The greatest temptation for the Church:
Fitting Jesus into a box.
We finally complete study #18 which was supposed to be a single study, but ended up taking three sessions. This session takes up the puzzling statement Jesus makes about “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (8:15 ESV).
It is not too difficult to see that the leaven (or yeast) has something to do with the corrupting influence of the Pharisees and Herod. But why are the disciples being warned about it, and what precisely are the corrupting influences? Finding the solutions to these questions requires taking in (once more) a much broader context – this time far back to at least chapter 3 and looking forward into the next chapters. This reveals something about the warning: Mark probably didn’t intend his audience to figure it out right when the statement was made, but rather to have something in the back of their minds to ponder as they read and hear the rest of the gospel text. For our purposes, because we are modern Westerns and we like answers, so I attempt to provide at least some closure to these questions.
For both Pharisees and Herod, the gospels have shown that their primary question is “Who is Jesus?” and they have some ideas about who he is. For the Pharisees, Jesus is a wonder-worker whose source of power is uncertain (thus the request for a “sign” in 8:11-13). The Pharisees had earlier attributed Jesus’ power to demons (3:22). Herod was certain that Jesus was John the Baptist, returned to torment him (6:16). Between these two were Jesus’ family who though he was mentally unstable (3:21) and the people who adored his words and acts, but really didn’t know much beyond that. In a little while the disciples will be asked the same question, “Who am I?” by Jesus.
The picture that is developing in the Markan account is that every person has an idea about who Jesus is. If Jesus doesn’t fit into their “box” of the description of the Messiah, they find ways to explain Jesus in some other way. Throughout this unit (chapters 6-8) Mark is describing how Jesus defies categorizations, boundaries, and expectations.
So why the warning? I think Mark includes it as something vital for the Church to understand. The Church, and the Christians who compose it, desperately want Jesus to fit into our expectations, boundaries, and categories. We form creeds, doctrines, and statements of faith to make concrete the mysteries of Christ and God. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but then we use those to define the boundaries of what is orthodox vs. what is not; and we use that to determine who is inside and who is outside (the boundaries of grace, even). We form committees, congregations, councils, and denominations to enforce the boundaries. We play into the human games of power and tradition.
Hence Mark’s inclusion of Jesus’ warning against the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. Jesus broke boundaries, he diminished the importance of traditions, he spoke against establishments of power, he went where no one expected him to go, he offered healing and salvation to those least likely seen as “deserving.” The Church is supposed to continue in Jesus’ footsteps. But instead, for much of history, the Church has been in pursuit of power and of establishing traditions to conserve what it has attained