Phylactery Vanity

Somewhere floating in my childhood memory is a story I recall about a great grandpa of mine.  He was said to have been such a “teetotaler” (one who abstains from alcohol) that he would cross the street and walk on the other side in order to avoid having to walk in front of a pub, claiming everyone who drank Budweiser beer was damning their souls to hell.  The humorous part of the story was that he insisted on having BUD brand syrup on his pancakes every Sunday morning, never having made the connection that the syrup was made by Anheuser Busch.  It was a very popular syrup during the Prohibition!

I may be getting the story mixed up with the man, but am almost certain this was the same great grandpa I remember hearing was downright mean, abusive in many ways, and not expressing much love or kindness in his life.

I thought of this story not too long ago as I was reading through Matthew chapter 23.  Jesus was speaking to the multitudes and to his disciples, essentially telling them to do as the Pharisees said, not as they did (verse 3), as they “tie up heavy loads and lay them on men’s shoulders; being unwilling themselves to move them with so much as a finger” (verse 4).  Jesus went on in verse 5 to explain all of their deeds were done to be noticed by men, “broadening their phylacteries and lengthening the tassels of their garments”.  The word phylacteries caught my attention, so I decided to look it up.

I learned that a phylactery in Judaism waseitheroftwosmall,black,leathercubescontainingapieceofparchmentinscribedwithverses4–9ofDeuteronomy chapter 6, as well as with Deuteronomy 11:13–21and Exodus chapter 13.    Here is the first of those:

‘”Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your Godwith all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. ‘ Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (emphasis mine).

The sad thing for the Pharisees was they were so intent on gaining the praise of men rather than of God, that outwardly keeping every letter of the law became a show, and they completely missed the point of the spirit of the law that was being taught.  Just like the stories of my great grandpa appear to confirm, these inscriptions never seemed to make it from the head to the heart.  The letter without the Spirit (capital S, for Holy Spirit) brings death, not life.  The Lord knew, too, that apart from teaching these things diligently to our children, we are but one generation away from abandoning Him and all the blessings that come not just to us as individuals but also to our nation as well.

With this week being traditionally recognized as Holy Week, I saw a social media post noting that it is easy to forget how quickly a people can go from waving palms that usher in a King to driving nails that crucify a Savior, with the King and the Savior being One in the same.  So true!  Let’s take a moment to reflect and remember, to ask God to emblazon His Word upon our hearts, that He might exchange hearts of stone for hearts of flesh.  Yes, we ask that He will once again bless our nation, but more than that, we ask that He will be our God, and that we will love Him passionately and not be so caught up in gaining the praise of men that we miss the point of living!

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