In reading the gospel accounts of Jesus and his work among the disciples, I often try to picture myself in the boat with Him and the twelve. Try putting yourself into this scene recorded in Mark 8:14-21. Jesus had traveled with the twelve into a predominantly Gentile area preaching the good news and healing those who were hurting. It was there that he fed the crowd of four thousand because of compassion for the people who had been with him for three days. Right after that the Pharisees came and began to argue with him and try to test him asking for some kind of sign. Jesus told them an evil and adulterous generation sought for a sign and no sign would be given them. He then got into a boat with the disciples to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Mark mentioned that the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread with them for the trip. On the boat ride, Jesus cautioned them, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Their immediate thought was that Jesus was upset with them for not bringing any bread. Looking back over time, it seems funny that they would think of bread when he brought up the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. But they had just seen the miracles of the loaves and fish being multiplied and they did know they had forgotten the bread, so I guess it is more reasonable that at first, I might have admitted.
The Leaven or yeast was certainly a common topic for Jesus. He had even said that the kingdom of heaven was like leaven or yeast that a woman hid in the flour to demonstrate the influence the kingdom of the Lord is intended to have in the world. But it is a fact, that once our minds get set on one thing it is difficult to switch to something entirely different. Jesus was quickly aware of their thoughts and asked, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” He reminded them of the five small loaves with which he had fed 5,000 people and the twelve baskets full that they had picked up afterward and the feeding of the four thousand and the seven basketsful they picked up afterward. Then he asked, “Do you not yet understand?” While Mark’s account of the story stops at that point, Matthew filled in a little of the gap by saying that they then understood he was talking to them about the teaching of the Pharisees. Matthew has the account referring to the Pharisees and Sadducees instead of the Pharisees and Herod.
What are some things about the teachings of these groups that may have been on the Lord’s mind at the time? When it comes to the Pharisees, most of their doctrinal stances were in harmony with what Jesus taught. They believed in angels, heaven and hell, and life beyond the grave. The Sadducees, on the other hand, denied all the above. It is more difficult to tie down any particular teaching Herod. Perhaps the point was that Herod stood for getting along with the ruling authorities of Rome while still having some semblance of faith in God and following his law.
But I suspect Jesus had more in mind that just the doctrinal thoughts of the different groups. Their teaching had as much to do with their attitudes as with their doctrines. The word Pharisee means “Separate” and they felt they were set apart from all others. Instead of striving to be that influence on the world to bring them to faith, they took the notion of being separated from sinners and building all their ties with each other so they wouldn’t be led astray. Their biggest complaint against Jesus was that he was the friend of tax collectors and sinners. He would go to the home of Matthew or Zaccheus to eat and spend time with those who were sick to offer them physical and spiritual health. The Sadducees were an elite group. While they didn’t call themselves separatist, they were deep in the ruling class of the Jews. They had the priesthood and often controlled the Sanhedrin. The Herod crowd were political and wanting to work through the powers that be to accomplish their goals.
So, what was Jesus talking about when he said to avoid the leaven of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herod? Anything that pulled us away from the people who are hurting and struggling in life. He demonstrated the faith of being among the people, feeling compassion for them and working to show them a better way. Jesus would often leave the multitudes to work with one person who was hurting or who needed God. He never sought to accomplish his work through the government or its power. While he would become the great high priest after the order of Melchizedek, he came into the world as one without any religious or political connections, growing up in a small town with ordinary parents who had to work with their hands to get by. He made the world but he learned from Joseph how to work and make things from the wood or clay around him. Think of the fact, Jesus constantly told the disciples to “Follow me.” His training school was one filled with action and doing the very things that helped people where they were. Following the leaven of Jesus isn’t just a matter of making a list of his commands to go down them like the rich young ruler to declare “I have done those from my youth.” It is learning to live, think and be like Him in our dealings with people and in our relationship with God all the time.