"What's in Your Phylactery?"
November 8, 2023, 6:00 AM

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach… They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. Matthew 23:5

St. Francis had no use for braggarts. He lived among the humble of the earth. Jesus also had no use for those who thought themselves better than others and claimed special access to God. In speaking of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus called out the emptiness of what they did. They said the correct things, and Jesus advised follow what they teach. However, he also said, do not do as they do since they are not practicing what they teach.

The wearing of broad phylacteries and long fringes on their prayer shawls exhibited high status in Jewish culture. For Jesus, this simply highlighted their misguided endeavors. Matthew 23:5 is the only passage in Scripture that mentions phylacteries, and is the only one where Jesus critiques this custom.

Historically, phylactery meant “protection or defense.” Modern day Judaism would call these tephillin or “prayer-bands.” Phylacteries were small leather-cased boxes that contained four passages – one passage was from Exodus as a reminder of being delivered from Egypt, and the other three passages were reminders of the commandment to love God with heart and mind while wearing them as symbols. The phylacteries were frequently worn on the forehead, or on the forearm affixed with leather straps. They reminded the wearer of their role in prayer, but also became an object that drew attention (think tattoos, today).

There appears to be nothing inherently wrong in wearing phylacteries. It is with the underlying attitude of those wearing the phylacteries that Jesus took issue. Ritualizing prayer as the Sadducees and Pharisees did, never made them closer to God. When obsessed with doing prayer in a “right” manner, they lost connection with the loving heart of God. They forgot that God could not be bought by action.


Connection and approval do not come by doing things in a” special” manner or form. Prayer helps us move with God throughout the day by creating and sustaining a thread-like connection in our awareness about God. Such thread-like connections lead us to act compassionately toward other people.


While we rarely see people using phylacteries today, many people still routinely pray as the Pharisees and Sadducees do – repeating words over and over again hoping that God will hear them while creating a show in front of others. When caught up in a habit of trying to be good through self-effort before others, it is difficult to transmit the love of God. Perfectionistic ritual becomes the enemy of both the good and the beautiful.


The original goal of the phylacteries was to love God with heart and mind – not ritual. If we find ourselves rigidly locked in prayer and going nowhere, we might want to throw away our self-designed phylacteries, and become once again open to the freedom in prayer that Jesus taught.




Fr. John


A Prayer for Walking in a World of War & Chaos – James Finley


Dear God,


We thank you for the gift our desire to be clearer and more intimate

in our awareness of your intimacy with us – an intimacy that sustains us breath by breath by breath.


We thank you for the desire to not break the thread of our connectedness

with you as we go through the day, facing what we need to face, and

walking humbly through what we need to walk.


We are interiorly moved by your grace to reach out and touch the

hurting places with love until only love is left. May we be patient with this reaching out.

May we be childlike – open and faithful to this mysterious

process in which we incarnate your healing presence in the midst of our lives.


We ask this through Jesus the Christ. Amen.