Scripture: When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet 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 is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew 16:5-12 ESV
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Observation: In yesterday’s Daily Focus (click here to read it), Jesus stands up against yet another test of the Pharisees, who are joined now by the Sadducees (an opposing religious sect with a common enemy). Indeed, both parties perceived Jesus as a destabilizing zealot and a threat to the nation’s peaceful existence under Roman occupation. Having demanded a sign from heaven proving his authority as a teacher of the law, Jesus refuses to play along and curtly tells them the only sign they will receive is that of Jonah (alluding to his soon crucifixion, burial, and resurrection).
Weary of the religious leaders’ machinations, Jesus and his disciples part company and travel to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. While at sea, Jesus apparently reflects on the preceding conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees. So, upon arrival, he warns his disciples to be vigilant against the leaven of Israel’s hypocritical religious leaders. Obtuse to the context, his disciples assume he admonished them for failing to bring bread on this next leg of the mission. So Jesus quickly reminds them of the feeding of five thousand and four thousand and all the leftovers and then repeats his warning. At this point, the penny drops, and his disciples realize leaven is associated with the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ teachings.
Takeaway: Earlier (12:33, click here to read), Jesus positively likens leaven to the kingdom of God that mysteriously proliferates from its nearly invisible origins. Here, though, the metaphor aligns with its most common meaning in ancient Israel: various acts of wickedness or the presence of evil in general. Thus, Jesus lodges a severe indictment on the religious leaders that is wholly warranted. They have so weighed down the law with traditions and weaponized it to control the masses that they have marred the image of God into the likeness of their sinful desires. So Jesus wants his disciples to be vigilant against the subtleties of the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ teachings that sound good on the surface but demonstrate a lack of understanding of the depth of God’s love and grace.
Our takeaway? Like Jesus’ disciples, we need to be leary of the leaven. It’s easier to live in the extremes of legalism or license (either of which puts us in control, where we define the moral boundaries of God’s law). So how do we heed Christ’s warning to watch and beware of the leaven of these half-truths? We accept the breadth of Scripture (no à la cart Christianity where we pick and choose what we agree with). And we pursue a deeper understanding of the heart and mind of God regarding his holiness, mercy, and lovingkindness, thereby deepening our knowledge of Christ’s grace working in us. Thus, rather than take control and redefine sin, we nurture a loving relationship with our Triune God, where we mature our understanding of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ in fellowship with him (Philippians 3:10-11, click here to read). And we keep reminding ourselves that we do not strive to make this happen. Instead, we trust that Christ, who is in us and with us, along with the Holy Spirit, will faithfully complete the good work that he has begun in us (Philippians 1:6, click here to read).
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who embodied truth and grace (John 1:14, click here to read) and now dwells with and in us. Still, we confess that we lean toward legalism or license and find it daunting to live out your Son’s truth and grace in our lives. So would you please help us to cooperate with your Holy Spirit to deepen our understanding of your Son’s love, holiness, and mercy working in and through us? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
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