Pilate Washing His Hands.
"Pilate . . . took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. "—matt, xxvii. 24.
ILATE'S motives in surrendering Jesus to death were as plain as they were paltry. He had no fear that any danger to Rome would result from Christ. The characteristic Roman contempt for ideas and ideals which speaks in his cynical question, " What is truth ?" led him to look with a kind of almost amused pity at a man whom he thought of as a mere harmless enthusiast. He knew his subjects too well to suppose that they would have been so eager to surrender an effective leader of revolt, and he detected the personal "malice" which lay behind their newborn and suspicious loyalty. Then personal motives came in. He feared being accused at Rome. And so, for his own security, he stifled his conscience, resisted his wife's warnings, and gave up Jesus to their will. The death of one Jew was a trifle if he could keep his ticklish charge in good-humour. That was his sin. He knew that Christ's death would be murder. He knew that he was art and part in it. And yet he took the basin and washed his hands before the howling mob. In vain !" All the perfumes of Araby could not whiten that hand," and his impotent effort to cast off responsibility only witnessed to his consciousness of it.
So this saying of his and his deed may suggest to us some wholesome thoughts.
I.—The first point to notice is the vain plea for wrongdoing.
Pilate excused himself to himself on the ground that policy and self-defence forced him to his act. He could say " I am innocent" because he said, " I am obliged to connive at this crime." Though in his case the plea is for a gigantic sin, and in our cases it may be for a comparatively small one, the same sort of thing is being said by us continually. Nothing is more common than for a man to say to himself, " Well, I am very sorry, I could not help myself. I was forced into it by the exigencies of my position. Circumstances required it. This, that, and the other desirable thing, as it seems to me, could not be got without a little straining of what is right, and a little yielding to the force of men or things round about me. And so it is really the cruel circumstances in which I was placed, far more than myself, that ought to be condemned as responsible for this deed of mine."
Well, now, dear friends, it is a very plain and threadbare and commonplace piece of morality, but it needs to be reiterated over and over again—there is nothing necessary for a man, which he can only get or keep by tampering with conscience. There are two things needful for us: God and righteousness; and there is no third. With these we have what we need; without them, we have not. And nothing is worth the buying for which we have to part with absolute adherence to the law of right.
You remember the quaint story of the man in the dock who said to the judge, "It is necessary that should live," and was answered, "I do not see the necessity." No, there is not a necessity for living, if we have to sin in order to live. It is better to die. The one thing needful is "to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever." And so Necessity, which is sometimes said to be "the tyrant's plea," is the coward's plea as well; and the weakling's plea.
And in another way, the pleading of compulsion from without, as an excuse for evil, is evidently vain; because no man and no thing can force us to do wrong. We know, in each specific case, that, however strong the temptation may have been, we could have resisted it if we would, and that therefore the yielding to it was our act and ours only.
Therefore let no man say, "I had to yield to popular clamour. I was overborne by the rush of general opinion. Everybody else thought so, and, therefore, I had to say so." That is the crying sin that besets public men and aspirants after public positions, in a democratic country like ours. And this last fortnight* has let us see, in many places, examples of it, of men paltering with convictions, and stretching to the breaking point their conceptions of right, because they thought that they would gain favour thereby. I am not speaking about this man or that man, about this party or that party, but I am taking a modern instance illustrating an ancient saw. Pilate's sin has been committed in England these last few days over
* This sermon was preached after a General Election.
and over again. "The people would have it so; and I said it, and I did it."
But it is not only statesmen and politicians and officials and other men who live by the breath of popular favour and appreciation that are in danger from such a shabby excuse as this. It applies to us all. Therefore, let us fix it firmly in our hearts that if once we admit considerations of expediency, or of the pressure of circumstances, or of personal advantage, to modify our conceptions of duty, we have embarked on a voyage on which there is nothing before us but shipwreck.
The compasses on board iron vessels get unreliable, and need to be rectified. If a man once allows the iron mass of popular opinion, or of apparently compelling circumstances, to touch his conscience, then it is deflected from the pole of right. One thing only is to be our guide, and that is the plain, simple dictate of imperative duty, which alone is essential for the blessedness of our lives.
If we want to keep firm to that stern adherence to the loftiest conception of conduct, and to obey duty, and not inclinations or apparent necessity, there is only one effectual way of doing it, and that is to live in close and constant touch with Jesus Christ, who pleased not Himself; and to whom nothing was necessary, except that He should do the will of the Father that sent Him, and finish His work.
