Text: Matthew 16: 5-12
5 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6 Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” 8 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? 9 Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11 How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” 12 Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees
Over the past few weeks we have been looking at ways to interpret scripture and sometimes we have to decide whether or not we are going to look for metaphor in a particular scripture or not. That is not the case with this particular pericope, because there is an obvious use of metaphor by Jesus. He warns the disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees, using yeast as a metaphor. But the disciples miss the point the first time around-they think he is talking about bread; they are looking at the yeast in a literal sense, rather than the metaphor. Finally, when Jesus explains it all, the disciples sort of understand that Jesus was talking about the teachings of the Pharisees and not actually yeast, but I’m not certain they understood fully what Jesus was trying to say.
In order for us to fully perceive what Jesus was trying to warn us about, I think we need to ask a few more questions and then try to apply the answers to those questions not to just this text, but apply them to what is happening now, in the 21st century. With that in mind, let’s begin to explore this text by asking some of those questions.
My first question is why yeast? Why would Jesus use yeast as a metaphor to warn about teachings that he may have considered to be dangerous or off base or just flat out wrong? What is there about yeast that makes this a good metaphor?
In order to answer those questions, I think it is necessary for us to understand a little bit about yeast, about what it is and how it works and what it does. I guess there isn’t any way to know for sure that 1st century yeast was the same as a package of yeast you buy today at the grocery store today, but my assumption is that they would be close to being the same. Or at least work in the same way.
Most of us know that yeast is used in several ways, the most common is when we bake bread or rolls, and we have to add yeast to make the dough rise before we bake it. What does rising bread have to do with bad or false teachings of the Pharisees? Does anyone see a connection here? Why would Jesus use yeast as a metaphor in this way? Are the teachings of the Pharisees puffed up like rising bread? That could be, I guess. Yeast can also be used to help things ferment, so if you are making wine or beer, yeast can help with the fermentation process. Are we to see a connection here? Is Jesus saying that the teachings of the Pharisees can be intoxicating? That is one possible direction we could go, I guess, but it still doesn’t seem quite right to me.
Maybe it would be helpful if we looked more closely at how yeast actually works. Maybe if we look into what happens with yeast, there may be a clue about why Jesus would use this metaphor to warn us about bad teachings. I’m looking for something more than the teachings are puffed up or intoxicating, but I do think those things are true.
Does anyone remember Pac-Man? Anyone ever play Pac-Man at one of the video games you might see in a store or a lobby of some sort? It’s OK, you can admit it – I played a lot of Pac-Man, but Q-Bert was my favorite, but that is another story. I mention Pac-Man because I think it is a good visual for us to think about when we think of yeast.
Yeast is a collection of millions of single-cell organisms, kind of like Pac-Man, that when we dissolve the yeast in warm water, we kind of wake them up. Once awake, these single-cell organisms race around and begin to consume sugar; so instead of Pac-Man eating all those little dots, imagine the dots to be granules of sugar and we will get pretty close to a visual image of yeast at work. As these organisms consume the sugar, they also create a byproduct of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide collects in the fabric of the bread and causes it to rise over time as more and more CO2 is released.
This may not be an exact translation you might find in a science book, but it is close enough for our purposes. The conclusion that I’m looking for here is that the addition of yeast begins a chemical reaction of sorts that actually changes the structure of the material the yeast is added to. The original dough is transformed into something else, it is physically changed. The addition of the yeast also changes the intent or the meaning of the dough. You could think of it in this way; the original dough was to be used for crackers, but you add yeast and now the dough is used for bread. So the intent changes along with the physical nature of the dough. Yeast can transform one thing into something else; that also describes the fermentation process as well. What begins as grape juice transforms into wine. It gets changed-and I think that is the point. That is the metaphor. The Pharisees take a scripture or a teaching and they change it to suit the circumstance or to create an advantage for them.
Now, I think we are getting somewhere-this is something that would make Jesus unhappy, to twist scripture around to make it mean something else. To take a teaching and add yeast so that it is transformed into something else and more often than not, that transformation is to the advantage of the one adding the yeast!
