Pharisee and the Tax Collector


JOHN 9:41.—“Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.”

SOME of the most striking and significant teachings of Christ are put into the form of a verbal contradiction. Taking them literally, they not only contain no sense, but are not even self-consistent. Such, for example, is the declaration that “he that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life shall find it.” If we read this text in its connection, so as to understand the intent of our Lord’s teaching, we not only comprehend it, but we perceive that he could not have adopted a more terse and effective mode of conveying his meaning. The apparent and verbal contradiction: “He that finds his life shall lose his life, and he that loses his life shall find his life,” only serves to impress the lesson all the more vividly upon the mind.

The same remark holds true of such sayings as these: “Whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables; because they seeing, see not; and hearing, they hear not.” In these instances, the impressiveness of the truth taught is all the greater, from its being couched in terms that would nonplus a mere verbal critic. For such a critic would begin his analysis and ask: “How can anything be taken away from one who has nothing? How can a man see and not see; how can he hear and not hear; at one and the same time?”

The passage of Scripture which we have chosen for a text is another striking example of the same sort. “Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.” This startling statement had been preceded, and called out, by another equally startling and apparently self-contradictory. For Christ had said to the Pharisees: “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see might be made blind.” Here, if we interpret the language in a bald and literal manner, the Son of God represents his mission to be one of darkness and not of light. He who calls himself the light of the world, here speaks of himself as coming into it, not for the purpose of illuminating the human soul, but of darkening it.

The Pharisees were perplexed by such a statement, and asked: “Are we blind also?” To whom our Lord made the reply: “If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.” That is to say: “If ye Pharisees felt yourselves to be blind; if ye were conscious of your mental darkness; ye would open your hearts to me, the light of the world, and the sin of unbelief, which is the greatest of sins, would no longer be chargeable upon you. But ye are self-satisfied; ye feel no need of my teachings; ye say in the pride of your minds, We see; therefore the sin of unbelief remains and rests upon you.”

We condense the teaching of this passage of Scripture in the proposition, that the sense of sin leads to holiness, and the conceit of holiness leads to sin.

I. In the first place, the sense of sin conducts to holiness, upon the general principle of demand and supply.

We are in the habit of saying, in respect to earthly affairs, that the demand will always create a supply. If one nation requires grain from abroad, another nation will plant, and sow, and reap, to meet the requisition. If America needs certain manufactured fabrics which it cannot well produce, the artisans of Paris and Lyons will toil to furnish them. From year to year, in the world of trade and commerce, the wants of mankind are met by the operation of this principle. Though there may be a temporary dearth, and the demand may go unsupplied for a time, yet this does not continue long. The rise in value stimulates production, and the empty markets are filled again, perhaps to repletion.

The same fact meets us in the operations of Divine Providence.

The goodness of God is over all his works. He opens his hand, and satisfies the desire of every living thing. He gives to the beast his food, and to the young ravens when they cry. The supply equals the demand. This is the ordinary and common course in the physical world, under the government and providence of God. Famines are the exception, and not the rule. Seed-time and harvest fail not from century to century. The demand for food is supplied. And there is no surplus to be wasted. There is a wonderful adjustment between the physical wants of man and the physical objects that meet them. Though harvests of grain wave over the whole globe, and millions of mouths are to be fed, the corn and wheat of the world never falls alarmingly short, and, what is equally remarkable, never rots in large amounts in the granaries.

How wonderful is that eye which sees the end from the beginning, and though there is an infinitude of elements that enter into the problem—millions of hungry mortals, and billions of bushels of grain—yet, as in the instance of the manna, “he that had gathered much had nothing over; and he that had gathered little had no lack.” Under the ordinary care of Providence, every man, in the phrase of Malthus, finds a cover laid for him at the table of nature; and those are the exceptions in which the craving creature is sent empty away; in which the demand is not met by the supply.

Much more is this true within the kingdom of religion and grace.

If God is ready and desirous to meet a demand within the physical sphere; if his benevolence leads him to feed the ravens, and “providently cater for the sparrow;” his mercy and compassion render him still more ready and willing to supply the spiritual wants of his sinful creatures. We do not realize it, and perhaps we do not believe it, but it is a blessed and actual fact that God takes greater pleasure in filling the hungry soul, than the hungry mouth; in feeding the immortal spirit, than in feeding the mortal body.

