The Yeast of the Pharisees

Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees” (Luke 12:1)

Is there a savory treat more inviting than a soft pretzel warm from the oven? I think not. There is something in the way a freshly baked pretzel seduces our defenses that can override the will of all but the most resolute of dieters. For starters there is that wonderful bread-like aroma that infuses the senses and stirs taste buds with the promised flavor of briny sweetness. Our eyes lovingly follow the pleasing curves of a long strip of dough tied in a knot-like swirl. And the springy crust? There is no mountain lake more reflective than the shining coating of a soft pretzel, and no jewels in a monarch’s crown more sparkling than the salt crystals that sprinkle the surface. But the proof of course is in the tasting – and when properly baked, the interplay of chewiness, buttery-sweet covering, and salty finish is irresistible.

But it is not just the wonderful aroma and flavor of soft pretzels that excites me, but the fond memories it evokes of my childhood in Philadelphia. I don’t know about other large cities, but Philadelphia in the early 1960’s was a pretzel town. Pretzels were available everywhere – hard loop pretzels at the corner grocery store, log-style pretzels at the little league ballpark, jumbo fluffy pretzels at the Pennsauken Mart, and quintessential Philly soft pretzels at ubiquitous corner pushcarts. It is the pushcarts in particular that I remember most. At Christmastime we would take a train from Northeast Philly to the heart of downtown. Amid the bustle of holiday shopping, we would always stop at one of the many Market Street pushcarts stuffed with steaming hot pretzels. One for a dime or six for fifty cents, a bagful was quickly consumed, often in the marble-clad central atrium of Wanamaker’s. Of course, this being Philadelphia, it was more or less obligatory to spread our pretzels with yellow mustard before consumption – not an unpleasant complement, but a practice I have not carried forward.

While I am generally uninformed about the chemistry of baking, I know that having a well-conditioned dough is essential to the final product. Critical to the dough making process is the addition of yeast, which effects a wondrous transformation of the ingredients. Yeast consumes sugar producing carbon dioxide, alcohol, and other organic compounds. The carbon dioxide entrains gas in the dough causing it to rise. The alcohol and other organic compounds further react with the dough to generate complex flavors when baked. Although scientifically more complicated than this, suffice it to say when the end product is a soft pretzel, I love the marvel of yeast!

And so, I am surprised that Jesus uses yeast as a metaphor to describe the Pharisees. How can something as wonderful as yeast come to characterize Jesus’ antagonists? Unfortunately, the Old Testament does not prepare us for the metaphor because references in the OT to yeast (or leaven as it is known) are always literal. The prophets of old did not refer to yeast figuratively to my knowledge. Rather, yeast is a substance – variously considered to be a positive (give the priests leavened bread), negative (don’t put leaven on the altar), or a neutral substance (unleavened bread for Passover).

Therefore, again, I am unprepared when Jesus speaks critically of the “yeast” of the Pharisees. For example, he says, Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees.” (Luke 12:1). Similar warnings are sounded in the synoptic gospels: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:6); and “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod” (Mark 8:15). As most of us know, the Pharisees were a Jewish religious sect who followed a strict observance of traditional and written law. They were not inherently bad people. Indeed, they were scrupulous in keeping the law and their traditions. Yet, the very word Pharisee has come to mean “a self-righteous person” and a virtual synonym for hypocrite, which pretty much summarizes the individuals whom Jesus criticized in the gospel record.

Indeed, Jesus specifically says that the yeast of the Pharisees is hypocrisy (Luke 12:1), which is defined in the dictionary as “the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform.” For the Pharisees, the moral standard they claimed to have was that of living righteously before God. Their actual behavior, however, consistently fell short. Jesus gives a number of examples of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (see particularly Matthew 23), which seem to be of three different types or perhaps even stages because there is something sequential about how one type of hypocrisy leads to another. For, you see, in the same way yeast cells work their way through the entire batch – methodically and completely, the yeast of the Pharisees works its way through the soul.

In the first stage the Pharisees allow their focus to stray from God onto secondary matters. Jesus identified a number of instances. For example, the Pharisees emphasize things like tithing over more important matters of the law such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness; external appearance in prayer and clothing over internal heart matters such as greed and self-indulgence; and swearing oaths over simply telling the truth. (Matthew 23:16-26) Jesus does not say that tithing, or appearance, or the use of oaths is inherently wrong, and no doubt these were used by the Pharisees to provide structure for their obedience to God. The trouble comes when the forms become detached from the deeper purposes of God and his kingdom, and assume a life of their own.

