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GEORGE HOWARD WILKINSON, D.D.
" Woe unto you, scribes I " S. MATT, xxiii. 25. THE chapter from which the text is taken is full of very startling words startling when we remember by Whom they were spoken still more startling when we remember to whom they were addressed. They were uttered by One Who never broke the bruised reed or quenched the smoking flax, Whose tenderness no human words can ever express, Whose boundless love was proved by the death-agony of Gethsemane and the blood-shedding of Calvary. They were addressed to the leaders of the so-called religious world the Pharisees who sat in Moses seat : the great authorities upon every question which con cerned the worship of Jehovah. In all outward observance their punctuality was remarked and admired. None more scrupulous than they in the attendance at public worship. None more exact than they in paying every tax by which the expenses of the sanctuary were to be defrayed, or its ministers supported. Their almsgiving was proverbial ; their liberality unquestioned. The uppermost rooms at feasts and greetings in the public thoroughfares were only a part of the homage which was paid by all to their high character and undoubted respectability.
FORMALISM 63 Imagine, then, the dismay of a member of this class when he approached the meek and lowly Saviour, prepared to accept from Him the honour to which he had been for so many years accustomed. Imagine his dismay as, in the presence of the crowd on whose flattery his very existence depended, he was suddenly addressed in words of withering scorn as a serpent, a viper, a hypocrite " Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites ! " " Ye fools and blind, ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell ? " What is the explanation, then, of this un wonted severity of our Blessed LORD ? Why was the whole tone of His ordinary addresses so entirely altered ? The answer is given in the words of the text. In that solemn sentence the verdict of GOD Almighty is recorded upon the whole race of
Pharisees "Ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter." Oh, awful sarcasm : the outside and nothing else. The heart of these professors was not right with GOD. They responded to the calls of public charity, but no true love for GOD and men reigned in their souls. With reverent mien they said their prayers and then went home to indulge some secret sin, to ruin a troublesome rival, or crush a help less servant, or quietly to rob an orphan child of its inheritance. They unfurled to every breeze the banner of Jehovah that the crowd might admire their loyalty, but in the hidden chambers of their inmost being were D concealed the whole of Satan s outlawed band selfish ness, and coveteousness, and worldliness, and impurity. From this hypocrisy our LORD revolted with the united strength of His human and divine nature. He loathed, as any noble-spirited man would have loathed, such miserable unreality, and yet pitied those wretched creatures tottering on the very brink of eternal
64 THE MESSAGE OF PEACE perdition. He made one last effort to save them from themselves, to reveal the truth to their blinded hearts, to snatch them back from the abyss which was already opening to receive them. And if this failed if the outstretched arm availed not to rescue, at least He would hinder others from following in their steps at least He would unfold to His own people the true character of their self-elected leaders lest they, too, should be involved in the like destruction. So, speaking as One that had authority and casting aside for a time the gentleness of the Redeemer, He uttered His awful denunciation : " Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites ! Ye blind guides ! Ye fools, ye hypocrites ! Ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess." Now there arises a further inquiry. How was it that these Pharisees could descend to such depths of iniquity ? Surely it was right to make clean the exterior, surely they were bound to live the decorous, moral life in which they gloried ? How, then, did it come to pass that the very anxiety to make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter was turned by the great enemy of souls to their destruction, and that which should have been for their health became unto them an occasion of falling ? I will endeavour to answer this inquiry, and it is to this division that I would request your special attention, because upon it will be based the concluding and more practical remarks.
There was, no doubt, a time in the lives of these Pharisees when they were conscious of heavenly aspirations a blessed spring-tide of the soul when refreshing showers descended from on high to quicken the good seed which had been sown in their hearts. In those days they were able to appreciate the beauty
FORMALISM 65 of holiness. In those early years they would have echoed the cry of the ancient seer, " May I die the death of the righteous, and may my last end be like his." They shrank, however, from the sacrifices by which real holiness could be attained. They held back from the free surrender of their heart to GOD. They were afraid of the answer which might be returned if they inquired of their FATHER in heaven, " LORD, what wilt Thou have me to do ? " So Satan took advantage of their indecision, and suggested an easier method by which the favour of heaven could be attained. Under the guidance of this master-teacher of deceit they renounced the rugged pathway of inward selfdenial, and turned into the smoother road of external obedience. Instead of uttering the prayer of the Psalmist whom they professed to admire, " Create in me a clean heart, O GOD, and renew a right spirit within me," they concentrated all their attention upon the outward acts which were required by the standard of the age in which they lived. From that point their downfall was rapid. Their conscience, thus tampered with, soon began to utter deceitful whispers. That which was given to be the light of their souls became darkness, and, verily, the darkness was a darkness which could be felt. In proportion as they received the praise of men for their outward goodness they relaxed their efforts after inward purity. Where the publican would have been startled by the scoff of the world whose feelings he had outraged, the breast of the Pharisee was only stirred by self-complacent pride as he listened to the flatterers by whom he was surrounded. Then came the end the end of utter unmitigated hypocrisy.
