I heard a sermon this week based on Matthew 16:5-12, and I couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed at the limited scope of the sermon itself. The speaker talked about being on your guard against the “leaven” of the world, or the culture, opinions, perspectives that we mindlessly “intake,” because if you put something bad into your mind then something “bad” will undoubtedly come out. I am not denying the fundamental truth of that statement—Jesus teaches that very thing in Matthew 15:11, just one chapter before. And the speaker did offer some useful reminders of how it’s important to slow down and take time to engage with God. But I think I was tired of the same old sermon which cautions Christians about listening to this or that type of music or watching this or that type of movie. I think the text in question speaks much deeper into what a life bent on following Christ should look like.
Honestly, I think that if Jesus had said “be on your guard against the leaven of the Romans,” than deeming Jesus’ words as an exhortation for cultural purity would undoubtedly be appropriate. We could possibly take Jesus’ words to mean “Be on your guard against what movies you watch, and what books you read and what you do in your spare time.” However, Jesus said “be on your guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” I was amazed that the speaker never once explained who the Pharisees or Sadducees are, because understanding who they are is critical to understanding the passage.
Learning the Framework
I think one of the major weaknesses in many Christian churches today is that many teachers within the churches do not adequately prepare new and younger disciples in Christ how to think through the broader scope. What I mean by that is, we are taught that so-and-so is right and this-and-that are wrong, but we are never given a complete framework as to why this is so. We are often taught morality, rather than what the kingdom of God truly is or what a life of discipleship should look like. This is why many 18 year olds abandon their churchgoing habits as soon as they set foot onto a university campus—I have seen this firsthand. They are not equipped spiritually or intellectually to deal with the onslaught of worldviews in a secular environment—they haven’t been taught the framework or how to think, nor how this translates into action and life.
Overturning the Paradigm
I believe that many times when Jesus took the time to teach through parables or through plain instruction, that He is often telling these 1st century Jewish men and women a new way to think and a new way to live, thinking beyond the limited scope of what they thought the Torah and prophets and Law have been communicating. I think Jesus did some serious paradigm-busting during His three year ministry. Knowing that has forced me to reconsider every parable and teaching that Jesus ever spoke, because it could be some paradigm or assumption of mine needs to be completely overturned….
Looking at the Text
Back to the passage. Jesus said “be on your guard against the Pharisees and Sadducees..” Well who are the Pharisees and Sadducees?
It is important to understand that the Pharisees were not amoral crazies, running around dancing in pagan celebrations and wreaking moral havoc on society. About 6,000 members-strong, the Pharisees were a Jewish sect, deeply devoted to purity, traditions, and the study and interpretation of Scripture. The Sadducees were on the opposite end of the Jewish sect spectrum (try saying that five times fast;) They held a more literal interpretation of Scripture, and denied anything that was not clearly taught in Scripture, particularly the resurrection of the dead or angels and spirits… It should be known that the Sadducees were often wealthy and held high positions in society. So the Pharisees and Sadducees made up a substantial part of the religious community in 1st century Palestine.
The thing that strikes me as that both of these groups were composed of Jews. Jesus wasn’t saying “Be on your guard against those amoral outsiders…” He was essentially saying “be on your guard against the teaching of religious people.” Hmm… almost like Jesus is warning against religious conservatives and liberals..?
Up until this point in history, all that mankind has ever known of God is religion… All mankind knew was “if you do this, you will earn this.” “If you are good enough and say enough prayers and make enough sacrifices then you can earn eternal life.” Historically, that’s all the world had known, until Jesus showed up—Logos on earth.
Gospel of Grace
The Pharisees and Sadducees were still living under the assumption that they could earn God’s favor… That they had to achieve moral perfection in order to be pleasing with God. But the whole purpose of Christ coming to earth was to overturn that assumption and unleash God’s grace into the world through sacrificial love on the cross, to bring salvation to all people. Isn’t that the heart of the gospel? I believe when Jesus told his followers to be on their guard against leaven, He was warning them against cheap religion and instead pointing them to Himself, the gospel of grace manifested in a person, the true Bread of life.
Even more interestingly enough, this whole discussion of leaven comes directly after Jesus feeds a crowd of four thousand. After this exhilarating time when Jesus is healing the crippled, blind, mute and many people and He’s teaching with incredible insight and authority, He further amazes the crowd by feeding all four thousand of them a meal from seven loaves and some fish. Not only that, there are seven basketfuls of leftovers. It’s almost like Jesus is demonstrating firsthand what God’s abundant grace looks like in physical form. And then after this miraculous event, Jesus takes it one step further and teaches about the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” It’s almost like He is showing the difference between what the cross accomplishes—lavish abundance of God’s grace and love in our lives (bread) and the stale, pale imitation and religion of the Pharisees and Sadducees in contrast.
I am not a biblical scholar nor have I read extensive commentary on this passage, so please know that it is completely possible that I am way off base here… But it truly seems that Jesus is urging people to abandon the temptation to think we have to be good enough or do enough good works to please God. God is not impressed with outgoing religiosity. He is not impressed with how many years I’ve been going to church, youth group or campus ministry. He’s not impressed with how many mission trips I’ve been on, or how many times I’ve led worship. He loves me because I am created in His image, and my relationship with Him is restored only because I have accepted Christ as Lord…And I have done absolutely nothing on my own strength that is worthy of that love and grace.
And it’s often harder for “religious” people to understand that fact than for “sinners.” That’s why the prostitutes and thieves and tax collectors came running to Christ—because they already knew how broken they were. They’re already wearing their sin and brokenness on their sleeve. We religious people hide our brokenness and pride with our good works and our sunny dispositions and our ability to always have the right answer for everything… That’s why it’s almost always easier for the prodigal son to accept the Father’s love, than for the elder brother to…
I think it is absolutely critical when we study a passage of Scripture to always consider how the passage points us to Christ crucified, buried and resurrected, and what that means for the community of people that are supposedly following Him. There is nothing in this world more compelling or sobering than a Man sacrificing Himself for love and forgiveness.
If we don’t look at it through that perspective, through the lens of the cross, it is possible to totally miss the heart of the gospel—and to instead take in “leaven” that comes from religion…