Matthew xvi.3. Oh ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?
It will need, I think, some careful thought thoroughly to understand this text. Our Lord in it calls the Pharisees and Sadducees hypocrites; because, though they could use their common sense and experience to judge of the weather they would not use them to judge of the signs of the times; of what was going to happen to the Jewish nation.
But how was their conduct hypocritical? Stupid we might call it, or unreasonable: but how hypocritical? That, I think, we may see better, by considering what the word hypocrite means.
We mean now, generally, by a hypocrite, a man who pretends to be one thing, while he is another; who pretends to be pious and good, while he is leading a profligate life in secret; who pretends to believe certain doctrines, while at heart he disbelieves them; a man, in short, who is a scoundrel, and knows it; but who does not intend others to know it: who deceives others, but does not deceive himself.
My friends, such a man is a hypocrite: but there is another kind of hypocrite, and a more common one by far; and that is, the hypocrite who not only deceives others, but deceives himself likewise; the hypocrite who (as one of the wisest living men puts it) is astonished that you should think him hypocritical.
I do not say which of these two kinds is the worse. My duty is to judge no man. I only say that there are such people, and too many of them; that we ourselves are often in danger of becoming such hypocrites; and that this was the sort of people which the Pharisees for the most part were. Hypocrites who had not only deceived others, but themselves also; who thought themselves perfectly right, honest, and pious; who were therefore astonished and indignant at Christ's calling them hypocrites.
How did they get into this strange state of mind? How may we get into it?
Consider first what a hypocrite means. It means strictly neither more nor less than a play-actor; one who personates different characters on the stage. That is the one original meaning of the word hypocrite.
Now recollect that a man may personate characters, like a play- actor, and pretend to be what he is not, for two different objects. He may do it for other people's sake, or for his own.
1. For other people's sake. As the Pharisees did, when they did all their works to be seen of men; and therefore, naturally, gave their attention as much as possible to outward forms and ceremonies, which could be seen by men.
Now, understand me, before I go a step further, I am not going to speak against forms and ceremonies. No man less: and, above all, not against the Church forms and ceremonies, which have grown up, gradually and naturally, out of the piety, and experience, and practical common sense of many generations of God's saints. Men must have forms and ceremonies to put them in mind of the spiritual truths which they cannot see or handle. Men cannot get on without them; and those who throw away the Church forms have to invent fresh ones, and less good ones, for themselves.
All, I say, have their forms and ceremonies; and all are in danger, as we churchmen are, of making those forms stand instead of true religion. In the Church or out of the Church, men are all tempted to have, like the Pharisees, their traditions of the elders, their little rules as to conduct, over and above what the Bible and the Prayer-book have commanded; and all are tempted to be more shocked if those rules are broken, than if really wrong and wicked things are done; and like the Pharisees of old, to be careful in paying tithe of mint, anise, and cummin, the commonest garden herbs, and yet forget the weighty matters of the law, justice, mercy, and judgment. I have known those who would be really more shocked at seeing a religious man dance or sing, than at hearing him tell a lie. But I will give no examples, lest I should set you on judging others. Or rather, the only example which I will give is that of these Pharisees, who have become, by our Lord's words about them, famous to all time, as hypocrites.
Now you must bear in mind that these Pharisees were not villains and profligates. Many people, feeling, perhaps, how much of what the Lord had said against the Pharisees would apply to them, have tried to escape from that ugly thought, by making out the Pharisees worse men than our Lord does. But the fact is, that they cannot be proved to be worse than too many religious people now-a-days. There were adulterers, secret loose-livers among them. Are there none now-a- days? They were covetous. Are no religious professors covetous now-a-days? They crept into widows' houses, and, for a pretence made long prayers. Does no one do so now? There would, of course, be among them, as there is among all large religious parties, as there is now, a great deal of inconsistent and bad conduct. But, on the whole, there is no reason to suppose that the greater number of them were what we should call ill-livers. In that terrible twenty- third chapter of St. Matthew, in which our Lord denounces the sins of the Scribes and Pharisees, he nowhere accuses them of profligate living; and the Pharisee of whom he tells us in his parable, who went into the Temple to pray, no doubt spoke truth when he boasted of not being as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers. He trusted in himself that he was righteous. True. But whatever that means, it means that he thought that he was righteous, after a fashion, though it proved to be a wrong one. What our Lord complains of in them is, first, their hardness of heart; their pride in themselves, and their contempt for their fellowmen. Their very name Pharisee meant that. It meant separate -- they were separate from mankind; a peculiar people; who alone knew the law, with whom alone God was pleased: while the rest of mankind, even of their own countrymen, knew not the law, and were accursed, and doomed to hell. Ah God, who are we to cast stones at the Pharisees of old, when this is the very thing which you may hear said in England from hundreds of pulpits every Sunday, with the mere difference, that instead of the word law, men put the word gospel.