In the second stage the Pharisees elevate their unique forms of worship to the only acceptable forms. In so doing, they position themselves to be morally superior to others, being highly critical of anyone who believes differently. Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for converting others into their own image rather than God’s, thus excluding those who hold different views. (Matthew 23:15) It has been observed that “The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were big sinners, they were the best of people, but they tended to think only those like them had any value in the sight of God. The yeast of the Pharisees is narrow-minded religious exclusivism, it is sectarianism. It is the attitude that says only those who believe and behave like us are saved, everyone else is damned or at least of no consequence. (Of course it’s not only religious people who have those sorts of attitudes; the secular equivalent would be extreme tribalism or nationalism.) The yeast of the Pharisees makes people more concerned about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ than just trying to get on and do the will of God. It makes people continually define themselves over against others.” (John Hemer)

In the third and final stage the Pharisees not only see those who oppose them as having no value in the sight of God, but as evil and thus to be eliminated. Jesus describes how the ancestors of the Pharisees killed the prophets even as he predicted the Pharisees would do the same. (Matthew 23:29-34) The Pharisees of course fulfilled Jesus’ words as they participated in his murder. In so doing their corruption became complete as they became the antithesis of the godly people they started out to be.

As I reflect on Jesus’ warning about being on guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, it is very easy (and convenient) for me to assume it applies only to the Pharisees, the Jewish religious faction of his time. Or perhaps I might apply his warning to certain “extreme” legalistic groups in the present age. Yet, if I am honest, the yeast of the Pharisees is as prevalent today as it was two thousand years ago. It can grow within the community, the church, and even my own soul.

The community is affected by the attitude of the individuals within the group. Negative comments beget other negative comments, critical remarks lead to gossip, selfish actions result in more, and so on. Before long, what was once unthinkable has become normalized. Nowhere is this more evident than in the political arena where the words and actions of leaders come to define what is acceptable. Increasingly, individual beliefs are so hardened that those who disagree are not only seen to be wrong, but corrupt or immoral. At this point, the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn should be a healthy corrective, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.” (The Gulag Archipelago) Unless we recognize our individual capacity for evil, the yeast of the Pharisees will grow in our community.

The church has its own unique challenges stemming in part from the choices made about forms of worship and spiritual practices – it cannot be avoided. Some people like loud and enthusiastic worship, while others prefer a reflective service. Some like freeform liturgy, and some structured. Some prefer top-down organization, and others bottom-up organic arrangements. Some large gatherings, some small groups. The yeast of the Pharisees is reflected in an attitude that says “ours is the only true form.” For example, the Orthodox church in Macedonia not only believes that being Orthodox is necessary to one’s salvation, but only those who are Macedonian Orthodox will be saved. This is not limited to them. “One sometimes meets Christian fundamentalists who are quite sure that all those who are not like them, who don’t belong to their sect, who haven’t been ‘born again’ are going straight to Hell for all eternity. The problem here is what such attitudes do to the individual’s personality and how they misrepresent the true spirit and intention of Christ’s teaching. The desire to exclude others has continually bedevilled the human race, but when it masquerades as religion, indeed as the only true religion, it becomes deadly, and we hear too much about religious intolerance to be in any doubt about that.” (John Hemer)

As for me, the challenge is to constantly be alert to my own pharisaical tendencies. Am I more interested in looking good and presenting a favorable impression than sincerely caring for others? Do I spend more time tracking the “spiritual” things I do in a day or week than honestly addressing sin in my life? Am I more attentive to my ministry than to my wife and family? Jesus makes it clear that this is a most serious matter when he warns, Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13) There is something about hypocrisy that God really doesn’t like. Perhaps this is why Jesus was so much more patient with prostitutes and dishonest tax collectors than with the Pharisees.

Well, there may be trouble in River City, but there is joy in Centerville. In fact, joy of joys – a new “Philadelphia style” pretzel bakery opened here a few months ago. And when Pat surprised me with some freshly baked pretzels, my defenses immediately collapsed and I indulged. The pleasure of eating these delightful yeast products reminds me that Jesus also speaks of yeast in a favorable metaphor in a parable about the kingdom of God. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Matthew 13:33) In the same way that yeast works its way through all the dough silently and completely until a transformation is accomplished, so too God’s kingdom grows from the inside out until his purposes are accomplished. Evil is overcome by good – it is the only way. Just as surely as we can taste whether a pretzel is good, so too we can taste and see the Lord is good. (Psalm 34:8) We see this in many ways, not least of which are many of our Christian brothers and sisters who are like yeast – seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and slowly working God’s goodness through their relationships. Such people emit the irresistible aroma of grace.


2 thoughts on “The Yeast of the Pharisees

  1. Good stuff. Enjoyed this. It brought to mind that the very enjoyable things of life; those that appeal to our senses can easily lead us away from the Kingdom. They are not bad in themselves, but may prevent or sidetrack us from staying focused on Christ through living an Intentional Life.


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