In Matthew 16:6 Jesus says to the disciples: "Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Many of us are at a loss as to what Jesus meant. Don’t worry so were the disciples. Mark then tells us: And they said among themselves, 'It is because we have not brought any bread.' Jesus seems to be frustrated with their lack of understanding so he says: 'You have so little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand?
It is rather important for us to understand what Jesus was getting at. Any baker will tell you that a little yeast is enough to make a whole batch of dough rise. Just a little of it affects everything. To understand what Jesus means you could translate ‘yeast’ as ‘attitude’ Just a little of the attitude of those people affects everything, corrupts everything. In the New Testament world, yeast was often used as a symbol for corruption. Jesus cites two different indeed opposite religious attitudes and says that both of them, even in a small dose can effectively corrupt one’s whole Christian life.
The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were big sinners, they were the best of people, but they tended to think only those like them had any value in the sight of God. The yeast of the Pharisees is narrow-minded religious exclusivism, it is sectarianism. It is the attitude that says only those who believe and behave like us are saved, everyone else is damned or at least of no consequence. (Of course it’s not only religious people who have those sorts of attitudes; the secular equivalent would be extreme tribalism or nationalism.) The yeast of the Pharisees makes people more concerned about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ that just trying to get on and do the will of God. It makes people continually define themselves over against others: it makes them assume for instance that the main thing about being Catholic is not being Protestant – or vice versa.
The yeast of the Sadducees is precisely the opposite tendency. The Sadducees were the ruling elite, the equivalent of the ‘Tory party at prayer’ if you like. They were big friend with the Romans since the Romans kept them in power. For them the important thing was to keep the status quo as it was – because of course it favoured them. In order to do this they were prepared to make any number of accommodations, they were prepared to water down their Jewish faith. For instance they allowed the pagan Romans to appoint the High Priest. (A possible 20th century equivalent of that would perhaps be the Roman Curia letting the Soviet Russians appoint the Pope in order to maintain their own power.) They were not committed to God so much as to their own position, but they did have considerable religious power and used that to maintain things the way they liked them. They were prepared to go along with more or less anything so long as their world didn’t change.
Both these attitudes are constant temptations for Christians. One sometimes meets Christian fundamentalists who are quite sure that all those who are not like them, who don’t belong to their sect, who haven’t been ‘born again’ are going straight to Hell for all eternity. The problem here is what such attitudes do to the individual’s personality and how they misrepresent the true spirit and intention of Christ’s teaching. The desire to exclude others has continually bedevilled the human race, but when it masquerades as religion, indeed as the only true religion, it becomes deadly, and we hear too much about religious intolerance to be in any doubt about that.
Probably for most western Catholics, the bigger temptation is to be leavened by the yeast of the Sadducees. While some Christians make themselves clearly, aggressively different to everyone else, many of us live and think in a way that is scarcely distinguishable from our unbelieving neighbours. We practise our religion quietly and discretely, but we don’t let it frighten the horses, don’t let it in any way make us seem strange or out of step with the rest of the world. All too easily, Christianity becomes something tacked on to the end of our lives, rather than the organising principle, the driving force of our lives. The Sadducees were in one sense the most Jewish of people, they could trace their ancestry back to the time of Solomon, but their religion was comfortable and static, in no way a force for transformation. If we adopt their attitude, our faith does nothing to change us or make us grow in the likeness of Christ, which is its real purpose. In fact, unlike the yeast of the Pharisees, the yeast of the Sadducees is not something people consciously adopt; it’s something they just slip into, it’s the obvious way to be, just to go along with the way things are.
The Christian is called to be passionately committed to Christ while remaining open to others, and to be open to others without simply accepting anything and everything.