His declaration is explicit, that he is more willing to give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him, than an earthly parent is to give bread to his children. If there were only a demand upon the part of man for the heavenly food, as urgent and importunate as there is for the earthly food, the supply would be immediately forthcoming, and in infinite abundance. If man craved grace as much as he craves wealth, or honor, the heavens would drop down and dissolve in a rain of righteousness. Were mankind as hungry for holiness and purity as they are for bread; did the human soul pant for God as it does for pleasure and fame; the consequences would astonish men and angels. For no sinful creature, so long as he is under an economy of grace, can come to know his religious necessities without crying out for a supply.

Can a man hunger, without begging for food? Can he thirst, without pleading for water? Neither can a sinner become conscious of his corruption, without praying: “Create within me a clean heart O God, and renew within me a right spirit.” And whenever this is done, it is absolutely certain that the necessities of the soul will be supplied from God, their appropriate source; that the supply will equal the demand.

The promises of God are more explicit and unconditional in respect to heavenly blessings, than in reference to earthly. We are permitted, for example, to pray for our earthly bread, for physical health and strength, for the divine blessing upon our worldly affairs. And there is no doubt that such requests are often granted. But it is not so surely certain that God will answer the prayer for daily bread, as it is that he will answer the prayer for the forgiveness of sin. You may beg God to restore you to health from sickness; to give you competence instead of poverty; and he may see fit not to grant your prayer. But if you put up the publican’s petition: “God be merciful to me a sinner;” if you entreat with David: “Deliver me from blood-guiltiness O God, thou God of my salvation;” you will certainly obtain an answer.

For the forgiveness of sin is a spiritual blessing, and it can never do you any injury to grant it. Your prayer for health or earthly prosperity, if answered, might harm your soul for time and eternity. But there is no danger to your soul in pardoning its sins; and now that Christ has made an atonement for sin, there is no danger to the Divine government in such a remission. You may be uncertain, therefore, whether in the instance of a supplication for temporal blessings you will obtain them; and whenever you put up such a petition, you must couple it with the proviso; “If it seem good unto thee, O God; and if not, then thy will and not mine be done.” But when you ask God to be merciful unto you, and sprinkle your conscience with the blood of Christ; when you beseech him to change your earthly and corrupt nature into his own pure and holy likeness; you need not put in this proviso. For God has expressly informed you that it is always his will that a sinner repent of his sin, and seek the Divine mercy in the blood of Christ; that it is always his desire that the “wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts;” and that he is always inclined to have mercy upon a penitent man, and to abundantly pardon him.

Hear the declaration upon this point, precisely as it stands in the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah. “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” In all this cordial invitation and generous promise, there are no limitations specified. Our merciful God and Saviour does not tell us that he will forgive sin, and sanctify the sinful soul, provided he sees it to be compatible with the attributes of his own nature, with the administration of his government, and with the best interests of the creature so to do. All this is provided for. The death of Christ has already made the pardon of sin compatible with the Divine attributes, and the Divine government; and the pardon of sin never had anything in it that conflicts with the best interests of the sinner.

The invitation is: “Come, for all things are ready.” Having given his Son, God can now with him give all spiritual blessings. The greater includes the less. There are now no limitations, or obstructions, in the way of granting these spiritual gifts to any sinner who wants them; and we may approach the throne of the heavenly grace, and ask for them “without an if or an and.” Whoever goes to God asking, in the name of Christ, such gifts as the remission of sin and the sanctification of his heart, needs put in no proviso. To bestow such gifts as these always promotes the glory of God, and always promotes the eternal welfare of the creature. Therefore this prayer is always heard, if it be presented through the Mediator. “This is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will [i.e., in accordance with his method of salvation in Christ], he heareth us: and if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask [i.e., if we know that our petition belongs to the class that is invariably granted], we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.” 1 John 5:14, 15.

But all this abundant supply supposes a demand. All this free grace postulates a sense of sin. No man can pray this prayer for a spiritual blessing; this prayer which is always answered; this prayer which is not hampered by provisos; unless he hungers for mercy, and hungers for holiness. And he cannot hunger for mercy and holiness unless he feels his destitution. The penitent consciousness of sin is always attended with a spiritual craving; and the spiritual craving always finds the spiritual supply in the gospel; and thus we see the truth of the first part of our proposition, that a sense of sin leads indirectly and ultimately to holiness.

