Ye are like unto whited sepulchres–Mat 23:27
The Jewish Background
The imagery of this denunciation would appeal powerfully to a Jewish audience. These whited sepulchres, gleaming in the sun, were a familiar feature in the landscape. You are not to think of them as separate buildings, like the mausoleums of the Romans. They were just caverns cut in the limestone rock, with a great stone set up to close the opening. And once a year these stones were whitewashed, not for the purpose of making them look beautiful, but to warn people that a grave was there, lest they should touch it, and touching, be defiled. Many a time our Lord had wondered at them, when He rambled among the hills at Nazareth. You know how the darkness and the dead men’s bones would stir the imagination of a boy. And now in the glow of His anger at the Pharisees, He sees again those haunting scenes of His youth–”ye are like unto these whited sepulchres, beautiful outwardly, but full of all uncleanness.”
A Figure of the Hypocrite
Now we cannot have a moment’s doubt as to the spiritual meaning of that figure. That figure is enshrined in common speech as perfectly expressive of the hypocrite. The man who is one thing inwardly, another outwardly–who is not really what he seems to be–of such hypocrisy in its most general aspect, I might textually speak here. But I want to get nearer to the text even than that; to seize upon its characteristic feature; to show you how it stands apart amid the many figures of the hypocrite. Now this, I think, is the emphatic thing here–that the Pharisee never shocked nor startled people. He never outraged the feelings of society; never broke through its unwritten laws. Whatever he might be in the sight of God, in the sight of men there was no fault to find. The Pharisee was eminently guilty; he was also eminently respectable. I want then to speak to you upon the subject of respectable sin. I shall do so plainly, and yet I trust in love, as a matter of paramount importance. And I pray God that the result may be that some of us may be led to higher standards, and to set our lives under a wiser scrutiny than that of the society we move in.
Respectable Sins Are Not Secret but Socially Acceptable
Now the first thing I want to say is this, that respectable sin is not just secret sin. I do not mean by respectable sin that sin of which others have got no suspicion. It is true that so long as a man’s sin is secret, he may still keep the respect of the community. If he is cunning enough to hide his shame, he may still pass as a reputable citizen. But the point to note is that that respectability depends upon the keeping of the secret. The moment the sin is trumpeted abroad, the man becomes an alien and an outcast. It is not such sin that is respectable. It is sin that, when known, carries no social stigma. It is sin that a man may openly commit, and yet not forfeit his place in the community. It is sin that is tolerated in general opinion; that is not visited with social ostracism; that does not shut the door in a man’s face of the society in which he loves to move. There are some sins that are socially fatal. If a man commits them he becomes a leper. You never meet him again at honoured tables. His name is struck from honourable clubs. But there are other sins, and in the sight of God these other sins may be every whit as guilty, and yet the men and women who commit them may move in society uncondemned.
We may illustrate this distinction between sins by one of the most remarkable moments in the life of Christ. I refer to the incident of that poor woman of whose shame and misery we read in Joh 8:1-11. They dragged her before Jesus when He was standing in the Temple court. He said never a word, but stooped down, and wrote upon the ground. And then He rose, and spoke a single sentence, and they all went out. They had come there to be the woman’s accusers, and everyone of them went home condemned. They were not sinners as the woman was, for she had broken the barriers of womanhood. They were respectable, and went to synagogue, and violated no rule of society. Yet to Christ, who saw into the heart with eyes that pierced like a flame of fire, these men were further from the kingdom than the woman who lay dishevelled at His feet. “Neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more.” He knew her story and knew how she had been tempted. He was filled with a great pity for the woman–a pity that was mighty to redeem. But for the men who charged her, Christ revealed no pity–they were so cold, so bitter, and so loveless. Hers was the deadly sin of wild passion. Theirs the deadlier sin that was respectable.
The Middle Class Prone to Respectable Sins
I should like also to say this in passing, that this is peculiarly the temptation of the middle classes. No class is so prone to respectable sins as the class to which you and I belong. There are two sections of society which are notorious for their defiant sin. The one is the smart set of fashion; the other the sunken and degraded poor. We have a proverb which says that extremes meet, and certainly in this matter it is so, for it is in our highest and our lowest classes that sin is most reckless and defiant. Have you ever thought why that is so? Well, I shall tell you what is the reason for it. It is not merely that these are the idle classes, ensnared by the perils of the idle. The reason is that in the heights and depths public opinion is almost non-existent; there is no general judgment to be feared: no common sentiment to be considered. No one in the smart set cares a straw about the reputation of its women. No one who is detected thieving is banished from the society of criminals. And it is this absence of a social standard, this lack of a public and controlling judgment, that in the heights and depths of our society makes sin so flaunting and so unashamed. But in the middle classes it is different. There is a certain moral standard there. If a man flout it, he has to suffer for it–to suffer in his business and his family. Hence men who are prudent shrink from open vices, and from things that their class reckons as disgraceful; and the whole power of the devil is employed to tempt them to sins that are respectable.
