The Sins of the Scribes and Pharisees
Luke 20:45-47
Then in the audience of all the people he said to his disciples,…

The scribes were doctors of the law, who read and expounded the Scripture to the people. They were possessed of the key of knowledge, and occupied the seat of Moses. The Pharisees were a kind of separatists among the Jews, as their name indeed denotes. When Jesus speaks to these men, He no longer wears His wonted aspect. His language is not that of compassion and tenderness, but of stern denunciation. It is important that Jesus should be presented to us under these two aspects, of forgiving mercy and of relentless wrath, in order to stimulate hope and to repress presumption. In the text Jesus proceeds to indicate the grounds of that woe He had denounced upon the scribes and Pharisees. He points out to the people the crimes with which they were chargeable, and the hypocrisy of their conduct. It is worthy of notice that He does not content Himself with speaking to the guilty parties alone. He unveils their character before the face of the world. They were deceiving the people by their pretences, and therefore the people must he warned against them. The same thing is true of all pretenders in religion. Truth and justice, and love for the souls of men, alike demand that such pretences should be made manifest. The first charge adduced against the scribes and Pharisees in the text is, that they shut up the kingdom of heaven against men — that they neither entered into it themselves, nor suffered those who were entering to go in. When the question is put, what methods did they take to accomplish this? the easiest and perhaps the most natural answer would be, that it was by their extraordinary strictness and outward purity. The mass of the people were regarded by them as little better than heathens. They abjured the society of such men; and one special ground of offence against Jesus was, that He did not imitate them in this respect. It might be readily presumed, then, that by such austerities as marked their outward conduct, they rendered religion altogether so repulsive as to deter the common people from inquiring into its claims, rather than to invite them to submit themselves to its authority. Thus, it may be supposed, they shut up the kingdom of heaven against men. It is notorious that such an accusation as this has been always preferred against the pure ministers of a pure religion. The duty of the minister is to declare the truth as he finds it in the Bible, and to act upon the directions he has there received. In thus preaching and acting, however, many may be shut out from the kingdom of heaven; it is not he who has dosed its gates against them, but God Himself. But the supposition is very far from being correct, that the Pharisees were accused of shutting the kingdom of heaven against men by the strictness and austerity to which they pretended. We shall discover the real grounds of the accusation by comparing the text with the parallel passage in the Gospel according to Luke. It is there said (Luke 11:52): "Woe unto you lawyers, for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye enter not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered." The way, then, in which they shut the kingdom of heaven against themselves and others, was by taking away the key of knowledge. In order to this, let us endeavour to ascertain the precise position of the Pharisee, and the place which he assigned to the word of God. Let us observe how he used the key of knowledge, and by what precise instrumentality he shut up the kingdom of heaven against men. The Pharisees did not deny men the use of the Bible. They did not conceal the knowledge of its contents. The people heard it read from year to year in their synagogues. It was explained to them, and their attention solicited to its truths. How, then, could it be said that they had taken away the key of knowledge? The answer to the question is to be found in the fact, not that they withheld the word of God, but that they made the commandment of God of none effect by their tradition. They refused to acknowledge the fact that God is the only teacher and director of His Church. They added to His word instructions of their own. The Divine authority, if it is to be preserved at all, must stand apart from and be superior to all other authority. The claims of God are paramount, and so soon as they cease to be so, they cease to be Divine. In other words, God is no longer God — His worship is rendered vain — and His commandments become of none effect. Thus the key of knowledge is altogether taken away, and the kingdom of heaven is shut against men. The fact that the commandments of men occupied such a place at all vitiated their whole doctrine and worship, deprived men of the key of knowledge, and shut up the kingdom of heaven against them. Such a Church ceased to be a blessing, and had become a curse to the nation. It was a Church not to be reformed, but to be destroyed. It was rotten at the very heart, and nothing remained for it but woe. But the text is pregnant with instruction and admonition to all the professed disciples of Christ. It impresses upon us the doctrine that the kingdom of heaven is opened by knowledge. This is the key that unlocks the celestial gates. We cannot obtain an entrance to it in any other way. The lock will not yield to any other power. Not that all kinds of knowledge are equally available. This is life eternal, to know God and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent. To be ignorant of Christ is to be shut out o! heaven. To know Jesus Christ is to open up the kingdom of heaven. The highest gifts, the most shining acquirements, cannot bring us a footstep nearer heaven. Nothing else avails to open up the kingdom to men but the knowledge of Jesus Christ. From the text also we learn this doctrine, that the ministers of the Church have in a certain sense the power of shutting up the kingdom of heaven against men. They are set up as lights of the world. Their business is to instruct the ignorant. If they neglect the duties or pervert the designs of their office, how are men to acquire the knowledge of the truth? From the doctrines set forth in the text, let us lay to heart the following practical instructions:

