Bewaring the Leaven of Pharisees and Postmoderns
By Daniel Mayfield
We live in a very pluralistic society, right? Truth is not absolute unless it caters to the majority. Do your thing so long as you follow two rules: (1) Keep it to yourself, i.e., don’t go recruiting anyone else, and (2) don’t regard your way as the only way. In other words, don’t actively try and gain followers, and don’t think your preference is anything more than just that—a preference. If you can observe these two guidelines, we’re cool.
This is an increasingly popular perspective for a number of reasons (at least four): (1) It makes me the highest rank of authority; (2) It quiets my burning conscience, e.g., “Jesus said not to do this, but the Hindu Vedas tell me to embrace it…so I think I’ll go with the Hindu Vedas on this one;” (3) It disintegrates moral judgments in two ways: (a) it relieves the burden of correctional responsibility, i.e., I no longer need to tell somebody their lifestyle is wrong, and (b) subsequently they can hang with me, fully comfortable with my religions choice because they know not even I consider it absolutely; and (4) it holds the very brief appearance of an enlightened perspective. I say very brief appearance because in 100 years it will be regarded as one of the greatest hours of historical folly. And you and I are living in the midst of it right now.
You cannot be a Christian unless you’re willing to say that every other religion in the world is futile. If you cannot say, “Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life,” then you are not a disciple of Jesus. And it’s amazing that in this day—even among professed “Christians”—such is a radical statement. 2,000 years of Christian testimony expresses precisely the same truth, but this generation loves to see itself as enlightened, evolved, and intellectually superior to our forefathers; but truly, postmodernism isn’t the result of being enlightened. It is the result of being philosophically and spiritually lost.
Postmodernism, as its name implies, is the period of philosophical history immediately following modernism. Thus, it is post-modernism, or that which is after modernism. Modernism was a movement of philosophy that came out of the western industrial revolution. As the West rapidly improved its manufacturing capabilities, structural and civil engineering, medical practices, and so on, many were left with the impression that man could do anything. This was essentially the 20th century tower of babel. “What can’t we do!?” was sort of the mantra.
So as modernists climbed higher and higher up the tower they had built, many tested truths of old were disregarded, deconstructed, or greatly altered—especially those of religion. And the logic was quite simple: Who needs God and religion when science and technology has brought more advancements to society than has 2,000 years of Christian history? The logic of modernists was and is the same logic God so despised when Noah’s descendants sought to build the tower of Babel. It was this confidence in self that brought God to confuse mankind’s language, dispersing men across the globe.
And as one professor of philosophy so aptly put it, “Postmodernism is essentially the confusion after the tower of babel.” The generation of postmoderns saw their predecessors disappearing into the clouds above them, and they thought, “Not even you guys have the answers! This stuff isn’t working.” So a general skepticism towards absolute truth was left behind. And that’s the perspective you and I are encountering right now. This generation, by and large, is as lost as any generation of people ever has been.
The Leaven of Pharisees and Postmoderns
The text for this morning is Matthew 16:5-12. Let’s begin by reading it.
5 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6 Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” 8 But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? 9 Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11 How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
What does Jesus mean when he speaks of the leaven of Pharisees and Sadducees? Well, the disciples thought he was somehow frustrated that they’d forgotten to bring any bread on their journey. Matthew actually goes to the trouble to tell us they’d forgotten to bring bread. The implication is, they were supposed to bring some with them. So for some reason they thought Jesus was addressing their lack of bread, and this caused them to say amongst themselves, “We brought no bread!” I imagine they were a bit panicky because Jesus is adamant that they had the wrong perspective. “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread?”
So, essentially, you forgot the bread—but that should be no concern. I fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes. You think I can’t feed 12 people with a rock? So verse 12: Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
This is a very unpopular word to a generation whose rhetoric says every teaching is on an equal plane with every other teaching. If Jesus thought that were true, then he would give no instruction to watch for and beware of a teaching being promoted by some other group.
