Jesus warned, "Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod" (Mark 8:15). This short statement is often passed over by us, but definitely should not be.
What is this yeast of Pharisees and Herod all about, and why should we heed this warning?
Religious & Political “Yeast”
Yeast is that which makes bread expand and rise; a little yeast in a lump of dough will cause it to become a much larger loaf. Jesus spoke of a “yeast” that was both religious and political; He spoke of the yeast of hypocritical, religious legalists (epitomized by the Pharisees) and yeast of political activists and zealots (epitomized by the Sadducees, or possibly the Herodians). In His warning, Jesus implied this yeast was being dispensed both religiously and politically. In other words, Jesus implied a toxic connection between religious/pharisaical and political forces.
It is noted that in a parallel passage in Matthew chapter 16, Jesus warns of the yeast of the “Pharisees and Sadducees,” which seems quite different from Mark’s version (“yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod”). In Luke’s version, only the Pharisees are mentioned. We can accept Luke’s version easily enough, since from his perspective the point was made, even if not as completely as in Mark’s account, or Matthew’s. But what about Matthew’s use of the word “Sadducees” compared to Mark’s “that of Herod?” Is this not a blatant contradiction?
We will see that there really is no contradiction in meanings.
The Sadducees were the wealthy ruling party in Jewish cultural life. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees were supporters of Herod and of the Roman establishment in Palestine. The “Herodians” were another Jewish political party who, like the Sadducees, supported Herod. Given the fact that both the Sadducees and the Herodians supported Herod and the local Roman-installed government, Mark’s use of the phrase “yeast …of Herod” could just as easily have referred to Sadducees as to Herodians. Matthew breaks any tie here by using “Pharisees and Sadducees,” and we see that Matthew’s reference to “Sadducees” is quite consistent with Mark’s use of the phrase “that of Herod.” Had Matthew referenced “Herodians,” there would likewise be no contradiction in meaning between his account and Matthew's.
The remainder of this essay will assume Mark's “that of Herod” implies the Sadducees, given Matthew’s use of “Sadducees.”
Pharisees & Sadducees
Pharisees were pretentious, legalistic, religious elites who took every opportunity to assert the letter of the Law, enlarging themselves and cementing religious power and control over the ordinary person. The “Sadducees” were members of a Jewish political/religious faction supporting the paranoid, violent, abusive political dynasty of Herod. Why would Jesus invoke both groups in the same statement? It is undoubtedly related to the fact that the Pharisees and Sadducees, not normally concerned with the same religious or political objectives, often worked together in opposition to Jesus.
In cautioning against "the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod," Jesus issued a warning which is highly relevant in our day and time:
Do not become obsessed on religion and politics as ways to bring about the salvation of society, because controlling, manipulative pharisaical religion and controlling, manipulative politics seek only to destroy the things of Jesus. Religion and politics believe in whatever they seek to gain; they do not believe in Jesus. Our rightful and lasting hope is in Christ, not in religion and politics, so watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.
Whether we think of this "yeast" in terms of the doctrines of the Pharisees and Sadducees (and Herodians), as Luke's account suggests, or we think of it in terms of "evil" as some commentators suggest, or we think of it more broadly in terms of worldviews, mindsets and attitudes, the warning is well worth heeding and applying in our times.
One of the most fruitless and damaging “moments” in recent Church history was during the 1980’s when, behind the religious “leadership” of Jerry Falwell and various others, the so-called “Christian right” sought political power and influence as a religious movement. This movement marked a combining of politics and religion which was highly distracting and had little if any lasting, positive effect on secular politics and political policies. The effect on Christians, if any, was to create a mindset and belief that the mission and purpose of the Church is to effect political goals in establishing a morally upright society. This “yeast” was biblically off message, extraneous to the Gospel, superfluous to the Great Commission, and counter-productive to the making and training of disciples of Christ. It accomplished little that was positive or lasting, while certainly damaging the mindset and trajectory of the Church. It advanced "the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod."
What about 2012? Political and socio-religious rhetoric is on the upswing, with Republican primary campaigning hard under way and a presidential election only a few short months down the road. Yes, we need to be responsible citizens, staying reasonably informed and exercising our right to vote and be part of the process. However, let us devote our best attention to growing as responsible citizens of the Kingdom of God. Let’s not seek power or control over the Kingdom of Man. Instead, let us heed Jesus’ warning to watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.
I was watching Glenn Beck on TV awhile back (not that I recommend it), and Beck charged that President Obama is surrounded by Marxist friends and political associates, including a new spiritual advisor who was quoted as saying forced wealth redistribution (economic socialism) is “what the Gospel is all about.” Recently, the President was quoted as having said Jesus would have “taxed the rich.” Beck, Obama, and countless others use religious and political rhetoric to instill their own political, social and economic points of view. In fact, we can tune into religious television programming day and night and catch all sorts of political rants, many carrying the implicit message that it is our job as Christians to “clean up society” or "transform culture." We need to be very careful about how (and whether) we hear and internalize such messages.
