How Broad Are Your Phylacteries?
by Jacob Hudgins
“They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments”(Matt 23:5). Phylacteries are small boxes attached by bands to the forehead or arm. Inside the box are placed written passages of Old Testament Scriptures—taking literally the command to keep God’s word as “frontlets between your eyes”(Deut 6:8). Yet Jesus doesn’t address the Pharisees' zeal in learning and keeping the word—he says they “make their phylacteries broad”. Broader phylacteries would make room for more Scriptures, or larger letters, and are thereby associated with special reverence for the law. Phylacteries themselves are a little too ordinary—they want broad phylacteries. They “enlarge the borders of their garments,” supposedly showing an uncommon reverence for God’s commands. What can we learn from this teaching?
1) Real religion is not done to be seen
“But all their works they do to be seen by men”(Matt 23:5). Their behavior—right down to their dress—is calculated to impress. They are thinking of others—not because they are concerned about causing them to sin, or whether they would be emulated—but simply to be seen. They want others to say, “Look! How pious he is!”. Religious behavior is not exempt from sinful motivations, but real religion is not done to be seen! Jesus criticizes this regarding our giving (Matt 6:2), our prayers (Matt 6:5), and our fasting (Matt 6:16). He is specific and we should be too.
Do we drop hints about our prayer life to others—just to let them know we’re praying people? Do we make Bible reading deliberately public? Do we pretend to know what we don’t know so others will be impressed by our knowledge? Do we bring up our church attendance so others will be impressed—“Look! How pious he is!” “I’ve read the Bible all the way through five times!” To be sure, none of these things is wrong in itself—neither is having broad phylacteries or large borders—but it is a question of motivation. Real religion—religion that will please God—is not done to be seen. How broad are your phylacteries?
2) Real religion is inside out
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also”(Matt 23:25-26). This is bad dishwashing. The outside of the cup is not nearly as important as the inside—and the same is true of our spiritual lives. An external focus—worrying about how we appear to others and what they’re thinking of us—leads to the dirt accumulating internally. God longs for change to start inside us—“first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish”—as we make the commitment and change in heart to do right. Jesus is in charge—that’s who we want to please—and as we see him call us to make external alterations, we happily do so. Our speech, dress, conduct are recast with a view to his will. If others see this, we are unashamed, but we would do it without their notice. Our devotion to Jesus does not hinge on them—it is inside out! While moral laxity is never acceptable, false motives undermine even flawless morality.
How broad are your phylacteries? Where is our motivation for doing what we do? Would we do it in the closet? Do we need the pats on the back of our fellow-soldiers? Take a look in your heart and see if your life is calculated to impress others—or God.