Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 35. Yeast and Bread again
Mt 16:6 “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
There are many single words that Jesus used that immediately convey a wealth of ideas – or sometimes just one idea – and ‘yeast’ is one such picture word. We have already seen Jesus use yeast to convey one set of ideas in 13:33, but that was all about how a small piece of yeast in a larger batch of dough will manage to spread itself right through the batch. Now he uses yeast to convey something different.
Examining the context of the verse above we note first of all that this incident followed the feeding of the four thousand in Matt 15. A little while later the Pharisees came to challenge him as we saw in the previous study (Mt 16:1-4). Jesus then left them and we read, “When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread.” (v.5) So we’ll see shortly these three things – the feeding of the four thousand, the challenge of the Pharisees, and the fact of forgetting their bread supplies – were linked in the minds of the disciples when Jesus said to them, “Be careful, Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (v.6)
In their confusion, “They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.” (v.7) Intriguingly in Mark’s version of this incident he does not pick up on Jesus’ explanation that follows but simply uses the questioning of the disciples to rebuke them for worrying about running out of resources (see Mk 8:14-21) where he leaves it open-ended. In the verses that follow here in Matthew there is this double teaching – a challenge to believe that he, Jesus, could always look after them and provide for them, but also this warning about the Pharisees.
First of all the challenge about supply: “Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered?” (v.7-10) Mark makes it even more clear but it is sufficiently so here: Jesus is challenging them for worrying about their lack of bread; they should realise from the feeding of the two crowds that Jesus is capable of providing for them, that should not be an issue.
No, the bigger issue is the teaching coming from the Pharisees: “How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (v.11) i.e. it’s not the matter of the bread, says Jesus, it’s all about their ‘yeast’. In Luke’s account, he spells out that the reference to the yeast is a reference to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Lk 12:1b) Here in Matthew Jesus does not spell it out but Matthew himself, as he sometimes does, adds an explanation: “Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (v.12)
So we have observed the context and we have seen the double challenge but we still haven’t seen a full explanation of what Jesus meant by ‘yeast’ when he referred to the teaching of the Pharisees. Yes, Luke had picked up that one aspect of it was their hypocrisy, and we have had some thoughts about that previously when Jesus spoke about loads being imposed by them (Mt 11 – see study no. 19 – The Ploughing Team) but there seems something more to be considered. Why yeast? Well, from what we have considered before there may be a warning about how yeast spreads and thus how insidious the hypocritical teaching of the Pharisees was. The danger when you hear untruth is that it sticks in your mind and Satan can take it and emphasis it and worry you with it so that it seems to spread and spread and fill your thinking until you fully accept it. There are a number of calls in the New Testament to be alert about how we respond to the (false) teaching we may hear and to learn to assess it and reject it when we see it is false.
Now for an alternative possibility we have to go back into the Old Testament to see references to yeast. First of all, at Passover the Israelites were instructed to have dough ready without yeast (Ex 12:15-20), hence the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The absence of yeast signified the speed of the Exodus (Ex 12:39) whereby waiting for yeast to have spread through their dough would have slowed them down and the risen dough would have taken up more space. Yeast thus had the idea of something negative and in this case, something that would slow up the will of God operating. In Lev 2 it was forbidden to use yeast in the grain offering and the idea may be that yeast would make the mixture active and instead it should be a passive offering. The Jewish Rabbis suggested leaven was a picture of evil and perhaps this idea that it was changing the natural provision of God (wheat dough) and turning it into something else, gave a picture of how pride ‘blows up’ a person to make them think more of themselves that they really are.
In the New Testament, Paul chided the Galatians for allowing false teaching to sow doubt and erase faith (see Gal 5:7-9). Similarly he chided the Corinthians for their pride and spoke of this and other things such as ‘malice and wickedness’ as yeast which can work through the whole body of Christ unless it is purged (see 1 Cor 5:6-8).
Thus again and again the picture of yeast is of something that spreads, something that works without reference to God, and something negative if not downright evil, and the distorted and twisted man-centred teaching of the Pharisees was like this and that is what Jesus is referring to.
Our natural tendency in church, when we come across whisperings and gossip which spreads untruth, is to ignore it and hope that it will go away – but it doesn’t. It remains under the surface until at some inconvenient moment in the future it bursts to the surface and distorts the whole body and causes upheaval and division. We need to reveal such things for what they are and bring them out into the open, seeing where they come from and the harm they can do. Left alone they will spread through the body to make it something different from what God wants. That is the teaching of the New Testament, and we would do well to heed it. Ignoring it is potentially disastrous.