Beware the Yeast of the Pharisees!

In a past post, I have described in some depth my ideas about the Yeast of the Pharisees.

The Yeast of the Pharisees is the natural tendency of religious people* to slowly infiltrate churches with their message of legalism and rules, and thus to slowly erode away and  destroy the freedom and spontaneity that Jesus brings. It happens time and time again, when new churches are formed, after a revival, and in fact whenever a new move of God brings freedom. We simply don’t seem to learn the lessons of history!

So, this is what’s known as the Yeast of the Pharisees, and we need to be, as Jesus put it in Mt 16:6, on our guard against it. In other words, to make sure that it doesn’t get a look-in!

So, let’s look at someone else’s perspective on this too, rather than reading my rants on the subject! In the fairly old article I have copied into my blog below, the writer describes the Yeast of the Pharisees and also that of the Sadducees, another religious group of Jesus’s time. Clearly, my ideas are not new; others have also remarked on this phenomenon.

Beware the Yeast of the Pharisees.
by John Hemer MHM

In Matthew 16:6 Jesus says to the disciples: “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.Many of us are at a loss as to what Jesus meant. Don’t worry so were the disciples. Mark then tells us: And they said among themselves, ‘It is because we have not brought any bread.Jesus seems to be frustrated with their lack of understanding so he says: You have so little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand?

It is rather important for us to understand what Jesus was getting at. Any baker will tell you that a little yeast is enough to make a whole batch of dough rise. Just a little of it affects everything. To understand what Jesus means you could translate ‘yeast’ as ‘attitude’ Just a little of the attitude of those people affects everything, corrupts everything. In the New Testament world, yeast was often used as a symbol for corruption. Jesus cites two different indeed opposite religious attitudes and says that both of them, even in a small dose can effectively corrupt one’s whole Christian life.

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’ that just trying to get on and do the will of God. It makes people continually define themselves over against others: it makes them assume for instance that the main thing about being Catholic is not being Protestant – or vice versa.

The yeast of the Sadducees is precisely the opposite tendency. The Sadducees were the ruling elite, the equivalent of the ‘Tory party at prayer’ if you like. They were big friend with the Romans since the Romans kept them in power. For them the important thing was to keep the status quo as it was – because of course it favoured them. In order to do this they were prepared to make any number of accommodations, they were prepared to water down their Jewish faith. For instance they allowed the pagan Romans to appoint the High Priest. (A possible 20th century equivalent of that would perhaps be the Roman Curia letting the Soviet Russians appoint the Pope in order to maintain their own power.) They were not committed to God so much as to their own position, but they did have considerable religious power and used that to maintain things the way they liked them. They were prepared to go along with more or less anything so long as their world didn’t change.

Both these attitudes are constant temptations for Christians. 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.

Probably for most western Catholics, the bigger temptation is to be leavened by the yeast of the Sadducees. While some Christians make themselves clearly, aggressively different to everyone else, many of us live and think in a way that is scarcely distinguishable from our unbelieving neighbours. We practise our religion quietly and discretely, but we don’t let it frighten the horses, don’t let it in any way make us seem strange or out of step with the rest of the world. All too easily, Christianity becomes something tacked on to the end of our lives, rather than the organising principle, the driving force of our lives. The Sadducees were in one sense the most Jewish of people, they could trace their ancestry back to the time of Solomon, but their religion was comfortable and static, in no way a force for transformation. If we adopt their attitude, our faith does nothing to change us or make us grow in the likeness of Christ, which is its real purpose. In fact, unlike the yeast of the Pharisees, the yeast of the Sadducees is not something people consciously adopt; it’s something they just slip into, it’s the obvious way to be, just to go along with the way things are.

The Christian is called to be passionately committed to Christ while remaining open to others, and to be open to others without simply accepting anything and everything.

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If you are a new believer, the best way to avoid the Yeast is to avoid allowing rules and expectations of others to influence you. You are accepted and loved by God; do not feel you have to conform to what others believe.

If you are a seasoned believer, please take the time to examine yourself and see if you actually have the freedom that you believe should be yours in Christ. Are you feeling like there should be more to your faith? Are you feeling perpetually constrained within the boundaries that perhaps God has not laid down for you? Do you feel like perhaps you would feel insecure if you stepped beyond these boundaries? Do you constantly wonder whether or not something you enjoy, that you feel is legitimate, is considered ‘sin’ by others? Are you noticing what look like contradictions in the Bible and you wonder if perhaps your teachers haven’t been entirely honest in not facing up to those contradictions?

If any of the above describes you, then perhaps read the articles linked to above, and please also let me quote for you from the blog ‘Jesus without Baggage’ where the author, Tim Chastain, explains very clearly how you can obtain the freedom that is rightfully yours:

We are not to Follow Burdensome Religious Rules

When I joined an evangelical denomination in 1970, they read me the teachings of the church. I agreed to abide by prohibitions such as drinking alcohol or using tobacco, swearing oaths, wearing jewelry, and belonging to lodges. There were also many such prohibitions not on the official list, but they were VERY serious about all these ‘sins’.

When a person begins to follow Jesus, their natural inclination is to want to live as he wants us to, but there are two ways believers go about doing this. The first is to discover the religious rules God wants us to follow, as my church did. The measure of success is how effectively we avoid ‘sins’.