1. Let us learn to read the Bible, and to listen to its truths, in the assurance that our eternal destiny depends upon the knowledge of them.

2. Let ministers also learn their proper vocation as porters to the kingdom of heaven, and let them beware of handling the Word of God deceitfully. Let us now proceed to examine the second charge which Jesus brings against the scribes and Pharisees. It is conveyed in these words "Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers; therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation." The crime of the Pharisees was not one, but manifold, and Jesus, in faithfulness, accumulates His charges against them. Lest for a moment they should forget the heinous character of these charges, He recapitulates with each the coming doom which awaited them. This second sin which Jesus charges against the Pharisees is of a very aggravated kind. It is devouring the houses of widows. Not contented with making void the commandments of God, these men were guilty of the most hateful practices. Having usurped a treasonable authority in Divine things, their lives were characterized by acts of atrocious oppression and cruelty. Insinuating themselves into the confidence of the weak and the defenceless, they made their high religious profession a covert for the basest covetousness. They become robbers of the widow and the fatherless. Such wickedness of conduct might have been expected as the sure result of the corruptions they had introduced into the Divine worship. Purity of faith is the surest guardian of integrity of life. In the case of the Pharisees the wickedness was peculiarly hateful. The sin of which they were guilty was devouring houses, or, in other words, involving families in ruin, by appropriating and devouring the substance which belonged to them. But this sin was accompanied with a threefold aggravation. First, the houses they involved in ruin were the houses of widows. Secondly, their sin was yet farther aggravated by being committed under the pretext of religion. They committed robbery under the guise of piety. Thirdly, they made an extraordinary profession of religious zeal. They not only prayed with a view to the more easy perpetration of robbery, but their prayers were long. Widows were their easy dupes. Thus we are directed to one of the marks which indicate the mere pretender to godliness, and by which we shall be able to detect and expose the hypocrite. For the pretender in religion, having necessarily some selfish object in view, and not being animated by a love of the truth, may be expected to turn his profession to the best possible account. And whether for the purpose of gratifying his vanity, of acquiring power and influence, or of increasing wealth, he will always find his readiest instruments in silly and restless women. Hence, too readily, among despisers of religion, the reproach has been taken up against the true and living Church, that its most active promoters, and most zealous adherents, are women, and that the prayers of its members are only for a pretence. Surely it would be to infer rashly to conclude, that because the ministers or members of a Church were signalized by fervent and frequent prayer, and because devout and honourable women, not a few, were among its most zealous friends, such a Church was guilty of the Pharisaic crime, and justly lay under the reproach and the woe denounced in the text. Let us examine and see. No one can read the personal history of Jesus without perceiving how, in the days of His earthly ministry, He had among His most honoured and endeared disciples devout women not a few, whose rich gifts He did not despise, and whose devoted love He did not spurn. Who was it that blamed the expenditure of a very precious box of ointment? Is it, on the other hand, an unfailing mark of a hypocrite to make long prayers? Doubtless there have been many, in every age, who have assumed the form of godliness while denying its power, who have drawn near to God with the mouth, and honoured Him with the lips, while their hearts have been far from Him. But if hypocritical pretenders affect this devotion, is it not an evidence that prayer is the proper and true life Of the believer? Why should the Pharisee pretend to it, if the religious propriety .of the thing itself were not felt and acknowledged? The hypocrite does not affect that which does not essentially belong to godliness. Jesus did not accuse the Pharisees, and pronounce a woe upon them, because they received the support of women, even of widows, nor because of the frequency or length of their prayers. Abstracted, however, from the peculiar circumstances and aggravations with which the sin was accompanied in the actual practice of the Pharisees, the thing condemned in the text is, prayer which is uttered only in pretence, and prayer which has a selfish and worldly end in view. Widows were the objects against whom the Pharisees put in practice their artful hypocrisy. But it is obvious that whosoever may be the objects of the deception, the essential character of the sin remains the same. Nor is the nature of the sin affected by the extent of the pretended devotion. The pretence is the thing blameworthy. It is true the sin becomes more heinous in proportion to the height of the profession, and the Pharisees are worthy of greater damnation, because they not only pretended to devotion, but to very high flights of it. Leaving out of view, however, such aggravating circumstances as these, that their prayer was long, and that the widows and the fatherless were their prey, we have the essential character of the sin set before us, as at least worthy of damnation, namely, making a profession of religion for the purpose of advancing worldly interests, and securing the ends of earthly ambition. The Pharisees of our day, then, who lie under the woe pronounced by Jesus, are —

