Matthew 16:5-12

THE DANGEROUS LEAVEN

Matt. 16:5-12

When the disciples came to the other side, they had forgotten to take loaves with them. Jesus said to them, “See that you beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They argued amongst themselves: “He must be saying this because we did not bring loaves.” Jesus knew what they were thinking. “Why,” he said, “are you arguing among yourselves, you of little faith, because you have no loaves? Do you not yet understand, and do you not remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you took up? And do you not remember the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many hampers you took up? How is it that you do not understand that it was not about loaves that I spoke to you? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven that is in loaves, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

We are presented here with a passage of very great difficulty. In fact, we can only guess at its meaning.

Jesus and his disciples had set out for the other side of the lake and the disciples had forgotten to take any bread with them. For some reason they were quite disproportionately worried and disturbed by this omission. Jesus said to them: “See that you beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Now the word leaven has two meanings. It has its physical and literal meaning, a little piece of fermented dough, without which bread cannot be baked. It was in that sense that the disciples understood Jesus to speak about leaven. With their minds fixed on the forgotten loaves, all that they could think of was that he was warning them against a certain kind of dangerous leaven. They had forgotten to bring bread which meant that, if they were to obtain any, they must buy it from the Gentiles on the other side of the lake. Now no Jew who was strictly orthodox could eat any bread which had been baked or handled by a Gentile. Therefore the problem of getting bread on the other side of the lake was insoluble.
The disciples may well have thought that Jesus was saying, “You have forgotten the bread which is clean; take care when you get to the other side of the lake that you do not pollute yourselves by buying bread with defiling leaven in it.”

The disciples’ minds were running on nothing but bread. So Jesus asked them to remember. “Remember,” he said, “the feeding of the five thousand and of the four thousand; and remember the plenty there was to eat, and the abundance which was left over. And when you remember these things, surely you will stop fussing about trifles. You have surely seen that in my presence these trifling problems have already been solved and can be solved again. Stop worrying and trust me.”

That was put so bluntly and so clearly that the disciples were bound to understand. Then Jesus repeated his warning: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Leaven has a second meaning which is metaphorical and not literal and physical. It was the Jewish metaphorical expression for an evil influence. To the Jewish mind leaven was always symbolic of evil. It is fermented dough; the Jew identified fermentation with putrefaction; leaven stood for all that was rotten and bad. Leaven has the power to permeate any mass of dough into which it is inserted. Therefore leaven stood for an evil influence liable to spread through life and to corrupt it.

Now the disciples understood. They knew that Jesus was not talking about bread at all; but he was warning them against the evil influence of the teaching and the beliefs of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

What would be in Jesus’ mind when he warned against the evil influence of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees? That is something which we can only surmise; but we do know the characteristics of the minds of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

(i) The Pharisees saw religion in terms of laws and commandments and rules and regulations. They saw religion in terms of outward ritual and outward purity. So Jesus is saying, “Take care lest you make your religion a series of `thou shalt nots’ in the way the Pharisees do. Take care that you do not identify religion with a series of outward actions, and forget that what matters is the state of a man’s heart.” This is a warning against living in legalism and caning it religion; it is a warning against a religion which looks on a man’s outward actions and forgets the inner state of his heart.

(ii) The Sadducees had two characteristics, which were closely connected. They were wealthy and aristocratic, and they were deeply involved in politics. So Jesus may well have been saying, “Take care that you never identify the kingdom of heaven with outward goods, and that you never pin your hopes of bringing it in to political action.” This may well be a warning against giving material things too high a place in our scheme of values and against thinking that men can be reformed by political action. Jesus may well have been reminding men that material prosperity is far from being the highest good, and that political action is far from producing the most important results. The true blessings are the blessings of the heart; and the true change is not the change of outward circumstances but the change of the hearts of men.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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