And the disciples came to the other side of the sea, but they had forgotten to bring any bread. And Jesus said to them, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
They began to discuss this among themselves, saying, “He said that because we did not bring any bread.”
But Jesus, aware of this, said, “You men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets full you picked up? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many large baskets full you picked up?
How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Jesus often made analogies to elements in His immediate surroundings. In these verses, He illustrated His message using the elements of bread and leaven. Leaven is a small amount of a substance (such as yeast) that works subtly to change the whole.
Jesus compared the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees to leaven, because it had a subtle, undercover and powerful effect that was harmful to those who embraced it. Their teaching did not see the spirit of love behind their law; they chose to cling to their tradition and regulations rather than hear the truth. Their faith epitomized a striving after good works while being void of love, the opposite of what Jesus came to teach – that love was the fulfillment of the law.
When Jesus’ warned His disciples “to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” they initially only heard the physical aspect and so perceived His words as a rebuke that they had forgotten to bring bread with them on the boat. They saw His words through their broken, introspective, down-on-themselves, we-deserve-judgment lenses. Their fearful minds thought, “Surely He is accusing us, not lovingly teaching us!”
In Jesus’ intense love for His disciples that covered all their failures, He reminded them of the two occasions when He multiplied the bread for the multitudes. Did they think He would only bless them with miracles if they performed perfectly – if they had remembered the bread? Surely if He could feed the 5,000 and 4,000 with 5 and 7 loaves, He could feed them!
When Jesus said, “You men of little faith,” He was rebuking them, but not for forgetting the bread or even for forgetting His miracles, but for forgetting that He loved them… for thinking He had judgment in His heart toward them. His words, “to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” were said with love, friendship, and a desire to protect them from wrong teaching.
When the lens through which we see the world around us is broken or cloudy, possibly due to sin or others’ sin against us, we often only hear the first part of a sentence. Can you think of a time when someone only heard part of what you were saying, and camped on a wrong interpretation? Can you think of a time when you heard only part of what a person was saying and discovered later that you got it all wrong? The disciples heard only the first part of Verse 16:6 – “beware of the leaven.” Their ears closed before they heard that Jesus was warning them of the teaching of the religious rulers. Verse 16:12 says, “Then [when they stopped to listen], they understood that Jesus was talking about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
The very thing Jesus was lovingly warning His disciples about – the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, was the very thing they wrongly embraced – that Jesus’ love was contingent upon their good performance (of remembering the bread) instead of contingent upon their receiving His love unconditionally.
In Matthew 16:5-12, we see the great contrast between Jesus teaching of love – a beautiful, life-giving leaven rising up in our hearts, and the religious ruler’s teaching of rules and binding traditions – a toxic, destructive leaven that raised a barrier between us and God.
Holy Spirit, purify my eyes and heart. Show me Your love. When I look closely at Your interaction with Your loved ones in the Scripture, I see Your love poured out. Help me to believe that You love me and that all Your ways are for my good.