Then He commanded them: “Watch out! Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” Mark 8:15.

Jesus and his disciples were crossing over the Sea of Galilee after Christ had been confronted by the Pharisees. The Pharisees, the law and religious scholars of the day, once again demanded that Jesus perform some sort of miracle–or give them a sign–to prove once and for all that He was the Messiah. The Pharisees demanded this after Jesus had just fed 4,000 people with only seven loaves of bread.

Why does Jesus single out the Pharisees and Herod as the epitome of behavior that is to be avoided? Throughout his ministry, the Pharisees opposed Jesus, tested him, attempted to disprove who he was. That is not to say that all Pharisees were bad, and that there weren’t some whose religious devotion was true and genuine. In the New Testament, however, the Pharisees represent religious hypocrisy; their focus on seeing how “devout” they could be and being more “holy” than everyone else takes their religious focus of God and puts it on themselves. The Pharisees distorted God’s Law by making it into a perverse contest to see how well they could keep it. By doing this, they made themselves and their own self-righteousness more important than God and His loving grace.

Where does Herod fit into this? Herod was the Roman-supported puppet king of Galilee. The Herods, who were not Jews, had moved into Judea well before the Roman occupation and adopted Judaism as means to fit in with their Jewish subjects. Once the Romans appeared on the scene, they allowed the Herods to continue rule, under the ever watchful eye of the Empire. Herod represents sham religion, one that is not genuine and used to gain the respect (or votes in 21st Century America) of the population at large. Jesus wants his followers to be wary of those in politics who loudly boast and proclaim their religious devotion to the masses; those who pervert religion into a campaign schtick. In other words, Jesus was in favor of a separation of religion (or church,) and state.

Jesus uses a very clever phrase to get His disciples to understand just how dangerous these behaviors are; He uses the word “yeast,” and this is an image that any Jewish person would instantly pick up on. In the Old Testament, yeast (”chametz” in Hebrew) represents sin and bad behavior; anything that separates man from God. Before each and every Passover, when the Jews remember how God rescued them from slavery in Egypt, the Jews were to physically purge their homes of yeast–to commemorate how the bread eaten during the Exodus was flat because there was no yeast in it. However, this physical cleaning of yeast was to accompany a spiritual cleaning as well, one in which one’s heart would be cleaned of spiritual yeast. Jesus wants us to be extra cautious when avoiding the yeast of Herod and the Pharisees, because just a small pinch of yeast can cause a whole lot of bread to be ruined.

Do not be like those who make themselves the focus of their religion, and do not be swayed by those who prostitute their religion to be elected.

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