For this our Lord denounced them; and next, for their hypocrisy, their play-acting, the outward show of religion in which they delighted; trying to dress, and look, and behave differently from other men; doing all their good works to be seen of men; sounding a trumpet before them when they gave away alms; praying standing at the corners of the streets; going in long clothing, making broad their phylacteries, the written texts of Scripture which they sewed to their garments; washing perpetually when they came from the market, or any public place, lest they should have been defiled by the touch of an unclean thing, or person; loving the chief seats in their religious meetings, and the highest places at feasts; and so forth, -- full of affectation, vanity, and pride.
I could tell you other stories of their ridiculous affectations: but I shall not. They would only make you smile: and we could not judge them fairly, not being able to make full allowance for the difference of customs between the Jews and ourselves. Many of the things which our Lord blames them for, were not nearly so absurd in Judea of old, as they seem to us in England now. Indeed, no one but our Lord seems to have thought them absurd, or seen through the hollowness and emptiness of them: -- as he perhaps sees through, my friends, a great deal which is thought very right in England now. Making allowance for the difference of the country, and of the times, the Pharisees were perhaps no more affected, for Jews, than many people are now, for Englishmen. And if it be answered, that though our religious fashions now-a-days are not commanded expressly by the Bible or the Prayer Book, yet they carry out their spirit: -- remember, in God's name, that that was exactly what the Pharisees said, and their excuse for being righteous above what was written; and that they could, and did, quote texts of Scripture for their phylacteries, their washings, and all their other affectations.
Another reason I have for not dwelling too much on these affectations; and it is this. Because a man may be a play-actor and a self-deceiver in religion, without any of these tricks at all, and without much of the vanity and pride which cause them. For recollect that a man may act for his own amusement, as well as for other people's. Children do so perpetually, and especially when no one is by to listen to them. They delight in playing at being this person and that, and in living for a while in a day-dream. Oh let us take care that we do not do the same in our religion! It is but too easy to do so. Too easy; and too common. For is it not play- acting, like any child, to come to this church, and here to feel repentance, feel forgiveness, feel gratitude, feel reverence; and then to go out of church and awake as from a dream, and become our natural selves for the rest of the week, till Sunday comes round again; comforting ourselves meanwhile with the fancy that we had been very religious last Sunday, and intended to be very religious next Sunday likewise?
Would there not be hypocrisy and play-acting in that, my friends?
Now, my dear friends, if we give way to this sort of hypocrisy, we shall get, as too many do, into the habit of living two lives at once, without knowing it. Outside us will be our religious life of praying, and reading, and talking of good things, and doing good work (as, thank God, many do whose hearts are not altogether right with God, or their eyes single in his sight) good work, which I trust God will not forget in the last day, in spite of all our inconsistencies. Outside us, I say, will be our religious life: and inside us our own actual life, our own natural character, too often very little changed or improved at all. So by continually playing at religion, we shall deceive ourselves. We shall make an entirely wrong estimate of the state of our souls. We shall fancy that this outward religion of ours is the state of our soul. And then, if any one tells us that we are play-acting, and hypocrites, we shall be as astonished and indignant as the Pharisees were of old. We shall make the same mistake as a man would, who because he always wore clothes, should fancy at last that his clothes were himself, part of his own body. So, I say, many deceive themselves, and are more or less hypocrites to themselves. They do not, in general, deceive others; they are not, on the whole, hypocrites to their neighbours. For their neighbours, after a time, see what they cannot see themselves, that they are play-acting; that they are two different people without knowing it: that their religion is a thing apart from their real character. A hundred signs shew that. How many there are, for instance, who are, or seem tolerably earnest about religion, and doing good, as long as they are actually in church, or actually talking about religion. But all the rest of their time, what are they doing? What are they thinking of? Mere frivolity and empty amusement. Idle butterflies, pretending to be industrious bees once in the week.