1. Those ministers who enter upon and continue in their office for a piece of bread. The most pitiable being among all the afflicted sons of humanity is he who has assumed the holy office of the ministry for the sake of worldly ends and objects.

2. But the Pharisaic crime is by no means limited to ministers. Those people are guilty of it, in whatever position they are placed, who, for the sake of good repute, from fear of worldly loss, or from the desire of worldly gain — or who, actuated by any earthly or selfish motive whatever, make profession of a religion which they do not believe. We have yet to examine a third charge which Jesus brings against the scribes and Pharisees. He accompanies the recital of it with a denunciation of the same woe he had already twice invoked upon them. "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves." The apostles of deceit and falsehood have often manifested a zeal in the propagation of their principles which is fitted to minister a severe reproof to those who know and who believe the truth. This does not arise from the circumstance that the apostles of error are possessed of more energy and activity of mind than the friends of truth, but because they have frequently a more hearty interest in the advancement of their cause. Let there be an opening for worldly advancement, and the gratification of worldly ambition, and the way is crowded with rival and eager candidates. There is no remissness of effort among them. The conquests of early Christianity were rapid and wide, because its apostles had strong faith and untiring zeal. From what has been stated, it will be manifest that it is not the fact of making proselytes or converts against which the woe of Christ is denounced. This, on the contrary, is the great duty which He has laid upon all His disciples; and the illustrious reward He hath promised to the work is, that they who turn many to righteousness shall shine as the stars for ever and ever. A church is doing nothing if it be not making proselytes. It is a dead trunk ready for the fire. They did not care to make their converts holier and better and happier men. They made them twofold more the children of hell than themselves. It was enough that they assumed the name and made the outward profession. It will be instructive to examine for a little the methods they adopted for preserving their influence, extending their power, and crushing the truth.We will thus be able to understand more perfectly the grounds of the condemnation pronounced against them, and how their zeal should have produced such fruits.

1. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to John we find the record of a miraculous work of Jesus, in opening the eyes of a man who had been blind from his birth. The Pharisees became aware that such a miracle had been wrought, and with great propriety made immediate and diligent inquiry into the reality of the fact. The means, then, by which they sought to quench the truth — to induce a denial of the manifest power of God, and to retain the people as their proselytes and followers — were to bring against Jesus the accusation of breaking the law of the land. He who did so, they argued, must be a sinner — he could not come from God, and to follow him would be certain destruction.

2. Throughout the narratives of the evangelists there are scattered abundant evidences of another instrument of proselytizing employed by the Pharisees. It is the language of reviling and scorn. They ridiculed the poverty of the disciples. Doubtless by such reviling and mockery they might attain a certain measure of success.

3. Another instrument of the Pharisees for making and retaining proselytes, was misrepresentation and calumny. They watched the words of Jesus that they might have something to report to His disadvantage.

4. The Pharisees made converts by force. They took up the weapons of persecution and vigorously employed them. The charge as expressed, pronounces woe against them, because of their great zeal in making proselytes, and because of the lamentable results which followed upon their conversion.

(W. Wilson.).

Parallel Verses
KJV: Then in the audience of all the people he said unto his disciples,

WEB: In the hearing of all the people, he said to his disciples,

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