Beware the Leaven
Saint Luke 12:1-3
The first mention in the Bible of unleavened bread, that is, bread made without the rising agent of yeast, is in the Book of Exodus when God gives directions for the meal that the children of Israel are to eat as He passes over Egypt with His tenth and final plague. God tells them to eat unleavened bread because He will not hold off on His judgment against unbelieving Pharaoh and the rest of Egypt and wait for bread with yeast to rise. The bread that they are to make and eat must be made in haste. Furthermore, in Deuteronomy 16, God tells the Israelites that the yearly eating of the unleavened bread at the Passover is to remind them not only of their hasty departure from Egypt, but also of the affliction that they suffered there.
In the New Testament, leaven takes on a different meaning, symbolizing sin, specifically the sin of pride. The connection here is really very appropriate, for just as yeast causes bread dough to rise up, so also does pride cause a person to become puffed up with a swelled head and inflated sense of self-importance. The Pharisees exemplify such pride-filled yeastiness, however, in tonight’s reading from the Gospel of Saint Luke, Jesus says that the leaven of the Pharisees is hypocrisy. Now, this is not out of line with understanding leaven as pride, for the dictionary defines hypocrisy as the “pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, that one does not really possess.” Sinful pride is the reason why the Pharisees claimed to be moral when they were not, generous when they were not, faithful to God when they were not. Their big show of outward righteousness was but a pretense and sham put forth to deny their inward sinfulness and need for God’s mercy and grace.
Our Lord’s rather negative statement about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees is made when, as Saint Luke says, “so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another.” They couldn’t wait to hear what would come next in what appeared to be a very public feud between Jesus and the Pharisees. Things were definitely tense. In recent days, something had changed between Jesus and the teachers of Israel. Early on in His ministry, the Pharisees were somewhat uneasy with the things that Jesus was saying and doing, and so they questioned Him and watched Him. And while it didn’t take long for their unease with Jesus to turn to hatred, they didn’t act on that hatred—not outwardly, that is, until Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem”—until Jesus begins to make His way to the cross of Calvary and His suffering, death, and resurrection. Then, it’s like a switch has been thrown and the gloves are off! The Pharisees and their buddies, the scribes, come at Jesus with malice aforethought, outwardly displaying their hatred and desire to have Him killed. In the two verses right before tonight’s Gospel Reading, Saint Luke says, “the scribes and Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.”
What triggers the Pharisees into publicly going after Jesus is, as I mentioned, the impending confrontation between Christ and Satan at the cross, to which Jesus is resolutely heading. The devil, therefore, has given his servants their marching orders, as it were. He is the one who throws the switch and bids the Pharisees to step up their attack against Jesus and “press him hard.” But what does the devil hope to accomplish by this greater opposition? At first, I wondered if it was to turn Jesus away from the cross, as he tried to do when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness, and again when he moved the disciple Peter to speak against Jesus going to the cross. But now, seeing that Jesus has set His face like flint and is not going to turn away, the devil works to guarantee that our Lord will come to His suffering and death.
The devil’s pride, dear friends—his ego, his sinful exalting of himself above God, his Creator—blinds him to the truth that the cross will not bring defeat to Jesus, but rather the victory. The Word of the Lord had proclaimed this truth to the devil already back in the Garden, in the presence of fallen Adam and Eve, declaring that even though the devil would bruise the heel of Jesus, Jesus would crush the devil’s head. In His death and resurrection, Jesus would defeat the devil. The old evil foe, however, does not believe it because he is filled with the leaven of pride; he is the ultimate hypocrite.
One of the criticisms made against the Christian Church by those who seek to discredit and malign the Christian faith is that the Church is filled with hypocrites. And they’re not wrong; it is. But this is not the same as saying that the Church is filled with Pharisees and the sort of hypocrisy that fills them or their master the devil. That would be quite a different matter. Yes, we are all hypocrites because we are all sinful by nature. Even though we have been redeemed by Christ and made righteous through our baptismal union with Him, the corruption of original sin continues to dwell within us. And with this corruption of the flesh comes concupiscence or the inclination to do sinful things, including the sin of hypocrisy. Like all manner and type of sin, hypocrisy is something with which we all struggle. And as with all sin, it is something that, by the grace of God, we recognize in ourselves and seek to have purged away from our lives through the forgiveness given us by Christ.
When Saint Paul tells us that, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump,” he’s reminding us of what can happen without the repentance worked in us by the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness that Jesus freely offers. We can end up quite easily like the Pharisees, puffed up and filled with so much pretence about our own supposed goodness and righteousness that we reject our need for Jesus. Therefore Saint Paul adds, “Cleanse out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” Because of His sacrificial death on the cross for you, because His blood has been painted on the doorpost and lintel of your heart, death has passed over; you are delivered from it and have life and salvation. This is the sure promise of God. This is the goal of your sojourning through the wilderness of this sinful world. You press on toward the Promised Land—toward heaven and eternal life—with your hope being only Jesus.
Hypocrisy, dear friends, most certainly has the power to keep you from this blessed outcome of resurrection unto life everlasting. That’s why Jesus tells you to “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” Yes, beware it. Beware it with the help of God, which He always stands ready to give, and turn away from all hypocrisy, repent of it, and trust only in Christ, our Saviour, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all honour, glory, and praise, now and forever. Amen.