II. We are now ready to show, in the second place, that the conceit of holiness leads to sin.

And here we are met in the very outset with the fact, that a conceit is in its own nature sin. It is self-deception; an imaginary opinion, founded upon no real basis. A conceited man is, in so far, a bad man. His self-flattering opinion may relate to a matter of minor importance, or of major importance—to the features of his face, or the qualities of his character—but just so far as in either instance his judgment is warped and false, there is moral obliquity in him. There is pride; and pride in all its forms is sin.

A conceit of holiness, then, is sin and leads to more sin. The disposition of the Pharisee—the disposition to say, “We see”—is an insuperable obstacle to every good and gracious affection in the heart. Christianity is eminently a religion for the poor in spirit; for those who have no self-flattering confidence. Conceit, therefore, in all its modes and degrees, utterly prevents the rise and progress of holiness within the soul. But more than this, the conceit of holiness exerts a positively corrupting influence upon the heart. Its effect is not merely negative. It not only prevents a man from becoming meek and lowly, but it puffs him up with pride, and fills him with sin.

Let us examine this point somewhat in detail.

Religion is both a matter of the understanding, and of the heart. It consists in a true knowledge of Divine things, and a proper feeling in view of them. Spiritual perception in combination with spiritual emotion constitutes the sum and substance of practical holiness. If either is lacking, or deficient, the character is lacking, or deficient.

What now is the effect of a conceit of holiness upon a man’s knowledge of God and himself? The apostle Paul answers this question very flatly, when he says: “If any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet, as he ought to know.” Self-flattery is fatal to all spiritual discernment. In the first place, it prevents a true knowledge of one’s own heart. The Pharisee who said in his self-complacency: “God I thank thee that I am not as other men are,” was utterly ignorant of his own character. He imagined that he knew everything in respect to himself, but he knew absolutely nothing as he ought to have known. Wrapped up in a false opinion and estimate of his own righteousness, he was not only blind, but utterly impervious to the light.

And in the second place, self-conceit precludes all true knowledge of God. The apostle John tells us, that “he that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.” There must be some holy affinity between the heart of man and the Divine nature, in order that the former may apprehend the latter. And there must be humility also, in order to a spiritual discernment. God repulses a proud intellect. He will not permit it to enter the secret penetralia of his being. He shuts himself up from all haughty scrutiny on the part of his creatures; and the history of human speculation is the record of the baffled attempts of man’s pride of understanding to comprehend the Infinite and Eternal. “To this man will I look, saith the Lord, even to him that is poor, and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.” Whether, therefore, we have reference to the knowledge of self, or to the knowledge of God, we see that a conceit of holiness conducts to sin. That spiritual discernment which is one whole side and phase of holiness is utterly vitiated by it. So long as it exists, a man can know neither himself nor his Maker. And without knowledge religion is impossible.

The other side of holiness consists in the affections of the heart. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself.” The injurious influence of a conceit of holiness upon the emotions is even more apparent than upon the perceptions. Our feelings are shy and retiring, and hence it is more difficult to feel than it is to understand. How often does a man say: “I perceive the truth, but I do not realize it.” And nothing is more deadening to emotion than pride. In everyday life, we observe the hardening effect of this vice. Let man or woman be carried, by prosperity, out of the circles in which pure tastes and moderate desires rule, into the circles of frivolous and ambitious life, and how rapidly do the feelings die out of the soul. The ingenuous and beautiful emotiveness which marked the early life disappears, and a cold, unemotional self-collectedness takes its place. The flush and bloom of the soul is dried up by the arid breath of artificial society; by the “pride of life;” and all that is substituted in the place of it is a thin, hard varnish, or a still harder enamel.

But bad as this is in the social sphere, it is yet worse and more fatal in the province of religion. If you would extinguish all religious sensibility within yourself, become a pharisee. “The leaven,” says our Lord—the characteristic quality—“of the pharisee, is hypocrisy.” Not necessarily deliberate and intentional hypocrisy, but any self-deception, any false conceit or opinion. A man may be hypocritical without deliberately putting on the cloak of false appearances. It is not necessary that he should take a trumpet, and go out into the street and sound the trumpet, and make a long prayer. This is only the extreme of the sin. Any degree of self-complacency, any degree of false estimate of our own character, belongs to the species. So long as I do not smite upon my breast and cry, “God be merciful to me a sinner;” so long as I cherish any grade of self-righteousness, any false conceit of myself; I am pharisaical.

