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What is the ‘Yeast of the Pharisees’? (Mark 8:14-21)

Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus was very much at odds with the Jewish leaders. We note that at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus made attempts to reach out to them. His teachings invited their positive response, and he made time to accept their invitation (for dinner in Luke 7:36f, and for private conversation in John 3). But for the most part, they rejected Jesus. And so, after another negative encounter (Mark 8:11-12), Jesus warned his disciples, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees” (v.15).

The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant (v.16-17), and so, after he offered a short explanation, Jesus asked them, “Do you not yet understand?” That’s scolding talk from a teacher who is often disappointed. Maybe this wasn’t the first time Jesus mentioned this. If I was present, I might have raised my hand and blurted out, “Jesus, I don’t get it. If I am to avoid this yeast of the Pharisees, I want to know exactly what it is.”

I learned the hard way that yeast is VERY important to making bread. My only two attempts at making a loaf of bread in my life occurred in middle school. It was a class project – I think it was for health? I followed the instructions carefully, twice, but my breads didn’t rise. I baked two bricks, one after another. My teacher told me I must have killed my yeasts in the process. Bakers know that yeasts make the dough rise so that the bread comes out fluffy good. And in order to correctly puff up the whole bread, the yeast must be worked into the whole dough, to touch and affect every part of it. And that’s the point Jesus is making here.

While puffy bread is delicious, puffy people are a very definition of arrogance – their heads are puffed up. As the yeast puffs up the bread, this “yeast of the Pharisees” caused them to be unbearably arrogant. So, what’s this yeast of the Pharisees? What is it that caused the Pharisees to think they are better than others? It was their strict life discipline of holiness. They set themselves apart from others in the way they lived – detached from the sins and sinners of the world, studying the Word of God diligently, praying often with fasting, and religiously tithing to God. They took pride in that – and Jesus called it yeast – don’t do it.

But…aren’t we supposed to practice spiritual discipline? Isn’t that a good thing? How can studying God’s Word and praying with fasting, and giving tithe be a bad thing? Jesus’ teachings can be so hard.

The spiritual disciplines in themselves are not yeasts. Practiced correctly, they produce in us Christ-likeness – holiness arising out of divine love and humility. But neglecting the proper foundation, they had become yeasts that filled the hearts of the individual with arrogance. And so a yeast is anything that causes us to become puffed up.

For the Pharisees, spiritual disciplines had become their yeasts. For us, things that cause us to be arrogant can be the amount of money we have or a high titles and degrees we possess. Prestigious colleges and high GPAs are bragging rights for our youths. Or special talents and recognitions. For the world, it may be fine to boast about achievements. But for Christians, they can become yeasts to watch out for.

So how can we prevent yeasts in our lives? Some things are easy. Things listed above are easy to list and pray over. Hand over those titles and awards and accomplishments and money to God. Admit to God that everything is his and they are gifts given to us for God’s good work. And so begin with thanks. And then ask, “what would you have me do, O God, with what you have given to me?” There is the great commandment to love God and love others. And there’s the great commission to share Christ everywhere. Begin there. But make sure we stand on the foundation of divine love and humility. Don’t let your good works become yeasts in themselves!

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