Christ’s Judgment of the Respectable Sins
Now when we study the earthly life of Jesus, there is one thing that we soon come to see. It is with what terrible and dread severity He judged those sins we call respectable. There is often an element of unexpectedness in the moral judgments of our Saviour. He is sometimes severe where we should have been lenient; He is often lenient where we should be severe. And nowhere is this more remarkable than in His attitude towards actual sins, as He saw them in the streets of Galilee, and in the homes and in the marketplace. All sin was hateful to Jesus Christ, because all sin was rebellion against God. He never condoned sin in any form; never thought of it as the other side of goodness. And yet undoubtedly the sins that stirred Him most were not the sins of passion or of weakness. They were the cold and calculating sins which masqueraded as respectable. Think for example of the Temple traders. Did anyone think the less of them for trading so? Was not that traffic a general convenience, allowed by society without protest? Yet never in all His life was Christ so angry–so filled with a passion of tumultuous scorn–as when He knit His scourge, and drove them forth, and hurled the charge of robber in their teeth. It was not in that way that He spoke to Peter. It was not thus that He had addressed the Magdalene. Toward them, in the whole conduct of the Saviour, there is the throb of unutterable tenderness. But towards the Pharisees and towards the traders I look for any such tenderness in vain. Christ hurled His bitterest and sternest judgments upon the sins of respectability. If that be so there must be reasons for it, for the judgments of Jesus Christ were never arbitrary. I shall therefore, in closing, try to make plain to you why Christ was so severe on respectable sin.
Respectable Sins Can Deaden the Conscience
In the first place, sin that is respectable has an unequalled power of deadening the conscience. In the mirror of the society he moves in, a man sees nothing to alarm or terrify. When you glance at the mirror in the morning, and see the usual signs of health upon your face, you take it for granted, in a general way, that you are in your customary well-being. And so when in the mirror of society a man detects no sign of disapproval, he too is apt to think that all is well. No one around suggests that there is danger; and so the feeling of danger disappears. Others are not shocked by what we do, and so we come not to be shocked ourselves. So is born that deadliest of states, in which we are complacent and self-satisfied; no longer ill at ease with our own selves, because others are not ill at ease with us. Think of the Pharisee and publican in our Lord’s parable. The publican could never forget he was despised. He saw it in the face of every child, in the contemptuous looks of every woman. Wherever he went his sin was mirrored to him in the attitude of every honourable Jew. He tried to disguise what he was from his own heart, but his society stripped his disguise away. His was a disreputable sin, but it was not the most dangerous of sins. There was a warning in every man he met, in every child who drew away from him. Until at last, utterly sick at heart, and with a conscience stabbed into activity, he flung himself upon the Temple floor, crying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Now compare with that, the Pharisee. He had no mirror to show him to himself. There was nothing in the society he moved in to warn him of what he was in God’s sight. He read himself in the respect of others; came quietly to accept the general estimate, until his heart was hard, his conscience deadened, and himself on the verge of being damned. Had his sin cast him out of human fellowship, he never would have been tempted so. Had honourable doors been barred on him he would have soon lost his self-complacency. And so you see his peril lay in this–not in the bare fact that he was sinful; but in the deadening of conscience that had come, because his sin was perfectly respectable.
Respectable Sins Are Pernicious in Their Influence
Then lastly, is this not true of respectable sin, that of all sin it is most pernicious in its influence? I think that Jesus Christ condemned it so, because He was the lover of mankind. There is nothing in the forger to attract us. There is nothing in the drunkard to allure us. When we see vice in all its shame and misery, there is that in it which disgusts us and appalls us. Every profligate with his diseased body, every embezzler with his ruined home, is waving a red danger-flag, and telling us audibly that death is there. But with respectable sin it is quite different. In it there is nothing shocking or disgusting. It has not the look of death upon its face; it has the look of health and prosperity. And what I say is that just on that account it is a thousand times more tempting and alluring than such a sin as drunkenness that reels to a degraded home, or rots upon the pallet of the hospital. That is why Jesus was so hard on it. He saw its untold power to allure. He saw how mightily it would appeal to natures that would turn in loathing from coarse vice. And therefore did He terribly denounce it, out of His great love for foolish men, who are so ready to think that anything is right when they can do it without social censure.