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Mark 8:11-15

     11 The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. 12 He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” 13 Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.

     14 The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

In today’s world, the word “Pharisee” has come to be shorthand for someone who is self-righteous and judgmental. People who study the gospels with any regularity tend to think of the Pharisees as Bible bad guys whose only role in history was to give Jesus a hard time.

But if we really want to be faithful and responsible about our study of the New Testament, we need to stop once in a while and think about who the Pharisees actually were and what they actually believed. That’s the only way we’ll understand what’s going on in their conversations with Jesus. And the truth is that we really should care about those conversations.

The Pharisees were a group of men within ancient Judaism who took a vow to be very strict about keeping God’s law as they found it in the Hebrew scriptures (our Old Testament) and in the commentaries of leading rabbis. The Pharisees weren’t satisfied just to be as faithful as other observant Jews. They were determined to go beyond what was expected of other people. And that’s all good so far – it’s hard to criticize keeping God’s law strictly.

The problem was that the Pharisees eventually came to believe that their country would only return to its former greatness, that God would only give his full blessing to the land, if everyone kept God’s law as strictly as they did. So eventually, the Pharisees started to regard everybody else in the country as spiritual inferiors – almost as threats to the land of Israel. That made the Pharisees very judgmental, and very condemning of most of the people around them.

So the Pharisees objected strongly to the way Jesus went about his ministry. He had acquired a reputation as “a friend of sinners.” The Pharisees said that about Jesus, thinking of it as an insult. They felt that by befriending sinners and outcasts, Jesus was ‘condoning’ a sinful lifestyle.

And what’s more, their judgmental and self-righteous attitude toward everybody else in ancient Israel and Judea made the Pharisees tend to be hypocrites. They were quick to criticize the sins of others, but many of the Pharisees were greedy and selfish and jealous about their own power and influence. A movement that had started out being all about God’s law wound up being about the Pharisees’ status in society.

That brings us to today’s reading. It seems to me that’s what Jesus is talking about in this passage when he cautions his disciples to “watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees.” He is using the yeast as a metaphor for the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. When you think about how yeast works, a little bit of it is introduced into the lump of dough, and as the dough is worked and kneaded, the yeast eventually spreads throughout the whole batch. So, Jesus seems to be saying that if you let hypocrisy get started, eventually it will be everywhere.

Of course, since we’re all sinful people, hypocrisy is probably inevitable in the community of faith. We all know there are lot of people in every faith group, including the followers of Jesus, who are guilty of judging others harshly but shrugging off our own sins. The truth probably is that just about all of us are stained with this kind of hypocrisy to some degree.

Hypocrisy is a serious danger to the life of faith. If you’re busy judging and condemning others, it’s easy to tell yourself your own sins aren’t so bad by comparison.

And there’s probably nothing that compromises the work of the church in the world more than the perception that Christians are hypocrites. The world perceives the followers of Jesus as “holier-than-thou” toward people outside the church (most often because of some kind of sexual behavior). But too often the world also sees Christians acting greedy, selfish, unloving, quarrelsome and unconcerned with the poor and needy. So, sadly, our hypocrisy makes people doubt the teachings of our master.

It seems to me that one of the surest signs of a person who is genuinely growing in their relationship with God in Jesus is that that person is more bothered by their own sins than by the sins of others. It seems to me that’s what it means to “guard against the yeast of the Pharisees.” It means holding ourselves to a higher standard than we hold others to – and it means honestly admitting that we fall short of that standard. And when someone points out our own sins to us, guarding against hypocrisy means freely confessing those sins and saying ‘Thank you’ to those who ‘keep us honest,’ not reacting defensively.

Those things are hard – they go against our human nature. But they’re probably necessary if we’re to avoid the hypocrisy that can prevent us from being the faithful disciples Jesus calls us to be.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the example of the Pharisees, and for using their example to warn us about the danger of hypocrisy that comes with striving to be people of faith. Make us more focused on our own sins than we are on the sins of others, and remind us day by day that it is through your grace, and not our own righteousness, that we have new life in Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace,

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 96 and 134; Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12; and Galatians 4:21-31.)