Illustration by Phil Younk
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Focus on the heart of Jesus

Based on the Gospel of Matthew 23:1-12

What are phylacteries? Jesus uses this word in this Sunday’s Gospel. It refers to small leather boxes or jewelry pieces containing tiny vellum scrolls of the Torah worn by Jewish men on the forehead and on the left arm at the height of the heart. They were attached to head or arm by strips of cloth. The phylacteries had to be worn by every Jewish man during his morning prayer as a reminder to keep the law.

This chapter of Matthew’s Gospel deals with Jesus’ argument against the hypocrisy of the religious authorities. Some of the Pharisees noticeably wore larger phylacteries to call attention to themselves as the self-proclaimed elite of the country who studied the Scriptures and dedicated themselves to fulfilling every detail of Jewish law. They considered themselves superior to the rest of the population and humiliated others to perpetuate their superiority. Their arrogance led people astray and away from a true relationship with God.

Not all of the Pharisees were like the ones Jesus accuses in this Sunday’s Gospel of not practicing what they preach. Many of them were sincere in their religious practices and good men.

In the past few weeks we have witnessed several encounters between Jesus and some of the Pharisees. They tried to trick Jesus and to humiliate and discredit him. They refused to accept him.

Jesus tells the crowds and his disciples, “Listen to what the Pharisees tell you and do what they say, but don’t imitate what they do. What they say in words they don’t do – they don’t practice what they preach. They tell everyone what the law says everyone should do, but they don’t do it themselves. Full of pride, they think they are more important than others. Don’t follow their example. God alone is important and you must always be ready to serve him and others.”

Jesus says, “The one who is the greatest is the one who serves the rest.” A “great servant” is one who sees what needs to be done and gives the necessary help. And, a “great servant” doesn’t make a big show of what he’s doing or put himself in the spotlight. God offers us many ways to serve others with love.

During the past few weeks we’ve talked about loving and serving God and others. Jesus is our model. Discipleship is more than just obeying a set of rules. We need to ponder Jesus’ words and to reflect on his life and teachings to arrive at principles and values that were behind everything Jesus said and did. Our focus should not be simply on a system of rules but on the heart of Jesus.