|A hint of spring in the midst of winter|
Jesus enjoined them, "Watch out,guard against the leaven of the Phariseesand the leaven of Herod." They concluded among themselves thatit was because they had no bread.When he became aware of this he said to them,"Why do you conclude that it is because you have no bread?Do you not yet understand or comprehend?Are your hearts hardened?Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear? Mark 8:15-18This confusing little story takes place as Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee for the last time on his way to Bethsaida. It comes between the stories of the feeding of the multitudes and the teachings on the identity of Jesus and the responsibilities and role of his disciples. It is confusing because the disciples focus on the lack of bread and Jesus is teaching them a fundamental lesson about his message. Their persistent inability to get his message is frustrating to Jesus and surely to them.
Jesus uses the metaphor of leaven or yeast to make his point. Yeast was seen to be an almost magical element which caused dough to expand, to change in some elemental way. The Jewish insistence on unleavened bread was meant to convey a reliance on unadulterated bread without this magical, other worldly substance.
The message of Jesus was not about unleavened bread but about what kind of "yeast" one should incorporate into one's life. His message constantly stressed that there was a reality, the world of the spirit, that was the true and lasting reality for us. Any attempt to live life without this yeast would lead to a superficial life of the "flesh." Such a life would never be able to experience the fullness of what it meant to be human, to be creatures of the Divine One.
Jesus here cautions the disciples against not yeast but the yeast of the Pharisees and of the followers of Herod. As yeast will, this kind of yeast works to change the dough in fundamental ways almost magically and invisibly. Jesus critiques the Pharisees as hypocrites. They study and know the law in every detail and lay heavy burdens on those they teach and yet do not follow those same regulations in their own lives. Or worse they become fixated on the rules and details of the law and forget the purpose and goal of the law. Or as Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for humans; not humans for the Sabbath."
Herod has been described earlier in Mark's gospel as a person who is guided by his own pleasure and need for recognition and admiration. He and his followers are hedonists and that kind of yeast can also change the dough quietly and invisibly.
I think the point that Jesus makes is not anti-yeast. We are faced with a choice about which yeast we want to use. Yeast is metaphor for the way in which the spirit works within and through us. It is other worldly is a profound way. It works powerfully to change us. The spirit or yeast of the Divine One works to change us bit by bit into the beings we are meant to be, focused on the family of the Divine One into which we are adopted as children and heirs. The yeast of the Pharisees or of the Herodians hardens our hearts, blinds our eyes, and stops our ears so that we cannot see and feel what is right in front of us. It is the work of hypocrisy and hedonism that distorts our true nature.
I think Jesus uses metaphors and often confusing statements because the more you talk or write about this "spirit of the Divine One" the more you drain away its power and elemental reality. Poetry, ambiguity, creative imagination and confusion mark the pathway to meeting this reality of the spirit in our lives.