This is called legalism, on which I have written a number of posts.

Jesus Teaches Us a Different Way

A second approach is to discover Jesus’ principles which give direction but not rules. These principles become our guide, and the measure of our success is how well we effectively treat people with their best interest in mind. There are no ‘sins’ to avoid; it is all in how we relate to people. I firmly believe this option expresses Jesus’ desire of us, based on his words and actions in the Gospels.

Following religious rules is actually the very opposite what Jesus teaches. Religious rules create a tremendous burden for the believer, while Jesus wishes to relieve our burdens; and they also prevent us from growing as healthy believers. Knowing that we should live by Jesus’ principles and not by burdensome religious rules is Good News!

On the other hand, legalism is Bad News. I don’t think those who teach and live by religious rules are bad; they sincerely think they are doing what Jesus asks. But they are misguided and heavily burdened down. Jesus wishes them better than that.

Image credit: Naked

What does it Mean to Love People?

This is all well and good, but how do we even begin loving people if there are no ‘rules’ on how to do it? It helps to consider how we would like people to treat us. How are some ways you prefer to be treated? Why don’t you write them down?

I think an important aspect is that our love and concern be genuine—not just a forced, legalistic duty we must perform. We can start by considering how much the Father loves us and is concerned with our good. As we get a glimpse of his love for us, we begin to feel more lovable and think better about ourselves in response. We can then consider how the Father loves everyone else in the same way, and as we come to see people as the Father sees them we can begin to love them as he does.

This leads to practical behaviors in our interaction with people, some of which might be:

  • Respecting them
  • Empathizing with them
  • Accepting them
  • Being kind and compassionate
  • Caring about them
  • Considering their feelings
  • Making them feel significant
  • Having concern for their well-being
  • Helping those who need it

Why don’t you think for a moment and add your own thoughts to this list? Then, if you wish, share your thoughts in comments below so we can all benefit from them.

We will never be perfect in these behaviors, but we can commit to improve our interactions with others by remembering the Father’s love for us and for them.

What Things Should We Avoid in Relating to People?

If we love people, some behaviors are inconsistent with such love. They might include:

  • Hurting people or taking revenge
  • Judging or excluding people
  • Gossiping, or slandering people
  • Expressing disapproval, disgust, disdain, hostility, or hatred
  • Taking advantage
  • Dominating people
  • Demeaning, insulting, berating, intimidating, or manipulating people

Here are a few behaviors legalists often use in their understanding of the ‘rule’ to love people:

  • “Loving the sinner; hating the sin”
  • “Confronting them with love”
  • “Loving” them in a shallow, meaningless way

These behaviors do not represent genuine love toward others. Why don’t you take a moment and jot down some other things that are inconsistent with genuinely loving people—then mention them in comments if you wish.

If we have no genuine love for people, then we have no message for them either. If we do not love and care for people then all our judging them, telling them how sinful they are, and badgering them to accept Jesus will be ineffective. We might succeed in having them ‘pray the sinner’s prayer’, commit to our doctrinal beliefs, and follow us in taking up legalistic burdens, but their spiritual lives will be terribly flawed and stunted.

Growing in Love and Practical Application of Love

We will never become perfect in loving people appropriately, but we can grow at it. Here are some steps that should help in that growth.

Read about Jesus in the Gospels

First of all, read the words and stories of Jesus and notice how he consistently treats people—even those that many others thought not worth bothering about. The more you read about Jesus, the more you will understand how he demonstrated love and concern for others.

You will also notice that he was often short with one particular group of people—the Pharisees. This is because they were legalists who despised the common people who needed love the most. Jesus said in Matthew 23:

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

Choose Mentors who Understand Jesus’ Teaching on Love

Find people well along the way in loving people as Jesus taught. Talk with them about it and learn what helps them grow in love of others. These mentors might be authors of good books instead of someone you know, but in any case find people who evidence love and learn from them.

Create Some Guidelines for Yourself

Guidelines are not ‘rules’, and they do not replace good judgment in specific situations, but they can help prepare us for personal problem areas in interacting with people. An important one for me was ‘Don’t yell at people.’ Yelling at people is meant to be intimidating and dominating, and it leads to alienation rather than reconciliation. Often I was sorry once I cooled off, but the damage was done. Over time I was able to avoid yelling.

Guidelines need not necessarily be written so long as we are prepared to use them as situations require. It is important to remember that guidelines are only for us; we cannot impose our guidelines on someone else, and no one can place them on us—that is legalism.

I hope this post has been useful, and it leads into our next Good News topic: it is exciting Good News to learn that when we follow Jesus we become agents for expanding God’s kingdom on earth. And we have already taken an important step! Spreading love and reconciliation is an important part of the kingdom work.

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*In this article, my use of the words ‘religious people’ means those for whom following the Rules are – consciously or unconsciously – felt to be the chief way in which they please God. These people usually have a generally unwritten formula or set of rules for their faith – and it can be any faith: Christian, Muslim, whatever – which they personally follow, and they expect others to follow it too; indeed, anyone who does not follow their way 100% is ‘lost’, or some variation on that.

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