The disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ 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? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 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.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’
The apostles’ lack of understanding is a favourite theme of Mark’s (6:52; 7:18; 8:17-18; 9:10,32; etc.). Jesus sounds like an impatient teacher today: "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” He uses the same language that he uses when battling the Pharisees!
Mark uses the expression “the yeast (or leaven) of the Pharisees.” In the parallel passage Luke interprets this as hypocrisy (12:1). The word ‘hypocrisy’ comes from Greek and means ‘acting a part (on the stage)’. Then it came to mean pretence, especially pretence to virtue. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees,” Jesus said. In Lk 12:1 it is made clear that this yeast is their hypocrisy. It is strange that so useful a substance as yeast should come to have such negative associations. You won't find a better example of this than in Milton’s diatribe against the clergy in 1641. He raged against “the sour leaven [yeast] of human traditions mixed in one putrefied mass with the poisonous dregs of hypocrisy in the hearts of Prelates.” Someone else wrote that one ought “to mix a leaven of charity with one’s judgments.” In the second text, obviously, leaven has a positive meaning. Both of these meanings are found in the Scriptures. Jesus even likened the Kingdom of heaven to leaven in a batch of dough (Mt 13:33). How can we hold these opposite meanings together?
Every person has a capacity for good and evil; everything we use we can use for good or evil purposes. Consequently every object we touch takes on associations of human goodness or evil, and even comes to symbolise them. Leaven symbolises rapid growth. This can be good or bad, depending on what is growing. Today, for the negative connotation, we might use the word ‘cancer’.
Hypocrisy is virtue that has nothing left but the external appearance of virtue. This may seem like nothing, but at least it is a kind of twisted homage to virtue. There is no mercy or humility in Milton’s denunciations, and no hint of hope; only pure hate. But Jesus could say repeatedly “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Mt 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29) and then sit down to table with them and even became friends with some of them. He held open the door of hope.
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