THE YEAST OF THE PHARISEES AND OF HEROD
In April Bob Hunter and I were in East Africa. Each day we spent time studying the ideas of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. One day we came across the statement of Jesus, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” We have been intrigued about how we should respond to this warning of Jesus. The following are some ideas that have been helpful to us.
Yeast in the New Testament is a symbol of the pervasive character of evil. In Luke 12:1 it is the sin of hypocrisy. In Matthew 13:33 it is error mixed with truth in the Kingdom of God. In 1 Corinthians 5:8 it is the sins of malice and wickedness. In Galatians 5:9 it is the domination of legalism. Yeast always permeates the substance into which it is put. Even if the yeast is a small substance it flavors all that it touches and therefore it has great power. Yeast also expands and puffs up. Leaders who are puffed up with their own importance or their own sense of righteousness do great damage in the world. That is why Jesus told his followers to beware of such a thing.
It is helpful to note that in the natural way of things, that which is bad infects the good and turns it bad, but that which is good does not seem to have the same power to change bad to good. Putting one good apple in a barrel of bad apples does not turn the bad apples to good apples.
An historical note: It was necessary for the Children of Israel to leave the leaven out of the bread because they needed to depart hurriedly to escape the slavery of Egypt. The yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod will bring enslavement. The Pharisees were slaves to their traditions and they used the traditions to enslave and to control people. Herod was a slave to his wealth and power and he used both to enslave people who were co-opted by their love of wealth and power.
The Leaven of the Pharisees
The Pharisees were the religious leaders of Israel and as such they were leaders in bringing the life of God to their people. All of them were not evil. Yet the strongest indictments of Jesus were directed at them. What then was the evil they did which was the contamination of the Pharisees?
1. Their teachings substituted religious traditions for obedience to God.
2. They were hypocrites who covered up their self-indulgent corruption.
3. They used the religious system for personal benefit. They valued material things more than they valued the creator of material things.
4. They lacked God’s compassion for the people and they used the system to avoid caring for the people.
5. They were self-seeking and proud.
6. They not only refused to obey God, but they hindered others who might want to do so.
7. They refused to break with the evil ways of their ancestors.
8. They persecuted God’s righteous messengers.
The teaching of Jesus about the evil that emanates from the Pharisees is very straightforward and often discussed with others who are followers of Jesus. We are most concerned about the power and influence of religious leaders and religious organizations as we seek to be part of a fellowship of people who have only one leader, who is Jesus.
The Leaven of Herod
The issues are not as clear regarding the evil influence of the “yeast of Herod.” In fact, those who are in the positions of “Herod” in our world –those of political power, wealth and influence – the ones who have the power to control others—are the ones to whom we often defer. We are thus more susceptible to their corrupting influence.
A bit of history might help. The line began with Antipater, who founded the family fortune. His son, Antipater, was favored by Julius Caesar and made virtual ruler of all of Palestine. His son was Herod the Great, who took the title, King of Judaea. He made great efforts to mollify the Jews by building a temple and publicly observing Hebrew laws. In his last years he became bloodthirsty, killing several of his family and ordered the massacre of the innocents at the time of Jesus’ birth. His son, Herod Antipas, was the Herod who executed John the Baptist and was ruling at Jesus’ death. His nephew, Herod Agrippa, followed him in 39 A.D. and was confronted by the Apostle Paul about Jesus.
“The spirit of the Herodians was worldliness…It made a supreme virtue of expediency. It bowed down to the state. Who would be rash enough to say that the danger of infection by the spirit of time saving, of obsequious compliance with the ruling of ideas of the world about us, is not ever present? There are fellowships in which a comfortable adjustment to power and popularity would almost seem to be one of the articles of the creed.” Interpreter’s Bible
What then are these corrupting influences of the yeast of Herod?
The following quote highlights the underlying issue:
Wise sages have taught throughout the ages that power corrupts. Anyone with experience ‘in the limelight; knows the way such privilege can embolden that fallen inner voice that whispers to us of our self-importance. When the red carpet is rolled out for you, when you’re invited into the exclusive gatherings, it becomes ever more difficult to fight an inflated ego. When you are the top dog, it’s hard to avoid pride. Add to this the weight of affluence – the power of riches to turn hearts away from humble dependency on God – and you can understand why many leaders who are the prospering would find it tough to be the “righteous who bless the city.” Kingdom Calling by Amy L. Sherman
Certainly several of those that are true with the Pharisees are also true with the influence of Herod. Self-seeking and proud; lacking compassion; love of created things more than the Creator; and a persecution of God’s messengers are all part of the evil of Herod. In addition:
1. An oppressive and arbitrary use of power as seen in the arrest and execution of John the Baptist.
2. Evil committed because of fear of the people. Convictions of right and wrong are sacrificed on the altar of popularity.