Millions of self-professing Christians obsess on such things, expending valuable time and emotional capital despising Obama for being liberal, or Beck for being conservative. They defend the “tea party” movement, or they hate it. Untold numbers of believers are sucked into such obsessions, wailing “if only we could get rid of the current bums and replace them with those who will get us out of this mess! It’s up to us to straighten all this out!” Many Christians, in their despair over “the way things are” in our society and culture, imagine that mobilizing religious forces towards political objectives will turn the political tide “God’s way.”
In their great political “messiah watch,” inhabitants of first century Palestine were running from pillar to post, listening first to this one, then to that one, latching onto whoever seemed to dish out the most promises and perform the most marvelous works, and shouting down those they considered shams. At first, many seemed convinced Jesus was the one who would take over the country and its political processes, kick out the Romans, establish political control, and hand power back over to the people – sort of like a “1st century moral majority movement. However, when this proved not to be His mission, they turned against Jesus and crucified Him.
Jesus did not come to launch a political movement. He was not interested in any “moral majority” or “religious right,” nor did He come to reform politics or to set the government straight. His did not make political promises, and He did not seek to mix His message of redemption and hope with any political reforms. Though it seems to offend Christians to hear it, Jesus did not come to "transform society." Instead, Jesus came as a suffering servant, Messiah and redeemer, hardly what most of the people were looking for. His message did not satisfy the longings of those who sought a political or cultural solution - in fact, in their religiously charged zeal to be liberated from Roman domination and occupation, they murdered the Lord of Glory.
This is yeast worth being warned about!
If We Don’t Watch Out
The talking heads of Jesus’ time were driven by desires for secular power and religious control, and they saw that both of these could be sought in a joint effort – hence, the partnership of Pharisees and Sadducees (and also the partnership between Pharisees and Herodians – see Mark 3:6 & 12:13). By comparison, the pundits and talking heads of our own day are driven by ratings, advertising dollars, ideology, power and religious zeal. Whether it is this “Christian spokesman” or that famous “spiritual” leader, or this leftist politician or that talk show host, we are bombarded daily and hourly by the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod. The terrible result, if we don't watch out, is distraction from the Bread of Life.
Distraction in this sense does not mean that we are in danger of merely having our attention drawn away from the Lord in a particular moment – it means we are in peril of having our entire mindset and worldview drawn away permanently. Yeast causes the bread to expand and change its original shape. Religious and political distraction does something like that to the mind and attitude.
There is a large difference between despair and longing, and a huge gap between fear and hope. The news media, as it serves up the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod, can bend our minds and hearts to fear and despair, pulling us away from the message of longing (Matthew 5:6) and hope (Romans 5:1-5, 12;12, 15:13; 1st Corinthians 15:19-20; Galatians 5:5; 1st Timothy 1:1, 4:10; Titus 2;13; Hebrews 7:18-19, 10:23; 1st Peter 1;13; 20-25, 3:15; 1st John 3:3).
I can hear someone say, “Russ, you are telling me to put my head in the sand!” In fact, many of us need to pull our heads out of the quicksand and get them back into the Bible, into the community of faith, and back into a worldview that is marked by the truth of the Word of God and by hope in the Gospel of Christ. Jesus came that we might have life. That means abundant, fulfilled, wholesome, victorious life in Him, and the truth is that our ultimate and final deliverance is in Him and no other. Jesus, the eternal God and King, proclaimed it.
Now and Later
We must understand that we are living in a “now and later” reality in Christ - “now” meaning that He has given us His Holy Spirit and His written word by which to grow in Him and form our views and attitudes about everything, and “later” meaning He will return at the appointed time to complete the changes and the redemption we long for. He will make EVERYTHING new! This is JESUS we are talking about – not Newt or Obama or our favorite TV personality with an ax to grind, and not any other yeast peddler. Our real hope is in Christ, both now and later.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19).
When the Lord of Lords returns to claim His people and His Kingdom, all the words of the talking heads, politicians, pundits and gurus put together WILL NOT MATTER! Every bit of such distracting nonsense will burn. Many of us will look back in horror and remorse, regretting how much time and attention we devoted to such tripe, and how much emotional energy we wasted on it.
Not Irresponsibility, but Hope in Christ
Jesus never taught us to be stupid, nor to shirk our reasonable responsibilities as citizens. He did, however, command us not to worry, and to trust Him rather than men for deliverance and security. He assured us by both miracles and promises that His supply is sufficient. Immediately before Jesus warned His disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod, He miraculously fed thousands of people with a few small loaves of bread and some small fish (Mark 8:1-9). Right afterwards, the disciples worried because they had packed only one loaf of bread! (v.14) This is the context within which Jesus warned of the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod. The “yeast” He warned of was a yeast of unbelief and misplaced hope.
Our hope does not come through politics or religion. Rush Limbaugh does not dispense hope, nor does O'Reilly, nor does the Los Angeles Times or the cable news networks. Let’s keep reminding one another of this, and let’s keep our hope set on Christ.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:6-8).