II.—Then, secondly, notice here the possibility of entire self-deception.
This man had managed to persuade himself, on a very rotten plea, as I have tried to suggest, that he was entirely free from guilt in his act. And the fact that the man who did the most awful of crimes— though perhaps he was not the most guilty—could do it with the profession, to some extent sincere, of innocence, may teach us very solemn lessons.
You can persuade yourself that almost any wrong thing is right, if only you desire to do so. Conscience is no separate faculty dwelling in a man, irrespective of the moral condition of the man, and acting as if it were apart altogether from the rest of him. What we call conscience is only the whole man judging the moral character of his doings. And so its judgments vary according to his whole character. It is no inflexible standard, like the golden measuring-rod of the angel, but a leaden rule which may be bent, curtailed, and tampered with in many different ways. You can lash the helm to one side of the ship, and keep it fast there, if .you like. Will can silence conscience, and say, " Hold your tongue!" and it obeys to a very large extent. Inclination can silence conscience. We all
"Compound for Bins we are inclined to
By damning those we have no mind to."
The rush of passion can silence conscience. A whisper is not audible amidst the roar of Niagara. True, it speaks afterwards and says to us, "Now you shall listen!" But then that is too late. The very stress of daily life tends to weaken the power of pronouncing moral judgment on the things that we are doing. Scientists tell us that aneroid harometers will correspond with mercurial ones a great deal more closely in the observatory than they do on the field or mountain side. So, conscience will coincide with the absolute law of right a great deal more accurately when there is no stress of temptation or of daily work to perturb it. And thus it comes about that it is possible for us to be breathing a poisonous atmosphere, and to have our lungs so habituated to the carbonic acid that we do not know how foal it is, till we get out into purer air and take a deep breath of it. We all have sins altogether unsuspected by ourselves.
Therefore the acquittal of conscience is no sign of the acquittal of God. "I have nothing against myself," said Paul, in reference to his official tasks; "yet am I not hereby justified, but He that judgeth me is the Lord." "Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth." There are plenty of us that do just as Pilate—who condemned himself in saying, " I am innocent of the blood."
Therefore, dear friends, one prime element of all noble living is to have special care to cultivate sensitiveness of conscience beyond its present degree. And how is that to be done? Mainly and chiefly, I believe, by living, as I have already said in reference to another matter, in touch with Jesus Christ. Mainly by having the habit of referring all that we are to the pattern of what we ought to be, which is set forth. in Him. Conscience is not our guide. It is the recorder and repeater of guidance from the Christ, and only in the measure in which it is educated, corrected, enlightened, and made more sensitive by the habit of always thinking of Jesus Christ as our Example, to conform to whom is righteousness, to diverge from whom is sin, shall we come to the condition in which we can at all trust our own conceptions of what
is right or wrong. First and foremost, if we would have a conscience quickened and void of offence, let us live in the light of Christ's face, and take Him as the embodiment of all things lovely and of good report.
The ., again, let us cultivate, far more than the average Christian man of this day does, the habit of careful scrutiny of ourselves. "Know thyself," was the proud saying of the ancient teacher. The only way to know what I am is to notice what I do. And the most of us give very little diligence to a careful examination, apart from passion or inclination, of the moral character of our habitual daily lives. White ants will eat the whole substance out of a bit of furniture, and leave it apparently perfectly sound and solid. I wonder how many of us have had microscopic millions of gnawing evils, working beneath cover, in our characters. As long as the form of godliness is left standing we know not, many of us, that all the inner heart and substance of it is gone. Look after yourselves; know yourselves; practise the forgotten habit of rigid self-examination, and you will be the less likely to be the fools of a perverted or drugged conscience.
And make sure that when it does speak you listen to its slightest hints. "He that despiseth little things," says one of the Apocryphal books, "shall fall by little and little." The habit of thinking of any of our deeds that they are too small to make it worth while to bring the big artillery to bear upon them, is the ruin of a great many men. There is nothing that so effectually silences the remonstrances of the inward voice as the habit of neglecting it. If you persistently pick the buds off a plant, and do not let it either flower or fruit, you will kill it; and if you nip the shoots of conscience by neglecting its warnings, then the plant will, if it does not die, at least, as it were, retreat into its root, and lie there dormant, till—till it is transplanted by Death, and a new climate draws it out into activity.
