says “…you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy..”. These Pharisees with their phylacteries and with their lives were good at polishing and shining the outside. They were good at looking the part and saying the lines. But Jesus bids them caution, “first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.”
Our bumper stickers never save us. The way we carry our Bible or share scripture quotes on social media will not save us. We live in an age where it is easier to be seen than ever. It is easy to apply filters, crop and edit our lives to near perfection. But isn’t that all only the outside of the cup?
It is quite easy to fool the world around us, but there is One who knows our hearts. And that is all He is really after in the first place.
It is easy to blame the culture, social media or whatever other distractions that tempt us to shine the outside of our cups. But even as times have changed, the temptations of our hearts have not. Phylacteries or cute hand-lettered scriptures quotes perfectly places in our homes, it is less about the cups we choose to shine and more about our determination to shine, to cleanse, the inside first.
Today, may we give him our hearts first and fully, seeking His praise rather than that of the world around us. (John 12:43)