Matthew 16 6 Jesus told them, “Look out! Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
If you want dough to rise, why punch it down? Who figured out you could aerate a loaf by punching the air out of it?
In Jesus’ time, Israel had been punched down by empire after empire, unable to rise as a kingdom. Zealots blamed other nations for transgressing the boundaries set by God, but Pharisees believed the nations could not oppress them if God’s people were obedient to his Law. The problem was the disobedient people in the community who were blocking the restoration of God’s reign for everyone.
Pharisees took on the role of identifying the Lawbreakers, placing communal pressure on them to shape up or ship out. Either way it would purify the community, but they could not let the rot remain. A little yeast affects the whole lump.
Jesus disputed their programme for purifying Israel. Instead of shaming and ostracising those whom the Pharisees labelled “sinners,” Jesus honoured and included them — sharing bread.
If “yeast” was the Pharisees’ metaphor for the rot that infects the community, Jesus turns their symbol against them. They are the yeast that harms the community! Their message of guilt and rejection drives people away from God and destroys community. This approach will not restore the kingdom: instead of drawing people together under God’s reign, they drive people apart.
For Pharisees, sin is breaking the rules. For Jesus, sin is breaking the relationships. Jesus sees the Pharisees as communal wrecking balls — smashing those they assign to destruction. God’s community (the kingdom of God) cannot be built like this.
Jesus’ message: guilt or good news?
What disturbs me most about this passage is how disciples respond:
Matthew 16 7 They discussed it among themselves, “Oops; we didn’t bring any bread.”
The disciples were unable to hear Jesus’ message about the Pharisees. Why? Their own guilt! They were so conscious of their own failure (forgetting the food) that it blocked out what Jesus was saying.
Every teacher, every preacher needs to know this. Jesus warns against condemners who manipulate the crowds with guilt, but his own students cannot get the message … because of their guilt feelings!
From a position of power (preaching, teaching), guilt is the easiest reaction to get, the easiest way to manipulate people. As Jesus found, people respond with guilt even when you don’t intend it, even when you’re explaining how just destructive guilt-mongering is.
That’s why we must rethink how we present the gospel today. The good news of the restoration of God’s reign through Jesus Christ our Lord has been supplanted by a message of guilt. Tell everyone they’re guilty. Demand they apologize for their sins to receive personal forgiveness. You can get a response, but this isn’t the gospel of Jesus.
The church of the Middle Ages mastered the message of guilt. We’re still doing it — threatening people as sinners in the hands of an angry god.
Be on your guard against the yeast of the modern-day Pharisees. This is not Jesus’ message.
When Jesus realizes his students aren’t getting the message because of their guilt, he explains the difference between his programme and the Pharisees’. Jesus is not cutting people off for their failures. He’s taking care of his people, feeding them, restoring them as God’s people, his community, his kingdom.
When 5000 people followed him into the wilderness to hear his words, did he berate them for not being a good enough community for God? Did he tell them off for failing to bring bread? Or did he provide for them? Who did he include in his meal? Did everyone get enough? (16:9)
What about the 4000? Bread for everyone? Leftovers? More than enough? (16:10-11)
You have not understood Jesus if you think he said to these crowds, “Now, while I’ve got you all here today, please bow your heads and repeat after me, ‘I am a bad person (sinner), asking for my forgiveness.’” Jesus wasn’t a Pharisee.
Jesus didn’t want his followers stuck in fear of their failures. He wanted them to trust his leadership (16:8)
Beware the Pharisees’ yeast. Knocking people down with guilt is not how the kingdom rises. We’re not to knead them, but to feed them.
Matthew 16:5-12 (my translation, compare NIV)
5 His followers crossed to the other side without remembering to bring food. 6 Jesus told them, “Look out! Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 They discussed it among themselves, “Oops; we didn’t bring any bread.”
8 Jesus realized and said, “Why discuss among yourselves that you have no bread, you who have little faith? 9 Don’t you get it yet? Don’t you remember the five rolls of the 5000, and how many basketfuls you collected? 10 Not even the seven rolls of the 4000, and how many bags you collected? 11 How could you think I was talking to you about food? Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
12 Then they realized that he wasn’t talking about guarding against bread-making yeast, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Update 2022-08-14: original translation added.