Leaven (A Reflection on Mark 8.14-21)

One of the recurring themes in the teaching of Jesus is that small things can have an oversized impact. Normally this is in the context of his teaching of the Kingdom of God, which he compares to a tiny mustard seed which nonetheless grows into a large bush, or to a priceless pearl, which, though small, is worth more than everything else someone has, or yeast, which, though microscopic, will work its way through and change the entire consistency of a batch of dough. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus reminds us that it goes both ways. If the Kingdom of God is like yeast, so are the negative influences on us and our faith.

“Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod,” He warns his disciples. Generally speaking, the Pharisees are cast in the Gospels as a group who control people through legalism while creating loopholes for themselves. But, in the context of this passage, the Pharisees have just come to Jesus demanding a sign authenticating him and his ministry — this on the heels of the miraculous Feeding of the Four Thousand! And so, in this passage perhaps the yeast Jesus is talking about is their hypocrisy — prejudice in the guise of scepticism. Either way there’s an unhealthy relationship to privilege: privilege as a means of controlling behaviours or as a means of controlling the conversation.

The yeast of Herod is more straightforward, but nonetheless damaging. As a puppet of the Roman Empire, Herod Antipas has little genuine power, but takes out the relative power he does have out on his subjects. And, while far from devout himself, he uses Jewish national religious identity to prop up his reign. Also, earlier in the Gospel, he allowed himself to be manipulated into killing John the Baptist. The image of Herod Antipas is one of a weak man who embodies the worst stereotypes of corporate middle management: ambition coupled with power that is both absolute and limited and motivated by his need to save face and look bigger and stronger than he is.

And so the Pharisees and Herod represent opposite but equally damaging relationships to power and religion: one the duplicity of using religion to control others’ behaviour, the other the cudgel of using religious identity to control their allegiance.

It may be easy to shake our heads and fists at the dastardly Pharisees and Herod, but if we look closely enough, we can see these tendencies at work in us. How often do we want to let ourselves off the hook for our own mistakes while holding others to a stricter standard? How often do the privileged in our own contexts determine the conversation? How often are we tempted to use what little authority we have over others to prove to ourselves just how important we are? Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod indeed.

These types of influence stand in contrast with the way of the Kingdom of God. Jesus, returning to the bread and yeast imagery, asks:

When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

In contrast to the self-serving and weak yeast of the Pharisees and Herod, the bread Jesus provides — worked through with the yeast of the Kingdom of God — is generous, over-abundant, overflowing. The numbers of baskets are symbolic in Jewish numerology: twelve representing the wholeness of God’s people and seven representing perfection. The bread Jesus provides is perfect food for the whole world. And it too is marked by its own leaven, its own insidious nature which works through the whole batch: the yeast of the Kingdom in which a poor widow’s offering is of greater value than a rich benefactor’s donation, in which the humble confession of a sinner is worth more than the grand prayers of the ‘good’, and in which the smallest grain of faith can work wonders. It is the yeast of the heart, the leavening of authenticity.

Whatever it is we’re making in our kitchens or in our lives, our efforts will be influenced by things — whether microorganisms or attitudes of the heart — that we can’t see and yet are nonetheless pervasive and transformative. We can’t not be influenced by the leaven around us. And so, the question before us is which leaven will we use? The hypocritical leaven of the privileged? The myopic leaven of the ego-obsessed? Or the authentic leaven of the Kingdom of God, which produces a bounty for everyone?

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