Two Kinds of Leaven.

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet 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 is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. – Matthew 16:5-12 ESV

After His most recent confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus and His disciples had departed and sailed to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He physically separated Himself from these men and their constant attempts to test and trap Him.

Having arrived on the other side of the lake, the disciples evidently expressed their hunger and the fact that they only had one loaf of bread among them (Mark 8:14). In their haste to get away from the religious leaders, they had forgotten to bring the necessary supplies for their journey.

And Jesus, realizing what the disciples were thinking, decided to use this moment as an opportunity to teach them. But it quickly became clear that He and His followers were on two different wavelengths. He was speaking in spiritual terms, while they were stuck on a physical plane, thinking about their lack of food.

He told them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” His use of leaven as a metaphorical device was not uncommon or unique. It was often used to refer to something that starts out small and insignificant, but that grows in size and influence. Earlier, Jesus had used leaven to refer to the kingdom of heaven.

“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” – Matthew 13:33 ESV

The apostle Paul would use leaven to refer to the false teaching of those who demanded circumcision as a requirement for salvation.

A little leaven leavens the whole lump. – Galatians 5:9 ESV

Jesus was simply trying to expose the dangerous nature of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their outward display of pietistic religious observance was masking a deadly tendency to teach falsehood. In fact, Jesus had accused them of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9 ESV). So, Jesus wanted His disciples to see through the mask of respectability worn by these so-called religious leaders, and recognize them for what they were: Hypocrites.

But the disciples, driven by their hunger, misunderstood Jesus’ words. Their minds were stuck on food and so they began to argue among themselves about their predicament. They were most likely pointing fingers and casting blame, debating over who had dropped the ball and forgotten to bring enough bread for their journey. But this little discussion revealed yet another problem and Jesus exposed it, saying, “You have so little faith! Why are you arguing with each other about having no bread? Don’t you understand even yet? Don’t you remember the 5,000 I fed with five loaves, and the baskets of leftovers you picked up? Or the 4,000 I fed with seven loaves, and the large baskets of leftovers you picked up? ” (Matthew 16:8-10 NLT).

Their lack of bread was not the issue. But even if it was, couldn’t they remember what Jesus had done before? Yes, they had one loaf of bread between them, but Jesus had more than proven that He could transform the insignificant into the all-sufficient. He could fully satisfy the needs of the many with what appeared to be inadequate resources. In the hands of Jesus, the few loaves and fishes had become like leaven or yeast, mysteriously increasing in number until all were satisfied.

The disciples had no reason to worry about food. But they still lacked faith. Even after all that Jesus had done, they were still having a difficult time believing in who He was and what He had come to do. They lived in the moment, driven by their physical needs and temporal circumstances. These man had seen Jesus heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead, feed the multitudes, and walk on water. But at that moment, all they could see was one loaf of bread and what was going to prove to be a less-than-satisfying supper.

When Jesus asked them, “Do you not yet perceive?,” He was questioning their lack of understanding. They weren’t thinking clearly. They had failed to put two and two together. Their reasoning was totally temporal in nature. And their obsession over and concern for bread was keeping them from hearing what Jesus was trying to say. They had obviously forgotten the words Jesus had spoken in His sermon on the mount and the portion of His model prayer that covered the need for daily sustenance.

Give us this day our daily bread. – Matthew 6:11 ESV

He had gone on to say, “O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:30-33 ESV).

The disciples were anxious. They were worried. But about the wrong things. Jesus had proven He could take care of their physical needs. He had assured them that their heavenly Father was fully aware of what they required to exist and fully capable of providing all they needed. But their focus was to be on eternal matters: The kingdom of God and His righteousness. Which brings us back to the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were obsessed with man’s righteousness. And rather than seeking the kingdom of God, they were busy building their own little fiefdoms and kingdoms, where they ruled and reigned. These men were obsessed with what they ate, drank and wore. And Jesus had some harsh words to say about them.

“Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. – Mark 12:38-39 NLT

“When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get.” – Matthew 6:2 NLT

These men were obsessed with the outward, how they looked and how they were perceived. They worked hard to display their righteous deeds for all to see so they could  receive the praise of men. But God looks at the heart. He sees the inner motivation that determines the outer demonstration of our faith. The only faith the Pharisees and Sadducees had was in themselves. They had no need for a Savior because they truly believed they could save themselves. And Jesus wanted the disciples to know that kind of teaching was like a cancer, that had spread and infected the people of Israel, to the point that they could not recognize their own Messiah when He showed up in their midst.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson