207. Beware the Yeasts and Dangers from Religion and Politics

14 Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out – beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” 16 They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” 17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” [Mark 8:14-21, NRSV]

At coffee corner, a small group of us has enjoyed some hilarious moments laughing over the blindness not only of the Pharisees but even of Jesus’ first disciples.

Observe the train of events, as the Gospel of Mark demonstrates the power and authority of Jesus by recounting a series of miracles. Jesus has just fed five thousand men in a miracle of loaf-and-fish-multiplication, with twelve baskets full of leftovers (6: 32-44). Then, he walked on water (6:45-52). In pursuit of miracles, people throughout the whole region brought their sick for Jesus to heal; and many were made well by merely touching the edge of his cloak (6:53-56). Pharisees and teachers of the Law also came, but only to challenge Jesus on many things, starting with why his disciples ate with unclean hands (7:1-23). Jesus, of course, challenged all who had ears to hear, to listen carefully: “There is nothing that goes into a person from the outside which can make him unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes him unclean”. A Syro-Phoenician woman who came out of a pagan territory to beg Jesus to heal her daughter was praised for her faith and awarded with the healing prayed for (7:24:30). Jesus then proceeded further and healed a deaf-mute, pronouncing the Ephphatha on him – in other words, just as the people exclaimed, he made the deaf to hear and the mute to speak (7:31-37). For good measure, Mark then inserted yet another miracle of feeding, this time featuring four thousand men and seven baskets full of leftovers (8:1-10). With these episodes as backdrop, Mark launched the grand comedy:

  • Bent on trapping Jesus, the Pharisees came and demanded a sign, despite all those signs, that whatever he did had the stamp of approval from God. Refusing to entertain their sick request, Jesus turned his back on them and boarded a boat to cross to the other side of the lake (8:11-13).
  •  In the boat, the moment Jesus warned the disciples against “the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod”, all they could connect their thought to was their insufficient supply of bread for the boat-trip. For all those feeding miracles and loads of leftovers, the disciples were still worried about bread-insufficiency!

Mark was not wearing kids’ gloves when it came to exposing the sheer blindness of both the Pharisees on the one hand, and Jesus’ first disciples on the other. Against the latter, he scolded them for having eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear (Mark 8:18), for they are too easily caught up in the yeasts of the Pharisees and Herod who epitomize the dangers in the blind and heartless practices of religion and politics. It is this “yeast” or “leaven” that captures the more substantive part of our coffee-corner discussion. In this episode, what Jesus warns all disciples against are dangers from religion and politics.

  • To the rabbis, “yeast” symbolized something evil, especially the evil desire of sin (cf. Lev 2:11; 1 Cor 5:7ff). What is referred to here by Jesus perhaps includes the infectious and continuous operation of the yeast. In the case of the Pharisees, their “yeast” refers to their contentment with their narrow interpretation of God’s laws resulting in their narrow religious practices. From their skewed interpretive lens, they could not but fail to see the power and glory of God in Jesus’ person, his words and his works.
  • The yeast of the Herodians, on the other hand, is their abuse of political power, resulting in a serious failure to accord respect for the dignity of others and the justice due to every living person.

Mark, like a consummate debater, is here presenting his case that with the chain of evidence in those miracles, the Pharisees and Herodians had to be utterly blind and deaf for still demanding another sign. Beware, beware, we hear Mark’s insistent voice. Beware of the corrosive spirit of the Pharisees and the Herodians. Beware of the dangers of “religion” and “politics”. God did not kill his Son; the collusion of religion and politics did.

Where a religion relentlessly insists on nothing but a strict adherence to the letters of the law, putting doctrine and law ahead of the human person, it misses the love and mercy, the compassion and beauty of God’s vision for the world. Staying close to the heart of Jesus, and thus keeping in close touch with the spirit of the law and not only its mere letters, Pope Francis in chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia urges the entire Church to show mercy and compassion to the wounded and troubled families and individuals. A merciful God, he insists, wants to see a merciful Church.

The biblical scholar Eduard Achweizer puts it well:

  • Man is so enmeshed in his own world and its care that he always interprets God’s metaphorical language in a crassly literal sense and is not drawn by that language to the kind of faith in which he surrenders himself to the one whom he can never capture in words and concepts, but can only experience.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, September 2018. All rights reserved.

You are most welcome to respond to this post. Email your comments to jeffangiegoh@gmail.com. You can also be dialogue partners in this Ephphatha Coffee-Corner Ministry by sending us questions for discussion.