Our Lord undoubtedly intended to make but two general classes, by relating that story of the publican and pharisee; and his searching eye sees in every individual man, either the spirit of the self-righteous or the spirit of the self-condemned. The leaven of the pharisee is the leaven of human nature—the disposition to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, and the indisposition to think soberly, humbly, and truthfully. And this leaven of the pharisee accounts for the absence of religious sensibility which everywhere meets us. So long as this false estimate is characteristic of men, it is impossible for them to feel seriously and tenderly the claims of God, and the plague of the heart. Here, too, as in every other province, pride hardens and deadens the emotions. Here, too, the conceit of holiness, the false self-estimate, leads to sin.

The practical lesson derivable from this text, as thus unfolded, is a plain and serious one.

We learn from it, the necessity of obtaining the sense of sin. Our Lord said to the Pharisees: “For judgment I am come into the world, that they which see not might see, and that they which see might be made blind.” One great purpose of his mission was to make a discrimination of character, by the searching tests which he should apply. If, therefore, we would obtain any eternal benefit from his mission, we must enter into the spirit of it, and work in accordance with it. And the only mode in which we can do this, is to acquire the consciousness of sin. It is our first duty, to become “blind.” So long as we think that we “see,” or say that we “see,” we are out of all saving relations to the gospel, and cannot become Christians.

It was the remark of a thoughtful philosopher, that the beginning and foundation of true science is a willingness to be ignorant. By this he meant, that if the human mind proudly insists upon a perfect comprehension of everything, it will comprehend nothing. He advocated, therefore, a moderate and modest estimate of the powers of the human understanding, an acknowledgment and recognition of the mysteries of religion and of nature, and, generally, a reverent and humble attitude of the mind toward all truth. But with how much more truth can it be said, that the beginning and foundation of religion is a willingness to be ignorant, and poor, and blind, and naked.

Though therefore, the teaching is old and oft-repeated, let us urge it once more upon you, to seek a sense of poverty, of ignorance, and of sin, that you may be prepared for the riches, the knowledge, and the holiness of the gospel. The instant a vacuum is produced, the atmospheric air will rush into it. And the instant any human soul becomes emptied of its conceit of holiness, and of its self-righteousness; the instant it becomes an aching void, and reaches out after something purer and better; it is filled with what it wants.

The sense of sin operates very much like an instinct in the physical world. An instinct is an uneasy feeling of want, that leads to some action or movement. The young bird, for example, that has never yet left the nest, when its wings and feathers have reached the proper point of maturity, begins to be restless. It wants to fly. Instinct, that most mysterious characteristic which the Creator has impressed upon the entire animal world, is drawing the little creature away from the narrow house in which it was hatched, into the wide and boundless firmament of heaven. And it will never be freed from this restlessness, until it actually spreads its wings, and soars away never to come back.

Now, a sense of sin—a true and penitent sense of sin—operates in the same manner. It is a restless and uneasy feeling in the human soul, that leads to some action or movement. It is true that it differs from a healthy physical instinct, in that it is a token of disease, and not of health. The instinct of the little bird, leading it to fly, is a part of its original created nature; a part of that primal creation which God pronounced “good;” while the sense of sin in apostate man results from moral disease, and is indicative of a perversion of man’s original constitution. Still the result is the same, in each instance. The penitent sense of sin fills man with a dissatisfaction with his present condition, and an aspiration after a better one. He becomes weary of the narrow nest of time, and earth, and sense, and sin. He longs to soar out of it, and beyond it, into the firmament of God.

Can you wonder, therefore, that the preacher, in all ages of the Church, has said so much concerning the sense of sin? that he is so constantly urging upon his hearers, the importance and necessity of becoming conscious of the plague of the heart? He knows that when this point is reached, the principal part of the work, so far as his agency is concerned, is accomplished; and that so long as his hearers are destitute of this experience, nothing has been done, and nothing can be done, toward their spiritual welfare. There must be awakened within them a spiritual instinct, an internal uneasiness, a restless craving for something different, and something better. They must cease saying, “We see,” and begin to confess and cry out, “We are blind, and poor, and miserable, and naked, and in want of all things.”

