Avoiding Herod’s Yeast, Tuesday of the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (I), February 16, 1999

Rev. Mr. Roger J. Landry
Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupensis, Rome
Tuesday of Sixth Week of Ordinary Time, Year I
February 16th, 1999
Gen 6, Mk 8:14-21 (Mt 16:6-13)

Do you still not understand? So Jesus says to the apostles in the boat and so he says to us today. We can try to do a little bit better than the apostles did.

Jesus tells them to be on their guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. This was a very serious admonition on Jesus’ part. But the disciples missed it, because all they were concerned about was the fact that they had forgotten the seven wicker baskets of multiplied leftovers back on shore and were wondering about their next meal. When Jesus mentioned the word yeast, rather than focus on what Jesus was saying, all it did was just remind them that they were hungry. Jesus proceeds to reprimand them, in a certain sense, for basically not getting the point of the two extraordinary multiplication miracles: that Jesus is more than a meal ticket, but when you stick with Jesus, you don’t have to worry about the next meal. As Jesus said during his Sermon on the Mountain, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink. Is not life more than food? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Well, Jesus was bringing them back to this reality.

So often, too, we are like the disciples in the boat. We have so many little concerns and worries that become all consuming, and no matter how our Lord tries to get through to us, all we think about is this need, this one metaphorical loaf of bread. Our eyes are blinded, are ears defeaned, to the message of God, and all we are capable of understanding is what our self-imposed overly needy prism allows. Jesus reminds us in the Gospel to trust in him and get beyond these concerns that can cause us to be distracted from what he wants to tell us.

But, thank God, none of us have any concerns this morning that could cause even the least lack of concentration to Jesus’ message…! So we can return to the central point, a point that is very fitting on this Tuesday before the start of Lent: Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod!

What is this yeast Jesus is referring to? If you turn to the parallel account of this Gospel passage in Matthew, Matthew says that the yeast refers to the teaching of the Pharisees and Herod. But it’s must be more than merely their teaching, because elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says that, since the Pharisees sit on Moses’ teaching seat, the disciples should follow what they teach but not what they do. Luke’s account provides the answer: their yeast is their hypocritical bad example, because they do not follow what the teach. Jesus elsewhere calls them whitewashed sepulchers, clean on the outside, but on the inside full of dead bones and filth and castigates them for locking people, themselves and others, out of heaven. Ultimately, their self-righteous pretentious externalism is shown for the sham it is when they connive at the killing of Jesus, whom they knew to be innocent.

What is Herod’s yeast? It’s his hypocritical bad example. Whereas the Pharisees were hypocritical rigorists, he was a hypocritical laxist. Herod liked to listen to divine things, both from John the Baptist and from Jesus. He found pleasure in them, but he was unwilling to sacrifice any of his sensuality when it came in contrast with the truth. We read how much he liked to listen to John, but not as much as living with his brother Philip’s wife, with so little integrity he’d behead an innocent man he thought was a prophet rather than be embarrassed in front of his courtiers. He sought for months to try to have Jesus brought to him, hoping to have Jesus perform some sign. But when Jesus refuses, Herod turns on him, mocks him along with his soldiers, puts a purple robe on him and sends him back to Pilate to be killed. Both the Pharisees and Herod were hypocrites, hypocrites that showed their true colors in the long-run. Both are complicit in killing the Lord of Life and Glory, their Creator.

What is the relevance of this for us here today? Well, there are still a lot of Pharisees and Herods around in the Church, maybe in this chapel, maybe even your deacon. These are two types of Christian claimants, the Pharisees from what we’d call the conservative side, Herod from the liberal side. The modern-day Pharisees are those who are overly zealous for “the law,” liturgical rubrics, the externals of the faith, those who thank God for not making them like the others, who love to talk about how others are on the highway to hell, who actually take it upon themselves to tell others how they should be living their discipline, not out of a genuine spirit of fraternal correction, but out of a desire to call attention to themselves. Sound familiar? The modern day Herods are those who find the Church’s teaching “intriguing,” but God-forbid anyone come around who actually lives the Church’s teaching and thereby implicit calls them to a higher standard. They’ll crucify that messenger, rather than give up their sensual lifestyle. Both the Pharisees and the Herodians use religion, the Pharisees to justify themselves in the sight of others, the Herodians, to gain some “religious cover” for their sinful lifestyles.

The leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod are the Scylla and Charibdis of the Christian Spiritual Life, the two poles we must avoid. Never is this teaching more appropriate than at the beginning of Lent, where Christians are tempted in both directions. More priests, seminarians and religious today are tempted toward the Pharisical dimension, toward living an external practice of the faith, wearing those ashes so that everyone can see them and think how holy they are, making a point of telling others of your mortifications, thinking less of those who aren’t apparently doing so much. We’ve got Herods too, who think that such mortifications are nice in theory, but will only harm the body, cause or come from neuroses, prevent one’s getting his or her work done, and so on.

Jesus tells us to beware of the leaven of each. And we should. St. Paul gives us a nice Lenten motto, as he wrote the Christians in Corith to “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

Yes, as we prepare for Lent, we should clear out whatever vestiges of Pharisaical and Herodian yeast that’s left and put on that unleavened bread of sincerity and truth, who is Jesus, whom we’re about to receive. This is the leaven that worked the miracles of the multiplication of the loaves. This is the leaven of the Mystical Body that lifts up all of society. This is the leaven that Jesus says, mixed with a little flour, is a fitting simile for the kingdom of Heaven.

Do you still not understand?