Jesus warns us to take heed of the leaven of the Pharisees. St. Mark adds, “and the Sadducees,” while St. Luke adds “and Herod.” In Sts. Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, the disciples think Jesus is talking about bread, but later figure out, according to St. Matthew, that Jesus is speaking of the teaching of the Pharisees. However, St. Luke tells us that Jesus himself specifically says that the leaven of the Pharisees is hypocrisy.
Leaven is a living thing, a yeast that grows when you feed it. It is an apt metaphor for any attitude or way of thinking that can begin small and grow to permeate the whole entity. Leaven is used as both a positive and negative example in the New Testament. The Kingdom of God is likened to a little leaven that a baker puts in a bunch of dough until the whole is leavened. However, we are warned to take heed of the leaven of the Pharisees. St. Paul tells the Galatians (ch. 5) that if they want to be circumcised, they will be obligated to keep the whole Law (of Moses). Apparently, to tie righteousness to any outward behaviour (rather than to Christ) is to accept a kind of leaven that will lead to greater emphasis on outer righteousness. “A little leaven,” St. Paul then says, “leavens the whole lump.” And to the Corinthians (ch. 5), St. Paul says that they are to purge themselves of the “old leaven of malice and wickedness.”
Just before Jesus warns his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, the Pharisees had asked Jesus for a sign that He was the Messiah—never mind the fact that Jesus had just healed and cast demons out of several people in their presence. In St. Luke’s account, after they ask for a sign, the crowds ask for a sign and they are told the sign of Jonah. Then a Pharisee asks Jesus to dine, and at that dinner, Jesus levels some pretty severe rebukes at the Pharisees (and lawyers and scribes who are among the Pharisees):
- They wash only the outside of the cup, but inside is full of greed and wickedness
- They are meticulous tithe givers (even tithing garden herbs), but have passed by justice and love of God
- They love the best seats and greetings in public
- They are like graves that people walk over not knowing they are walking over a grave
- They load people with burdens that they do not help carry
- They have taken away the key of knowledge and do not enter themselves
Then Jesus says to his disciples: “Take heed of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”
In past blog posts, I have reveled somewhat in what I have called a “holy hypocrisy.” Holy hypocrisy aims at inner transformation by beginning with outward changes, it forces my actions to conform to the holy behaviour that is not yet fully fixed in my heart, but that I want to be fully lodged there. However, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees that Jesus is talking about has nothing to do with holiness. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is not aimed at inner transformation. It is aimed at hiding. It is a continuation of Adam and Eve’s hiding in Paradise. It is a covering of what is shameful not to heal it, but in an attempt to deceive and avoid consequences. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees focuses on what is seen, on the outside of the cup, in order to hide what is unseen, the inside of the cup.
Jesus warns us of this kind of hypocrisy because, like leaven, if we allow a little of it to dwell in our hearts and minds, it will take over. Once we begin to care more about what we appear to be than what we are, we have already become a host to the leaven of the Pharisees.
This Pharisaical hypocrisy has been rampant in much of my Christian experience. For most of my conscious Christian life, I have modified my behaviour not guided by what I longed to become in my Inner Man, but by what my church culture told me was or was not a good witness. What I ate, what I drank, what I wore, where I went, what kind of music I listened to, how I spoke, was (and still is sometimes) dictated by a concern for what others might think, not by my desire to be like Christ. Ironically, by the standards of “good witness,” as defined in most church culture (Orthodox or otherwise), Jesus was often not a very good witness. That is part of the reason why the Pharisees were so upset with Him: He eats with publicans and harlots. I can’t imagine the kind of trouble I would be in if a picture appeared in a newspaper of me having lunch with known gangsters and prostitutes.
I don’t want my behaviour to be guided by a desire to keep up appearances, yet I don’t want to offend or confuse others unnecessarily.
This is a tough call. On the one hand, I don’t want to be driven merely by how I appear to be; but on the other hand, Jesus warns us (one of the seven “take heeds”) not to offend the little ones who believe in Him. Sometimes love compels us to modify our behaviour merely not to offend those weak in faith. This is a theme in several of St. Paul’s letters: not eating meat sacrificed to idols, not because there is anything wrong with it (if your conscience is not bothered), but because others may be bothered by it, and it is not loving to offend a brother or sister in this way.
And so, how do you know the difference?
It’s not easy. The difference is not outside us. The difference is in our heart. The inside of the cup is most important, but the outside should be washed too. Jesus speaks to the Pharisees about tithing garden herbs while neglecting the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matt. 23:23). Yes, outer matters have an importance, but not to the neglect of—and certainly not to hide the neglect of—the weightier matters: Justice, mercy, faith and love of God.
It sometimes happens that the love of God in us grows cold. And when that happens, it is easiest just to keep up the appearances and not to deal seriously with the coldness of our hearts. When we do this, when I do this, I am nurturing the leaven of the Pharisees. It’s easy to stay busy. It’s easy to be caught up in the “cares, riches and pleasures of life” so that we don’t want to take the time and effort to warm our hearts toward God. It’s easier just to wash the outside of the cup and leave the inside for another day.
Certainly, we all go through seasons of unusual busyness, when our relationship with God gets put on the back burner. When this happens in my life, I often don’t even notice that my love for God has grown cold. What generally brings my cold heart to my attention is how I start to treat others. When I find myself willing to cheat others, when I have no mercy, when I fear what others might do because my faith in God has slipped away, when I start to notice these in my life it is always a wake-up call: “Hey, Father Michael, your heart has grown cold! Start washing the inside of the cup!”
Take heed of the leaven of the Pharisees. It slips in when we are not paying attention, like a yeast floating in the air. It’s the old leaven that we have to purge out of ourselves—not if it appears, but when it appears. The leaven of the Pharisees is to hide our sin, to cover up by pretending goodness and doing what outwardly seems righteous. However, rather than hiding as our fore-parents did, we need to run to our loving Father saying, “I have sinned and I am no longer worthy to be called your child.” When we do this, our loving Father receives us, clothes us and celebrates a Eucharistic sacrifice for us. And then we say to ourselves, “Why did I waste all that time in the dirty cup of my own passions and fears when love and forgiveness was waiting all of the time just for my return?”