Get, then, a conviction and sense of personal unworthiness before God. Dismiss all other aims and enterprises, and direct your thoughts, and efforts, and prayers, to this one thing. It would be worth the toil of many years, if you could thereby induce into your hearts such a sense of sin as that to which David gives utterance in the fifty-first psalm; to which the publican gave expression when he smote upon his breast, and cried, “God be merciful to me a sinner;” to which the prodigal son gave expression when he said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee.”

The devotee of mammon will toil for years to acquire a fortune; the devotee of art will “scorn delights, and live laborious days,” to become a great painter, or a great sculptor. Each of these men can say: “This one thing I do.” Each of them is a man of one idea. But there is something more important than wealth and art. The everlasting peace and purity of the soul is of infinitely greater moment than any painting or statue, than mountains of gold and silver. And the way to this peace and purity is through the consciousness of corruption. We get the beatific vision, by first becoming “blind.” It is the sense of sin that leads to holiness.

We urge you to become a devotee to this subject, a man of this one idea. Determine to know yourself, whether you know anything else or not. Dare to be ignorant of many things, if thereby you can acquaint yourself with God and be at peace. Toil for a knowledge of your own heart, as you would toil to understand chemistry, if your aspiration were to become a chemist; to understand the Greek language, if it were your ambition to become a Grecian. With what cheering emotions would the people of God, and the angels of God, view such an earnestness upon the part of the unregenerate. How hopeful would the Christian Church become, if it should suddenly discover that men were betaking themselves to the study of their own corrupt natures, and were determined to find out how sinful they actually are in the sight of God.

As an encouragement to this endeavor, we remind you, in conclusion, that in it you may confidently rely upon the aid and influence of the Holy Spirit; upon the teaching and illumination of the Third Person in the Godhead.

Should you propose to yourself to become merely a chemist, or a Greek scholar, or a sculptor, or a millionaire, you would not necessarily rely upon any such aid or influence. You might work with the ordinary powers and faculties of the human soul, sustained by the ordinary power of Divine Providence. A man does not need the supernatural influences of the Holy Ghost, in order to become either learned or wealthy. And too generally scholars and millionaires toil on in their own strength, without even knowing whether there be any Holy Ghost.

But in everything pertaining to religion, and the welfare of the soul, we are entirely dependent upon gracious influences and impressions. And in urging you to this toil and effort to obtain a humble sense of personal unworthiness before God, we say unto you in the language of the apostle: “Work, for it is God that worketh in you.” We remind you of the great and cheering motive which you have to commence the study of your own heart, in the fact that the Holy Spirit is the Searcher of the heart, and his enlightening influences are promised and proffered. Were you to be isolated from God, and to be compelled to acquire this salutary self-knowledge by your own unaided scrutiny, we should have no hope of your succeeding. The human heart is deceitful above all things, and its innumerable devices and self-flatteries would be too much for you. The very heart which is to be searched, and whose corruption is to be discovered, would persuade you that all is well, and that your anxiety is needless, or greatly exaggerated. But God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. He understands the devices and deceits of the human soul, and will conduct every man safely through them who submits to his guidance.

From this time forth, then, scrutinize your personal character, in reliance upon the inward illumination of the truth and Spirit of God. Your first and indispensable work and duty is, in our Lord’s phrase, to become “blind”—to become conscious of mental darkness and ignorance. Christ has “come into the world, that they which see not might see, and that they which see might be made blind.” One would think it to be an easy and a simple matter, to comply with such a requisition. We are not commanded or expected to furnish the light; but merely to become sensible of our darkness. God does not oblige us to create the food by which our souls live, but simply to hunger after it. We have only to open our mouths, and he will fill them. By his prophet he says: “Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it. Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price.”

All spiritual blessings, from first to last, are gifts of God, without any equivalent being expected from us. This knowledge of our hearts, of which we have been speaking, is one of these gratuities. Any man can have it for the asking. If, therefore, any man neglects it, and does not come into possession of it, it is because he dislikes it. He does not want to know his own heart. He prefers to continue in ignorance. And for a soul that desires to remain in the ignorance of sin; that prefers the darkened understanding of the state of nature, to the enlightened mind of the state of grace; there is no hope. If there is no demand, there is no supply. To such a soul must be addressed those solemn words of our Lord: “Light has come into the world; but thou lovest darkness rather than light, because thy deeds are evil.”

William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 225–240.

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