A Meditation for Evensong: Beware the Yeast of the Pharisees & Herod: In the Boat with Jesus
A Meditation for Evensong: Mark 8: 11-21
The Cathedral Church of St. Mark
The Very Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Dean & Rector
When we encounter Jesus and the disciples in the boat, one of the first things to notice is how boats have the nasty habit of reminding us of our vulnerability, our exposure to what is risky and contingent in a world that’s impossible to control. Wind, waves, whales—they set before us everything that’s unmanageable. In a boat we are exposed to everything that won’t bend to our will, our desire to have things on our own terms. We come face-to-face with our weakness, our poverty, our dependence, our need, and vulnerability.
Now in our culture, weakness, poverty, dependence, need and vulnerability—though true statements of the human condition—aren’t exactly high-prized attributes. Just think of the antonym for each of those words and you’ll start to see that they sound pretty much like what you learned from your teachers, parents, nation: power, wealth, independence, self-sufficiency, invulnerability. Pretty good right?
Except these attributes are exactly what Jesus is calling the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of the Herodians. So what is the yeast of the Pharisees? Needless to say, Jesus is speaking metaphorically here of the Pharisee’s insatiable need for power, control, and influence. Jesus is a threat to the settled order of things—an order they control and benefit from. They are acting and reacting from a deep fear of vulnerability and exposure that Jesus’ ministry amongst them represents. The yeast of the Pharisees is a kind of defendedness against the in-breaking newness of what God is up to in the person of Jesus. The yeast of the Pharisees is an entrapment in old patterns of seeing and being-in-the-world. The yeast of the Pharisees is a certain deafness to the new song that God is singing in Christ—like parents in the 50s who tried to blast Rachmaninov to silence the hip-swinging Elvis Presley blaring from their children’s bedrooms.
The Pharisees want to make Jesus a plaything of their control. They want him to perform like a genie in a bottle at their beck and call. They want to turn Jesus into a possession, an instrument of their continued desire to maintain power and influence. Beware, Jesus is warning the disciples, of being so defended, so hungry for influence and control, that you defend yourself against life itself! Beware of turning my presence that is with you always, even to the end of the age, into a private possession of your own imagination so that you miss how I am actually showing up all the time (even here in this rickety old fishing vessel).
Similarly, the yeast of Herod is all about maintaining power with the threat of violence. Of course, it’s Herod who gives his assent for John the Baptist’s head to be cut off and displayed as a trophy to his assembled guests. Herod liked to listen to John the Baptist we are told, but the threat of the new thing he was heralding was too much for Herod to bear. In the end Herod decided to please the crowd in a show of bluster instead of yielding graciously, co-operatively, to the new thing John the Baptist was announcing.
“Beware the yeast of the Pharisees, and the yeast of Herod.” Both these yeasts ferment in a climate of fear and distrust. Both these yeasts are cultivated in a world-picture with the single, solitary self at the center of everything: our power, our status, our security, our reputation, our control. The trouble with the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod is that it hollows us out from the inside. If we live for power we spend our lives looking over our shoulder for the one who inevitably is more powerful than we are and end up contracted and self-enclosed, paranoid and fearful. If we direct our efforts at always being in control, something will always comes along to upset our apple-cart and our best-laid plans will go up in smoke. The substitutes for true happiness (that is to be found in trusting in God and God alone), which the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod represent, never fully satisfy, and keep us enslaved in a cycle of fear, and violence: trapped in kind of living death.
So what’s the alternative? It’s to willingly step into the boat with Jesus, to follow Him, to come and see, trusting not in our own power, but in the power of the one who can make a way out of no way, draw fruitfulness from barrenness, life from death. The alternative is to see that all the bankrupt ways of trying to secure our happiness on our own in terms of safety/security, power/control, affection/esteem just make us more miserable, fearful, and curved in our selves. Once we recognize that, we gradually learn to trust the wobbly life in the boat that’s designed to show us how things really are, the world of wind, waves, and whales where our need for a savior to heal us in our weakness, our poverty, our dependence, our need, and vulnerability is unflinchingly clear.
We always want to retreat to the shore—to find some solid ground under our feet because we chafe mightily against the dependence and vulnerability, the reliance on God, to which the life of faith invites us. That, however, is the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. The yeast of self-sufficiency and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Our weakness, our poverty, our dependence, our need, and vulnerability—life in the boat and life on planet earth—contain within them the promise of a true security, a true joy and happiness that is not contingent upon the outward circumstances of our daily life with its inevitably ups and downs. Our weakness, our poverty, our dependence, our need, and vulnerability once acknowledged and not repressed or stuffed away somewhere teach us where to look for the peace, safety, abundance, and joy for which we are made. In Christ. In the boat with Him and Him Alone.
It is precisely to the degree that we yield to love, surrender our illusory self-sufficiency, and embrace whole-heartedly our dependence and littleness that we become the bread for which the whole world hungers. The feeding miracles aren’t just about Jesus feeding hungry disciples, but about us becoming food—physical, spiritual, and emotional food—for others. So step into the boat. Don’t fret about not having a life jacket. Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod—that hankering for solid ground. Most of all, know that it is our calling not just to consume bread, but to be changed into it—to be the bread that Jesus is for others in a windy, wavy, and whaley world.