Now the point is, if a person says, “I am going to follow Jesus,” then they can’t follow him unless they are on the lookout for competing and contradictory teachings. And would subsequently be willing to say to other Christians, “Beware of what that group is saying,” or “We can’t have that person give a message to our assembly because their message contradicts ours.”
Or, if they are in a non-leading role, they should be very watchful and wary of anything they might spiritually ingest. What is it that we are supposed to ingest? Bread that is unleavened. If the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees stands to represent leaven, then what would you say represents unleavened bread? The teachings of Jesus!
So what would it look like for a person feeding on Jesus to be watchful and on alert for leaven? It would look like this: Daily such a person is in the Scriptures, consuming the pure bread of Jesus’ teachings. They are reading the words in red in the gospels. They are feasting on the wisdom of Jesus in the proverbs and the praise of Jesus in the Psalms. Give me more Jesus! Let me read his parables; let me inhale the manna he gave on the mountain in Matthew 5-7; let my spirit be made to look like Jesus because we are what we eat! And so I’ll eat more Jesus! And I’ll try and mimic his works, his service, his love for people, his fellowship with the Father.
So such a person is looking more and more like Jesus every day; acting more and more like Jesus every day; developing a real good idea of what Jesus would say in this situation or that situation; learning when to walk away from an argument; learning when to engage an enemy for the defense of a person with no representation—perhaps in a march or a protest outside Planned Parenthood, or something of the sort.
They’ve found the bread of life, but because they don’t live in a vacuum, there are daily encounters with leaven. Leaven exists everywhere. As a man who loves to bake, I’ve done some study on leaven. It is on the countertop. It grows wildly everywhere. It is even in the air. This is why pure flour and water will develop into a starter for making sourdough breads after just a few days sitting out on the counter.
And I think this is precisely why Jesus uses leaven to describe his primary religious counterpart during the day. Leaven is invisible to the naked eye. It has the ability to rapidly multiply when it finds a host. Only the tiniest amount of leaven will grow as it feeds on the sugars in pure flour, and in hours the whole of the bread will be inflated with the gasses produced as the leaven digests its food. And what may have been a pure loaf of bread before is now inseparable from what joined it.
So Jesus is saying, “Do not take in any of this leaven. If you do, it’ll rapidly alter the state of your being so that you no longer look like me.” So for the person who is feeding on Jesus and wants to avoid leaven at all costs, let me give you two very realistic encounters with leaven and what to do to remain untainted by it. These two encounters are purely based on what the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day were teaching. So there’s no guesswork here. Jesus said to avoid the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees, so I’m going to give examples from Matthew of the things they taught. And we need not be concerned that we don’t have Pharisees and Sadducees today. We do; they are just called by different names—millennials, postmoderns, Christians, conservatives, liberals. You’d be surprised how a person could go by any of those titles and still be a Pharisee or Sadducee.
The Leaven of NonAuthority
Now the crowds were astounded at the teachings of Jesus presented in his sermon on the mountain. What interests me is why they were astonished. Matthew 7:29 gives the answer: 29 for he was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
So he was teaching with authority, and not as their scribes—the implication being that Pharisees and Sadducees had no authority for much of what they said. So if that’s true, then to avoid their leaven, we would ask before adopting any religious practice or understanding, “Is there a divine precedent for such a perspective as this? Is there some Biblical authority for doing this or that?” If there’s a divine precedent found in Scripture, then you’d say, “This is the pure bread of Jesus. This isn’t leaven.” But if there’s no Biblical authority for it, you would say, “The leaven of Pharisees and Sadducees was described in Matthew as that which lacked authority—so this is the kind of thing Jesus is telling me to avoid!”
And the possibilities for this kind of thing are endless, but let me give you one specific example: In Matthew 28, immediately prior to his ascension to heaven, Jesus said to his disciples, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
So when you create a disciple by baptizing them and teaching them to observe all God has commanded, you are creating a disciple in a way that is divinely authoritative. Which would be to say, there is no leaven in your approach. It is not the approach of the Pharisees and Sadducees—because they lacked authority for what they taught.
