[By Henry Neufeld, Reprinted from October 14, 2008]
14And they forgot to bring bread, so that they didn’t have even one loaf with them in the boat. 15And he gave them an order, saying, “Look! See that you keep away from the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16So they were considering it among themselves, “It’s because we don’t have bread.” 17But Jesus knew about it and said, “Why are you thinking that it’s because you don’t have bread? Have you not yet understood? Do you still have hardened hearts?â€ Â Â Â Mark 8:14-17 (HN)
Leaven is an interesting thing. Elsewhere, Jesus used it as an illustration of the kingdom of God (Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:21). The key here is that you put just a little bit in, and it has a huge impact all around.
What we often fail to understand about this is that the â€œlittle bitâ€ that we put in can be something good added to a bad situation, or it can be something bad added to a good situation. It doesn’t take very much to change a situation for good or for evil, provided it is applied at the right moment. The encouraging thing is that a bad situation can often be improved this way. The discouraging thing is that we have to be very careful that our good activities are not polluted by some small amount of nastiness.
We tend to think of temptation as a frontal attack. We’re ready to resist that. Of course, I won’t spread a false rumor. Of course, I won’t have sex with someone other than my spouse. But the devil doesn’t approach things that way. He just tries for a little bit of leaven. You would resist spreading a false rumor intended to harm, but what about a story that is hurtful, but true, told in the wrong place? You would not have sex with someone other than your spouse, but what about making an inappropriate comment so that others will hear, and might think that fidelity is not that important to you?
That’s leaven. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day didn’t start out trying to create a legalistic system. They started with God’s law. Jesus himself told the crowds to do as they said (Matthew 23:1-12). The leaven wasn’t that they were Pharisees, zealous for God’s law. Jesus accused them (and we should be particular that it was particular ones) of being hypocrites, not of being fundamentally wrong.
It’s easy to get leavened. I was commenting in a discussion recently that liberal churches have their temptationâ€”it’s to become enablers. They have great compassion for the sinner, but the temptation is to just keep on having compassion and never find a way of healing. The temptation of conservative churches is to become critics. They recognize the danger of sin, but the devil’s temptation is to join sin and sinner and condemn, rather than heal. Since I call myself moderate, let me note that the devil has a special attack just for meâ€”apathy, based on self-satisfaction. I’m OK, because I’ve avoided those other sins, and if I just wait long enough somebody else will solve the problem.
None of these temptations goes head on. Nobody says outright, â€œLet’s let the sinners all die in their sin.â€ But the result is the same. A little leaven, targeted precisely, was introduced, and good intentions produced bad results.