Fr. Roger J. Landry
Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupensis, Rome
Tuesday of Sixth Week, Year II
February 15, 2000
James 1:12-18; Mk 8:14-21
“Keep your eyes open!” — Jesus tells us at 6:45 this morning, as he told the apostles in the boat — “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod!” Then, after their misunderstanding, he begins an interrogation. We don’t know what tone Jesus adopted in his questioning of the disciples. It’s quite possible he could have been teasing them; it’s quite possible, as well, that he could have been frustrated with them. Unfortunately neither Mark, nor Luke nor Matthew in their parallel accounts, gives us an adjective or an adverb to help us interpret, in some respects, the real thrust of his questions. Whatever his tone was, however, it’s quite clear that at the very least Jesus was contrasting the yeast of the kingdom — the yeast that produced the two stupendous miracles of the multiplication of the loaves — and the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.
What is this yeast latter 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. Certainly it’s true that Jesus challenged their interpretation of the law on several occasions, but it 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, I believe: their yeast is their hypocrisy, 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 hypocrisy. 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 crucified. Both the Pharisees and Herod were hypocrites, hypocrites who showed their true colors in the long-run. Both are complicit as well in killing the Lord.
What is the relevance of this for us here today? Well, there are still a lot of Pharisees and Herods around in the Church. These are two types of Christian claimants, the Pharisees from what we’d call the conservative side, the Herodians 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. The modern day Herodians 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.
Jesus tells us to beware of the leaven of each. It doesn’t take much yeast to influence all of the flour, and so we should try to eliminate whatever traces there might be of either form in us. St. Paul gives us great advice, as he wrote to the Church of Corinth: “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.” Paul encourages us to be that unleavened bread, which like the azymatic bread waiting for us on the altar, will be completely transubstantiated into the body of Christ by the yeast of God. The Holy Spirit is that yeast, the yeast that brought about the multiplication miracles. The yeast that in the epiclesis will bring us the Christ in the Eucharist today. The yeast that can make us, if we respond sincerely and truthfully in our following of Christ (unlike the neopharisees and neo-herodians), into those capable of bringing Christ out to the world and helping to make the kingdom of God a reality.
And so Jesus says to each of us in conclusion, “Do you still not understand?”