66 THE MESSAGE OF PEACE The old phrases were still on their lips. The old forms were still observed. But the spirit which giveth life was gone. They had a name to live, but in the sight
of heaven they were dead. Just as in some foreign capital the crown and the sword of a giant king are preserved, though for centuries no head has been found large enough to wear the crown, no hand of strength sufficient to wield the sword, so was it with those poor Pharisees. In the thronged street, the crown of righteousness was borne before them, and men cried " Rabbi, Rabbi " but theirs were not the heads on which its jewels were first intended to sparkle, they were not the god-like heroes for whom its massive rolls had been moulded. On their foreheads and on the folds of each gorgeous robe might be observed the texts of Scripture ostenta tiously displayed, but their puny hands were powerless to wield that sword of the Spirit, their feeble wills were impotent to wage a god-like warfare against man s triple foe the world, the flesh, the devil. In this alone had they succeeded that they had made clean the outside of the cup and of the platter. Brethren, he who tempted the Pharisees is still near to tempt, and, unless we take good heed, to destroy each one of us. I do not, indeed, imagine GOD forbid that it should be so that any here present has sunk to those depths of degradation which had been reached by these miserable hypocrites. I would rather ask you to stand by their side at an earlier stage in their downward career and inquire whether we have entered upon that road which leads to the ruin in which they were involved. Now, the temptation of compounding for inward sin by correctness of outward conduct will press most heavily upon those who, without any real change of heart, have come to be considered as religious. In a
FORMALISM 67 time of much spiritual earnestness, at a mission, at their Confirmation, after some great sorrow, they have felt the power of GOD, and now they are regarded by their family, their friends, their clergyman, as active, earnest Churchmen or real Gospel Christians, largehearted evangelical Churchmen, or whatever may be the phrase which expresses the approval of the society in which they live. They feel in their own consciences that all is not right with GOD. They have great doubts whether they are really religious, whether they are ready to die and appear before the judgement-seat of CHRIST. Yet they shrink from so humbling themselves as to acknowledge the false foundation on which their spiritual fabric has been raised. Their character for godliness is too precious a possession to be lightly abandoned. So, instead of falling down on their knees and praying GOD Almighty to create in them a clean heart and renew a right spirit
within them, they direct all their efforts to preserving the appearance of goodness, are mere miserable counter feits, so the process goes on very easily and very surely under the crafty guidance of the master spirit of deceit. Conscience is soothed, the still small voice is silenced, and unless the Spirit of GOD arrest their downward course they become at last like whited sepulchres all is well on the outside ; they are fair and spotless in the eye of man. Sunday school teachers, it may be, clergy men, upright men of business, respected and respectable, the backbone of their country for honesty and straight forwardness. But within there is no love for GOD, no warmth of self-sacrifice, no sorrow for sin, no enthusiasm for their LORD, no growing religious life only the cold chill of death, the second death the death of the soul ! But why need I single out one class alone ? Which of us is equally anxious about the opinion of GOD, and that which may be formed by those amongst whom we live ?
68 THE MESSAGE OF PEACE Which of us is struggling with equal care against the sins which only GOD condemns and those which would draw down upon us the contempt of our fellow-men ? Which of us can say that our prayers for grace to subdue our habits of exaggeration our vanity, our nasty temper, our unruly tongue, our pride, our love of money, our indolence, our distrust, our want of charity are uttered with the same earnestness or repeated with the same perseverance as we should manifest if drunkenness or dishonesty or any other of the sins which man condemns were the evils from which we were imploring the Almighty to deliver us ? If this be so, then, beloved in CHRIST, what else are we doing but following in the steps of the Pharisee, bending down with scrupulous attention to make clean the outside, but forgetting the Word of the LORD our GOD, " Thou fool, cleanse first that which is within " ? Let us take warning, then, by the sad history which we have this day considered. Let these solemn de nunciations of JESUS of Nazareth strike terror into our souls as with a lightning flash they reveal to us the abyss into which we, unknown to ourselves, also may be advancing. This day let us humble ourselves at His feet Who died to save us. There where none ever kneel in vain let us lay the heavy burden of the past. Let us tell to Him Who has borne all our sins on the Cross the long sad tale of our wretched unreality. " LORD," so let us pray, " I have been counted a real Christian, and yet my tongue has again and again been defiled with untrue and unloving words. I have been
o considered all my life as a brave man, and yet in my heart I have been a miserable coward, afraid to speak for the LORD Who died for me. I have been proud of my high character, my unblemished name, my Christian
FORMALISM 69 reputation, and yet in Thy sight all my life long I have been breaking the first of all the commandments, l Thou shalt love the LORD thy GOD and thy neighbour as thyself. I never loved Thee. I loved my money, my pleasure, my honourable reputation, but never loved my GOD. I have not loved my neighbour I have been hard and uncharitable in my judgement of my poor fellow-sinners GOD be merciful to me the sinner." Yes, dear brethren, each one for himself and herself, let us pour it into the all-loving ear of Him Who is so ready even at the eleventh hour to receive and bless us ; then, in the strength of His free pardon, let us arise to a nobler and more CmusT-like life. Henceforth let us look at our life not in the mirror of the world in which we live, but in the clear light of GOD S unerring Word. Vain is the opinion of man and vain its soothing subtleness. The eye of the All-seeing is on us. The day is at hand when every secret thought shall be disclosed. Thank GOD if we are respectable and honest and upright and beloved by those whose love we prize, but the day is at hand when we must face Him from Whom no hidden corner of the heart can be con cealed. One is gone, another is even now passing away. Our time is not far distant. O GOD, in mercy create in us a clean heart, renew a right spirit within us. Brethren, pray the LORD by His Agony and bloody sweat, His Cross and Passion, that the sentence of Holy Scripture may never be passed on any of us : " He loved darkness rather than light." " Bind him hand and foot and cast him out into the outer darkness ; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Pray GOD that these words of withering scorn may never be addressed to us : " Poor self-deceiver, thou didst well unto thyself, and all men spoke well of thee. Thou hast spent thy life in making clean the outside of the cup and of the platter."
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