When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Matthew 16:5-12 (NRSV)
This little vignette has been one of my favorite Jesus stories since college. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we see a very human Jesus in it, or maybe it’s because we can all relate to trying to get something across to someone who is just staggeringly dense about it. Maybe we can also relate to being that staggeringly dense person from time to time.
Jesus says this after the Pharisees and Sadducees demand a sign from him in an attempt to discredit him. Jesus knows this unlikely alliance has come together against their common enemy – himself. He is also very aware that the effort to remove him from the scene will soon spill over into persecution for his followers.
So, there are very immediate, concrete reasons to be wary of what the Sadducees and Pharisees are saying about them among the people. Jesus, himself, is very wary of this and is constantly working to slip through their rhetorical traps, hoping that the good works he is doing among the Jews will show them who is really on their side, regardless of what the religious leadership is saying about them.
That last bit is an ongoing theme for Matthew that shows up everywhere. You have Israel’s leadership who should, in love, be using their authority to help struggling Israelites in this, their time of need. The Pharisees and Sadducees should be doing the things that Jesus and his followers are doing, perhaps without all the fireworks. God’s delegated authority to Israel’s leaders was always meant to be used for the welfare of the people under that authority, not the other way around. “How can I use my power to serve the people under my rule?” is a question that was meant to be on the lips of every prophet, priest, and king of Israel.
But, by the time we get to Jesus’ day, Israel’s leadership has turned this model on its head (or turned it the right way up, according to the way the rest of the world typically uses power). The power structure over Israel has used their position to acquire wealth and prestige, eliminate the people they don’t like, and deafen themselves to the cries of widows and orphans and foreigners. Religiously, they have kept all the outward trappings of the religion of Israel while engaging it with all the zeal that I engage flossing. It is, for them, a system of religious observances with no heart, no transformation, and no love. “Look what a devout Jew I am!” says the Sadducee as he passes by a wounded beggar to avoid contact with anything unclean on his way to a party at Herod’s house.
It is exactly this state of affairs that has brought Israel to their present state in Jesus’ day. God sent prophet after prophet warning them that, if they did not do justice, repent in humility, and restore a heartfelt worship and obedience of the God who brought them out of slavery, their trust in pagan nations would prove ill-founded and they would find themselves dispersed from their land under the rule of other kingdoms.
It turns out this is exactly what happened.
So, when we consider “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” we might think of it like a long spear. This trend has gone on and on in Israel’s history and brought nothing but misery to the common Israelite, and now the sharp point is aimed directly at Jesus and his followers.
Jesus, being prone to parables and symbolism, captures this in what he feels is a pithy image: beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. I’ve elsewhere discussed the imagery of yeast in both biblical and extra-biblical sources, and I’m not going to repeat it all, here. But in summary, yeast is often used symbolically to describe the spread of corruption in Israel. It starts small, but quickly spreads throughout the entire loaf.
One of the things I quoted in the post I linked to, above, is a prayer from Rabbi Alexandri that pulls together the imagery of yeast and connects it with the state of exile for the Jewish people:
Rabbi Alexandri, when he finished his daily prayer, said the following: ‘Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known to You that our true desire is to do Your will. What prevents it but the “yeast in the dough” and the subjugation of the exile! May it be Your will, O Lord, to deliver us from their hands, and we shall return to perform the decrees of our will with a perfect heart.’
The things that keep Israel from being able to be an obedient, priestly people are the conditions of their subjugation and the “yeast in the dough,” which is the internal corruption among the people. If God would purge out this corruption from Israel and then deliver them from their oppressors, His people could go back to being an obedient, priestly people in the world.
As we look at the historical arc of the destruction of the Temple and the power center of Jerusalem and the overthrow of persecution of Christians, I can’t help but wonder if Alexandri’s prayer eventually came to pass.
But then we get to the part I like best.
Jesus has warned the disciples to watch out for the teachings of the Jewish religious and political leaders and compared it to yeast. The disciples believe that Jesus is upset because they forgot to bring actual, literal bread.
I really wish we had a transcript of that discussion.
“What do you think he meant by that?”
“Well, we forgot to bring bread. Maybe he wants some bread.”
“Ok, but why should we beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees?”
“Maybe he doesn’t want us borrowing their yeast to make bread.”
“But then we wouldn’t be able to make bread for him.”
“Yes, good point. Maybe that’s why he’s upset.”
At some point, Jesus can’t take it, anymore, which is hilarious to me. I mean, how obtuse do you have to be before you’ve strained the patience of Jesus himself? It’s sort of like being such a jerk that Mahatma Ghandi takes a swing at you.
Jesus gives a short speech that I’ve entitled, “You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me,” where he explains the problem is absolutely not the lack of bread. He points out that he is fully capable of asking God for bread and God will deliver even if it requires a miracle to do so. The disciples were all there to see that happen – twice – which just makes the whole thing doubly stupid. Not only have they taken Jesus way too literally, thus completely missing his point, but they have arrived at a conclusion completely counter to what they’ve observed in Jesus.
You know, there’s a lesson about hermeneutics in here for all of us, I think.
I wonder, if someone could present Jesus with certain very literal readings of Revelation or the Olivet Discourse that are popular in American evangelical culture, how long it would take before Jesus started tapping his fingertips on the table, trying not to lose it.
Jesus closes his reminder with the exact same thing he said at the beginning, “Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” He does not spell it out, but once he has eliminated the option that he is talking about literal bread, the disciples figure it out in short order, to their credit.
It seems like a funny little story, almost an incidental slice of life, really. But soon, Jesus will begin to explain more explicitly to his disciples that he is going to die and, not only that, but following him will very well mean their own lives will be in danger. Their own commitments to the kingdom are about to be challenged. Their faith is about to be put to the ultimate test – the sacrifice of their own lives for the sake of what they believe about Jesus. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that the next story in Matthew is about the disciples recognizing who Jesus is.
- Are there other examples you can think of in Jesus’ teaching or biblical writings when a very literal understanding creates confusion, misses the point, or maybe even arrives at a conclusion very different than we’d see from Jesus?
- Do you see any parallels between the political and religious power structures of Jesus’ day and the ones you live under, today?