We know that Jesus was at odds with the Pharisees and the Sadducees on any number of points and they were always trying to get Jesus to say something that could be damaging so they would have evidence to bring against him. Often they would add their own version of yeast to a teaching or a scripture and ask Jesus to interpret what they had to say in order to trip him up. This was in part, I think, the warning that Jesus was giving to the disciples. In other words, watch your step fellas, watch what you say, because they will transform what you say and turn it into something else. Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
I think an appropriate question for us to ask is; does this still happen today? For me, the answer is a resounding Yes! I think it happens all the time. I am probably guilty of this to some degree as we all are, but there does seem to be violations that are more severe than others. There are teachings or scripture twistings that become harmful, hurtful, oppressive and downright dangerous-and generally I think most of us know it when we see it.
For example, a couple of weeks ago we received an anonymous mailing in the office here at the church. Apparently someone has decided that they have an inside connection with God and as a result, God has shared with them all sorts of interesting information about the book of Revelation. For example, in January of 2013, the anti-Christ was sworn into office here in the US. Now I don’t know if you happened to vote for Barack Obama or not, it’s none of my business. But even if you did not vote for him, I kinda doubt you consider him to be the Anti-Christ. Seems like yeast to me.
The mailing goes on; On September 11, of this year-a little more than a month from now, we are to experience a global financial crisis and then about a week later the 6th Seal will open and we can look forward to massive earthquakes, meteorites and volcanic activity and tsunamis that will put the East Coast, the West Coast and the Gulf Coast all underwater for up to 100 miles inland. Then this is the one I really like; on October 21, 2015 the First Trumpet will sound, as described in Revelation, and accompanying that event the Yellowstone Super Volcano will erupt. Well, so much for the Pumpkin Patch. It goes on, but you get the idea. Seems like yeast to me.
And we wonder why some outsiders looking in are suspicious of the church?
There are others that are more subtle. How many of you watch football on a regular basis? When there is an extra point or a field goal about to happen and the TV cameras are focused on the goal posts, what do you see in the crowd? That’s right, someone is holding a sign that says John 3:16.
Some of you may think this is an appropriate witness and there isn’t anything wrong with holding a sign for millions of viewers to see as an evangelism tool. You have a right to that opinion and the people holding the signs have a right to do that as well. But I wish they wouldn’t. It seems like yeast to me. Here is the problem; I think the verse is taken out of context and the implication with the verse is that you had better believe in Jesus, or else you are doomed. The verse by itself can be taken as being very judgmental and very rigid and very exclusive. In all the years I have been watching football, not once have I ever seen a sign that says John 3:17-anyone know what that says? Yep, it says that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world…but we don’t see that one. Seems like yeast to me.
Then of course there is a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth right now about the issues surrounding the LGBT community, equal rights for that community and so forth. There are many who gleefully quote all sorts of scripture in support of their bias and fear without any recognition that the scriptures they quote appear sometimes right next to others they choose to completely ignore. This is yeast to me. If they quote from the New Testament, citing perhaps some of the writings of Paul, generally they do so without any clue as to what Paul is actually addressing in the text. The meaning of the text is transformed into something it is not and that looks like yeast to me.
These are just three quick examples, but there are many others. What we need to remember are two things that are critically important. The first thing we need to remember is that Jesus issued a warning about anyone who adds yeast to scripture and teachings. The second thing we need to be aware of is that there are many people on the outside looking in. When they are exposed to teachings that contain high levels of yeast, they make the only conclusion that they can. We must be intoxicated.
Unfortunately for us, many people on the outside looking in think all Christians are generally alike. They lump us into the group that keep mass quantities of yeast handy. Because it is the news, they figure it must be true! And that is where you come in. We are not all alike. Each of us has opinions and beliefs and questions that are different from the person we are seated next to, let alone all the Christians everywhere. But if we want people to know about the differences, we have to tell them. No one else will. And that is food for thought. Go in Peace. Amen.