So for this person who is daily ingesting Jesus and who’s wanting to avoid leaven, he would hear, perhaps, a really powerful message about the cross of Jesus Christ, “amen’ing” his way through it all, until the final word says to the audience, “Would you like to be a disciple of Jesus tonight? Raise your hand if you would.” And after a number of people raise their hands, the speaker says, “You become a disciple of Jesus by praying the sinner’s prayer…repeat after me.”
And to avoid the leaven of that teaching, the person who’s been feeding on Jesus will say, “From where do you get your authority to say that? A sinner’s prayer isn’t found anywhere in the Bible. That’s leaven! Jesus said you become a disciple by being baptized and observing all of his commands—not by saying a prayer” So that’s leaven because it lacks divine authority.
Postmodernism is a perspective entirely stripped of divine authority! Because it says, “There is no authority, or at least we can’t know what would or wouldn’t have authority.” So to avoid leaven, we need to avoid any teaching or practice that maintains no divine authority.
The Leaven of Uncertainty
Let me read to you an encounter Jesus had with some scribes in Matthew 9, and then I’m gonna tell you a personal story to connect postmodernism with this aspect of pharisaical leaven: 2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 7 And he rose and went home.
I was sitting in my senior philosophy class while studying in college, and as we discussed the manifold beliefs of society, I said, thinking myself among fellow Christians, “Well, thankfully we have the truth.” And to this comment of mine, a student from the UK, along with my Christian professor’s support, said that my statement was overly bold. This blew my mind. “I’m overly bold for definitively stating that salvation is found in Jesus Christ, and him alone, so therefore I feel confident in that I have found the truth?” I thought. This was one of my first very real encounters with postmodernism and the effects it has had like leaven pervading into a Christian university and into the mind of a Christian professor who served as an elder at a local church of Christ.
Well the Pharisees and Sadducees said to Jesus, “Who are you to say this man’s sins are forgiven!” Blasphemy!” And subsequently the postmodern world says, “Who are you to say that Jesus alone can forgive sins!? It is a repulsive thing that you would say something so bold!”
Well Jesus said to the Pharisees and he would say the exact same thing to my professor, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? But that you may know that the Son of Man has sole authority on this earth to forgive sins—Cripple, pick up your bed and go home.” And the man did so! And that was to prove absolutely that Jesus alone can forgive sins, and that I’m right for boldly saying salvation is found in him along, and we indeed have found the truth!”
This postmodern world is not willing to say absolutely that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life…and that was a fundamental reason behind why Jesus said to avoid the Pharisees and Sadducees, for neither were they willing to say that.
The Pharisees and Sadducees rejected Jesus for the very reasons that postmoderns reject him—faithlessness, unbelief. So we must do away with any leaven that would steal away our confidence in boldly saying, Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life.
Now once we’ve made that decision, and we’ve made ourselves entirely open to Jesus as we’ve discerned him to be the one and only truth of the world, we must then be very watchful and wary of that which appears to be the unleavened bread of Jesus, but may in fact be leaven. Before ingesting it, we should scour the Scriptures and spend much time in prayer to discern what it is we are dealing with.
As you go forward today, you need to ask yourself, “Is there any leaven in my life?” And that fact is, leaven is invisible to the naked eye. Even when leaven has consumed a ball of dough, you can’t see the leaven. You can only see the effects of the leaven. So you should ask, “Are there any effects of leaven in my life?”
Perhaps it is that you’re not entirely confident that Jesus is the ONLY way. Well that’s an effect of leaven. Perhaps you’re doing things to which you’d feel a lack of confidence, either in your religious practice or in your personal life. If you feel there’s no authority for something, perhaps you’ve ingested leaven. Remove the leaven from your lives this morning.
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