In Mark 8:15, Jesus warns his disciples to “Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Of course they didn’t understand what he meant. Likewise, many of us understand what this means either.
In Jesus day, the Pharisee was the middle class religious leader. They were devout in their faith, and extremely conscientious about obeying the rules and social order of the Temple. The similar comparison in our modern world are the Islamic religious police or the devout church-goer. These are the folks who reframe everything in the world according to teaching of the church, temple or mosque. Jesus put it this way; “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition.” (Mark 7:9)
When Christians think of Pharisees, they think it was a legalistic problem for the Jews. The don’t realize that modern Christianity has completely rebuilt the temple system, reinstated moral and purity laws with benchmarks, and built a business based upon hierarchy and separatism.
We all know religious people who go through the motions, but lack inner experience or love. We call them hypocrites (under mask) and so does the bible. The world is full of people quoting the Bible, Torah, Dharma or Quran who are full of hate. This dichotomy is created by splitting everything into opposites (good/bad, right/wrong).
Pharisees are religious people, but not solely found in religion. There are pharisees in education, business, military, sports, the arts, and literally every corner of the world. If you have ever gone to lunch with a food pharisee then you know this is true. This is the leaven of Herod.
Leaven gives rise to bread, and Jesus is warning about that which gives rise to CHURCH and STATE.
Pharisees have social, economic, racial, and political power which stands behind them. Thus alignment with the bigger institution is the path to power. Those who disagree are marginalized. Our world is full of heroic stories of the one person who took on the system. Most of us are facing a system now and are struggling to find our way.
Do you see the leaven now? It’s duality (deeper than hypocrisy) and otherness. Just like yeast, it only takes a tiny bit to take over the whole loaf. This makes duality a watershed feature in how a person thinks. If we get it wrong, everything downstream is wrong.
The question is: What’s our strategy for making our way in the world?
If we come from chaos, then the structure and control of pharisaism is actually a positive step forward. As children, we must learn rules within a binary system to avoid confusion and pain. The military is great for many who came from chaotic, inconsistent families. Being on a team gives us an identity and a common enemy which by default gives us a sense of purpose. People like this a lot.
This is why the leaven of Church and State is so compelling to a hurting and immature world. But we can’t stay binary.
As we mature we learn that the hot stove, which is danger for a toddler, becomes a useful tool for cooking. We also discover our enemy is actually our brother and just like us. Black and white are replaced with gray. We no longer have competitors because our zero-sum game is replaced with a variable, generative playing field with enough for everyone.
Now we can understand why Jesus was reminding his disciples about the miracle of feeding the 5000 and the 4000 and their left overs (Mark 8:18-19). He explained the leaven by reminding the disciples that the miracle was not the feeding of the masses, it was the shift from binary to ternary (possibility) thinking; the feeding is a byproduct of the later, not the former.
Back to the question. What is our strategy for navigating life? Will we blindly join the rank and file of the masses and surrender our identity to Church or State? I’m sorry to say this is the default mode for most of us. Or can we be aware of the gravitational pull of institutional orthodoxy and compliance?
If so, then there is tremendous freedom for us to work and live within these systems (which can be helpful and necessary) but not be defined by such systems. This is the place of true leadership because without the mask we will have eyes to see (Mark 8:18). This is how we serve as a protective agents (salt) and a positive influence (light) within our world. (Matthew 5:13-16)
May the strategy for our lives be to live freely and to truly know ourselves rather than accept the surrogate identity of Church and State. This is how we move from a binary system of scarcity, to an expanding kingdom of abundance.