3. Herod was willing to mock and persecute Jesus to gain favor with Pilate and thus hold on to power. He held on to power even at the price of deserting principles of decency and justice.
4. A hardness of heart towards God. The Herodians had the witness of the Wise Men, John the Baptist, Jesus, and finally the Apostle Paul. They never responded to God’s attempts to reach their hearts with his messengers.
5. The yeast is at work when we trust in human resources rather than in God. In Paul’s First letter to Timothy he addresses this specific danger of relying on wealth rather than on God. Paul does not condemn the possession of wealth but rather instructs Timothy to challenge all who are wealthy to trust in God and to do good with what God has given them.
How do we respond to the warning?
Some of us have the opportunity of working with men and women who have influence because they are in positions of leadership or they have wealth or reputations that give them leadership in society. For the most part we have chosen to be encouragers as we walk alongside of these leaders, rather than prophets who challenge them. To be an encourager seems to be the right approach for most of us. In this role one of the things we do is to affirm the good that people of influence are doing. However, we still need to be on guard against the corrupting aspects of power in their lives and in our lives as we relate to them.
We need to be on guard for we can be tempted to say things or agree with things the leader says in order to gain/keep “access to the king.”
We may be afraid to take the relationship with the ruler to true fellowship where we are open about our sins. Thus we don’t complete the relationship that includes walking in the light and mutual submission. Leaders may be open to this kind of honesty but often we are unwilling to risk losing their influence by going deeper in our openness with them.
We may be tempted to use the leader for a self-serving end because of the allure of power. The trade-off is often that the leaders use us for self-serving purposes as well. In the secular world the relationship between Enron and their accountants at Arthur Anderson is a clear example of self-serving interfering with honesty. Even Billy Graham discovered this with the Nixon White House. In his autobiography he wrote: “It was naïve of me, I suppose, to think that such a close relationship with a President would never be used to serve his political ends.”
Why do we seek a relationship with those who have influence? Is there an element of self-seeking in that we become important in our eyes and the eyes of others through name-dropping and being a “power-broker?” With the best of us we usually have to deal with the issue of mixed motives. A better question may be, “What is my primary motive in relating to people of influence?”
When we stop short of genuine fellowship in the above ways, even when we have a God-given vision it is not one that the political leaders hold in partnership with us. We are using the influence of the leader to try to accomplish the vision the Lord has given us. This is not wrong, but it lacks the spiritual power that comes from genuine partnership.
Then there is the question of what happens to the relationship with our leader friend when he/she loses the position of power and influence? Do we drop friends of lower rank when they have gained us access to higher authorities?
Are we willing to “give away” this relationship to others in ministry or do we hoard the access to ourselves? Do we have as a goal encouraging the leader to be part of a local fellowship of people who can be a more regular participant in his/her life, or do we jealously guard the relationship?
More than likely we will not be able to withstand the corrupting influence of power unless we are in submission to another brother or sister who helps us think about the dangers. Submission to God and to brothers and sisters is the means of purging the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod from our systems.
Throughout the Old Testament there is a line of people who God uses to speak truth to those in leadership. When the leader responded, as in the cases of Nathan and King David or Jonah and the ruler of Nineveh, healing came to the nation. Nathan stopped the permeating power of the yeast of Herod from destroying the King and the people of God. Unfortunately, many times the ruler refused to listen and the consequences were painful for both the prophet and the people.
The New Testament appears to have a dual message. Paul encourages the believers in Rome to, “submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” However, when Peter and John are told to stop preaching about Jesus they responded: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Richard Foster concludes: “Revolutionary subordination commands us to live in submission to human authority until it becomes destructive.” Perhaps the most obvious message for us is that our friendship with those who rule should help them rule in a way that is beneficial to the people under their authority.
The good God
The natural process of life is that the bad destroys the good. However, we are called to live lives on a supernatural basis. It is supernatural for a good apple to transform a barrel of bad apples. Jesus gave the two illustrations of our being the light that always overcomes darkness and the salt of the earth that preserves and flavors all around them. It is the reason we have been planted in the world. We are to bring healing and goodness to those God allows us to be with. The Old Testament history books clearly show the wholeness of the nation of Israel when righteous kings were in power and the destruction when evil ones were. If some of the people God brings into are lives are women and men of influence than the revolutionary character of our love will help them bring life and healing to those they influence and care for.
How are we doing at “watching out for the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod?
Kent Hotaling – May 2001