And so, dear brethren, keep close to Christ; cultivate the habit of self-scrutiny; obey the faintest voice of conscience; and say to God, "Search me and try me, and see if there be any wicked way, and lead me in the way everlasting."
III.—Again, notice how here we get an illustration of the impossibility of wriggling out of responsibility.
It is very interesting to observe how the parties concerned—the conspirators, if I may so say—in this great tragedy try to shuffle the blame off their own shoulders and to place it on others. Did you ever remark that Pilate almost verbally re-echoes the dialogue between Judas and the priests, which had just taken place? The traitor said: "I have betrayed the innocent blood." Pilate said: "The blood of this innocent person." The rulers said: "What is that to us? See thou to it." Pilate gives them back their own word, though he did not know it, and says to them: "See ye to it." And then they defiantly yelled out: "His blood be on us and on our children." So all round, both in the attempt to get rid of, and in the awful willingness to accept, the responsibility of the deed, there is the consciousness expressed that there is a wrong somewhere, and that, whosoever was the doer of it, the consequences of it are fastened upon him for ever.
So we may suggest that well-worn but most wholesome and needful thought, that if there is anything a man's own, of which he cannot get rid, it is the bur• den of responsibility for his acts, and the inheritance of their consequences. Oh, there is nothing more solemn than that awful loneliness in which each soul of man lives, after all companionship, love and sympathy! We stretch out our hands and grasp loved hands, and yet there is a universe between the two that are nearest and most truly one. Islands in a great sea are we all. They tell us that no body is so closely compact but that there are films of air between the atoms of which it is composed, and hence all are more or less elastic. It is a parable of humanity. Each man dwells alone, and the intensest instance of his solitude is his unshared and untransferable and inevitable proprietorship in all that he has done. "If thou be wise, thou shalt be wise for thyself; and if thou scornest, thou alone shalt bear it." Memory, conscience, position, habits, character—these, if there were no God at all, make it certain that "whatsoever a man soweth that shall shall he also reap." And thus the responsibility of the deed lies only with the doer of it. You cannot shuffle, it off upon your associates. A party of brigands fire at travellers. No man knows whose shot it was that killed, but every man that pulled a trigger bears the guilt of the murder. And so, though we may sin in company, we have to pay for it alone. You cannot establish your innocence by saying, like Adam, "The woman gave it to me and I did eat," or, like Aaron, "The people are set on evil: they said unto me, Make us gods which shall go before us," or, like Pilate, "I am innocent, see ye to it." "God will send the bill to you."
IV.—And that brings me, .lastly, to note the contrast between present and future estimates of our acts.
Pilate probably went back to Csesarea after the feast, thinking that he had got well out of what threatened to be an awkward business; and in all likelihood he never thought any more, either about that strange Prisoner, or about that stormy session in the Hall of Judgment. That is a great deal more likely to be true than the legends which tell us of his being a prey to perpetual remorse. We have not to measure his guilt. It depends upon his knowledge, and his knowledge was very slight. Perhaps the worse thing that could be said about him was that he did not follow out dim impressions as to the elevation and mystery about his Prisoner; and that he connived at what in his heart he knew to be a murder. He was far less guilty than those rulers; he was far less guilty than a great many of us are. But, for all that, one cannot help thinking - of the shock of surprise which struck him when he passed beyond life, and ceased to be a governor and a judge, and stood at the bar of the Man whom he had condemned.
Ah! brethren, the same reversal of present and future estimates will come about with many of us. "That fierce light which" flashes from the "throne" will show the seaminess of many a life which looks fairly well by the candle-light of this present. And I pray you to ask yourselves the question, Do you think that you are ready for the revealing sunshine of "the day that shall declare it" ?.
Pilate said, " See ye to it." The mob yelled, "His blood be on us and on our children." Jesus Christ prayed, " Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Guilt is not irremovable ; responsibility can be cancelled. The great blessing, the great mystery, of the Gospel is this, "The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all." And if we will put the burden of our sins upon His shoulders, He will bear it, and bear it away, and lay the light burden of His love upon us.
Only, dear brethren, if we are to share in the power and blessedness of that wondrous Sacrifice for sin, we must take heed that Pilate's words are not upon our lips. They who say " I am innocent" shut themselves out from the worth of the Sacrifice that was made only for the guilty. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves." "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to eleanse us from all unrighteousness."