“Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” – Mark 8:15
It’s one of those episodes where Jesus’s teachings don’t make sense. Jesus is in the boat with the disciples. The chapter began with Jesus’s feeding of the 4,000, the lesser known of the great feeding miracles, but one that is still very important. After feeding the crowd, Jesus gets into the boat with the disciples and they head to Dalmanutha. He only appears to be in that area for a short time, but it is long enough for the Pharisees to come and ask (demand) a sign. Jesus refuses to give them one. He has provided numerous signs over the previous few chapters. The Pharisees demanding for a sign shows a lack of faith. They are challenging Jesus because they don’t believe. Prove who you are, they say, give us a sign. Instead, Jesus gets back in the boat and leaves the area.
While traveling in the boat he looks at the disciples and says, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” It is by all accounts a very strange statement. The disciples are clearly confused. They had forgotten to bring enough bread on the trip so they assume Jesus must be talking about their packing mistake. This conversation, however, only infuriates Jesus. Why are you talking about bread, he says, have you not been paying attention?
It’s a good question. At this point in the narrative Jesus has already fed groups of 5,000 and 4,000 with just a few pieces of bread and a couple of fish. If Jesus can feed the masses with such a small amount, surely he can multiply one loaf of bread to feed the disciples. This conversation is not about food. The disciples are worried about the wrong thing.
Jesus was reminding them to beware of some great fallacies, failing to trust in the ministry of the Messiah and instead putting their hope in the powers of force and government to solve their problems.
The Pharisees were constantly upset with Jesus because he didn’t fit their notion of what Messiah should be. They believed Messiah should be a good law-abiding Jew. They were frustrated that Jesus cared more about mercy than sacrifice. They couldn’t understand why Jesus spent his time with sinners and tax collectors. Instead of hanging out at church with the pious, Jesus was found living among and loving the sick. Jesus was a Messiah of service and self-sacrifice and Jesus required that his followers would be the same. Loving neighbor more than self was a key to following Jesus. To reject the call to self-sacrifice was to act like the Pharisees and reject Jesus as Messiah. The way of Jesus was the way of the cross. Beware of any yeast that leads a disciple away from sacrifice.
At the same time, the way of Herod was the way of power. It was the belief that through force and power, one could make the world Christian. It was the belief that the way to change the world was to get the right person in office. If we just elected a Christian leader. If we could have a powerful enough military to stop evil. If Christians could grasp the reigns of power they could usher in God’s kingdom on earth. Even in the first century these ideas were rampant, as many were looking for a military Messiah who would conquer the Romans and reign on the throne of David through force. But the world has never been made right through a Christian government. Having a Christian president is not the answer for the world. Obviously, Christians living out their faith in public office is a positive thing, but governments have been run by Christians since the time of Constantine and the world has not gotten any better. To place our faith in a Christian government is to place our faith in an idol. It is the yeast of Herod.
Jesus was trying to remind his disciples that the way of the Messiah is the way of sacrifice. It is serving others so that they can live into the promises of God. This is what we should be focused on. How often do we focus on the less important matters of bread; such as how should we design church assemblies and how do we elect Christian leaders?
The way of Jesus is not flashy. It is love and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Beware of any “yeast” that takes us away from the important matters.