Mark 8:11-21 — The Leaven of the Pharisees and Herodians

Following the feeding of the 4,000 in the Decapolis on the eastern side of the Galilean Sea, Jesus and his disciples crossed over to the other side on the western shore, probably near Magdala. Jesus is now back among the Jewish villages of Galilee and immediately he faces opposition.

Some Pharisees continue their argument with him as they probed the origin of his authority in miracle-working and teaching. Earlier in Mark Jewish leaders had questioned his authority to forgive sin (Mark 2:6) and his breaking of the Sabbath (Mark 2:24). Jewish leaders fromJerusalem attributed his authority over demons to Satan (Mark 3:22).

In light of Jesus’ kingdom ministry of teaching and healing, Galilean Pharisees wanted proof. What is the “sign from heaven” that you have authority to do these things? It appears that they are not simply asking for a miracle. Jesus has done many of those and in their presence. They wanted something clear and unequivocal. Perhaps they wanted him to prove his case in some kind of legal preceding or disputation. More likely, the addition of “from heaven” is a demand that Jesus given proof through a clear demonstration such as the opening of the heavens. Perhaps they wanted God to speak and authenticate Jesus’ ministry. It appears that they will not accept anything less than that.

In Matthew (16:4) and Luke (11:29) Jesus suggests that they will receive such a sign when Jesus is raised from the dead but Mark does not include this response. Instead Jesus simply denies their request. If kingdom miracles are not sufficient, then there will be no opening of heaven to persuade those whose hearts are already hardened against the kingdom of God.

Jesus did not say this in anger although he has been previously angered by their hard hearts (Mark 3:5). Rather, “he sighed deeply in his spirit.” This term (anastenazas) is related to the word Mark used when Jesus prayed over the deaf-mute in Mark 7:34 but here it is intensified. It is a sigh located deep within his soul. Jesus grieves their stubbornness and their insistence on a sign. He grieves their brokenness.It is as if Jesus weeps over these Pharisees who are so obstinate, just as he will weep over Jerusalem itself.

Jesus is not interested in arguing with the Pharisees. He gets in a boat to cross the lake again and this time ends up in Bethsaida (Mark 8:22)—a city on the edge of the Decapolis but also the native lakeside village of Peter and Andrew. Jesus, seemingly, leaves Galilee in a hurry as the disciples even forget to bring bread.

During the trip across the latke Jesus, in effect, debriefs his disciples. We only get a brief snipet. It is the caution to be wary of the “yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” As in Mark 3:6 where the Pharisees and Herodians conspire together to kill Jesus, the two are joined together in this warning. Whether it is religious leaders or political ones, their yeast has a way of leavening the whole lump. What is the yeast? What is the problem with the Pharisees and Herodians as pictured in the Gospel of Mark? Their power, greed and stubbornness subvert the virtues of the kingdom of God. Jesus warns his disciples to disengage from such power struggles and to steer clear of such agendas.

But the disciples are confused. They think Jesus is upset about the lack of bread. Their minds—perhaps even mutual blaming is involved—are on the lack of food. They have no provisions. They are worried about hunger while Jesus is warning them about power.

Their worry brings them to the same place as the Pharisees and Herodians. Their worries about bread lead them to the same stubbornness (hard hearts) that characterizes the religious and political leaders of Israel (Mark 3:5 with 8:17). Though they have been with Jesus for many months now, perhaps years at this point, their eyes are still blinded and their ears are still dull, just like many others (cf. Mark 4:12). It seems that the disciples have not made much progress. They are still in danger of the power and greed agendas that characterize their religious and political leaders. But the kingdom of God has a different agenda; a different yeast infects it.

Since they are so concerned about bread, Jesus reminds them that he fed  5,000 and 4,000 we a few loaves. What is Jesus’ point? The disciples know the events—they distinctly remember the abundance of provision that was left over from the feedings. Why is this an important point for Jesus?

The disciples apparently were consumed with worry about bread, about food. They feared hunger; perhaps they blamed each other. We might imagine that the argued over who forgot the bread. They were distracted from the kingdom agenda by their worries and arguments. So much so that they could not hear the warning of Jesus. In fact, that yeast had already infected them. They were consumed with earthly worry rather than the king’s business.

Jesus reminds them of the miracles as if to say, “If I fed 5,000 and then 4,000 with only a few loaves and fish, we need not worry about whether we have any bread or not in the boat. We have more important things to think about and do.”

Kingdom people don’t worry about bread, but they are alarmed by the “yeast of the Pharisee and the Herodians.” Though God feeds us we are always in danger of succumbing to the siren call of power and greed for more.

“Do you still not understand?” Jesus asked. I think he is still asking and we are still worrying about bread when the dangers of power and greed in religious and political leadership are the real problem.

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