Others again, will be gentle and generous enough about everything but religion; and as soon as they get upon that, will become fierce, and hard, and narrow at once. Others again (and this is most common) commit the very same fault as the Pharisees in the text, who could use their common sense to discern the signs of the weather, and yet could not use it to discern the signs of the time, because they were afraid of looking honestly at the true state of public feeling and conscience, and at the danger and ruin into which their religion and their party were sinking. For about all worldly matters, these men will be as sound-headed and reasonable as they need be: but as soon as they get on religious matters, they become utterly silly and unreasonable; and will talk nonsense, listen to nonsense, and be satisfied with nonsense, such as they would not endure a moment if their own worldly interest, or worldly character, were in question.
But most of all do these poor souls not deceive their neighbours when a time of temptation comes upon them. For then, alas! it comes out too often that they are of those whom our Lord spoke of, who heard the word gladly, but had no root in themselves, and in time of temptation fell away. For then, before the storm of some trying temptation, away goes all the play-acting religion; and the man's true self rises up from underneath into ugly life. Up rise, perhaps, pride, and self-will, and passion; up rise, perhaps, meanness and love of money; up rise, perhaps, cowardice and falsehood; or up rises foul and gross sin, causing some horrible scandal to religion, and to the name of Christ; while fools look on, and, laughing an evil laugh, cry, -- 'These are your high professors. These are your Pharisees, who were so much better than everybody else. When they are really tried, it seems they behave no better than we sinners.'
Oh, these are the things which make a clergyman's heart truly sad. These are the things which make him long that all were over; that Christ would shortly accomplish the number of his elect, and hasten his kingdom, that we, with all those who are departed in the true faith of his holy name, may rest in peace for ever from sin and sinners.
Not that I mean that some of these very people, in spite of all their inconsistency, will not be among that number. God forbid! How do we know that? How do we know that they are one whit worse than we should be in their place? How do we know, above all, that to have been found out may not be the very best thing that has happened to them since the day that they were born? How do we know that it may not be God's gracious medicine to enable them to find themselves out; to make them see themselves in their true colours; to purge them of all their play-acting; and begin all over again, crying to God, not with the lips only, but out of the depth of an honest and a noble shame, as David did of old -- Behold I was shapen in wickedness, conceived in sin, and I have found it out at last. But thou requirest truth in the inward parts, in the very root and ground of the heart, and not merely truth in the head, in the lips, and in the outward behaviour. Make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it thee: but thou delightest not in burnt-offerings. The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit, as mine is now. A broken and a contrite heart, ground down by the shame of its own sin, that, O God, thou wilt not despise.
And then -- when that prayer has gone up in earnest, and has been answered by the gift of a clean heart, and of a right spirit, which desires nothing but to be made clean and made right, to learn its duty and to do it -- then, I say, that man may go back safely and freely, to such forms and ceremonies, as he has been accustomed to, and have been consecrated by the piety and wisdom of his forefathers. For, says David, though forms and ceremonies, sacrifice and burnt-offering cannot make any peace with God, yet I am not going to give up forms and ceremonies, sacrifice and burnt- offerings. No. When my peace is made, when the broken and the contrite heart has put me in my true place again, and my heart is clean, and my spirit right once more; then, he says, will God be pleased with my sacrifices, with my burnt-offerings and oblations; because they will be the sacrifice of righteousness, of a righteous man desiring to shew honour to that God from whom his righteousness comes, and gratitude to that God to whom he owes his pardon.
And so with us, my friends, if ever we have fallen, and been pardoned, and risen again to a new, a truer, a more honest, a more righteous life. Our forms of devotion ought then to become not a snare and a hypocrisy, but honest outward signs of the spiritual grace which is within us; as honest and as rational as the shake of the hand to the friend whom we truly love, as the bowing of the knee before the Queen for whom we would gladly die.
O may God give us all grace to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. To seek first the kingdom of God; to work earnestly, each in his place, to do God's will, and to teach and help others to do it likewise. To seek his righteousness, which is the righteousness of the heart and spirit: and then all other things will be added to us. All outward forms and ceremonies, ways of speaking, ways of behaving, which are good and right for us, will come to us as a matter of course; growing up in us naturally and honestly, without any affectation or hypocrisy, and the purity and soberness, the reverence and earnestness of our outward conversation, will be a pattern of the purity and soberness, the reverence and earnestness, which dwells in our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God.