15 February 2010

Against the Leaven of the Pharisees

6th Week OT (T): Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

James, writing to “the twelve tribes in dispersion,” neatly summarizes how we arrive at spiritual destruction: “. . .each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.” Desire tempts us to sin and sin leads to death. James' contemporary readers would have rightly assumed that the tempting desire that leads to sin is inordinate, that is, disordered or unnatural, a willful distortion of what is good and right. We know that not all desires immediately lead to disobedience; in fact, some desires lead us straight to God, to obedience and righteousness. Intriguingly, James writes that “desire conceives and brings forth sin. . .” If we pursue the image here—a desire conceiving like a woman conceives a child—we may ask: who's the husband to our desire and the father of our sin? To put it in more pedestrian terms: what can be added to a perfectly natural desire that changes it into a source for sin? Jesus warns the disciples, “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 

Since we are reading Mark's gospel this morning, it shouldn't surprise us that the disciples are dumbfounded by this rather enigmatic warning. It seems like Jesus spends most of his time in Mark's gospel thumping the thick skulls of the poor disciples! This time, when they misunderstand his warning, he scolds them, “Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened?” What have our slow-learning brothers missed? What truth has dashed itself against their rock-hard hearts? First, they have forgotten that Jesus identifies the “leaven of the Pharisees” as the sin of hypocrisy—the public pretense of holiness that hides spiritual corruption (Luke 12.1). Second, they have failed to understand completely the significance of the miracle of the fishes and the loaves. Like a stern school master, Jesus rehearses the correct answers with them. Alright boys, how many loaves were leftover when the crowds had finished eating the bread I provided for them? Seven and twelve, they respond. Now, do you understand, he asks?

The leaven of the Pharisees is hypocrisy—a show, a piece of playacting to please an audience. In fact, the first hypocrites were Greek actors who used elaborate masks and tricks with the voice to portray different characters in a play. They followed a script; choreographed their movements; and wildly exaggerated their emotions all to stimulate their fans. For the Pharisees, the husband to desire and the father of sin is pretending to be holy, pretending to be righteous, and all for show. Their desire to actually be holy is leavened, raised up and given life, as a parody of real holiness: white-washed tombs, clean on the outside, rotting on the inside. Jesus compares their showy pretense at righteousness with his own miraculous leavening for the benefit of nine thousand people on two occasions: real bread to feed the hungry with baskets-full leftover. The Pharisees put on a nice act; Jesus delivers the real deal. 

If we are to marry the desire for righteousness and conceive the Word, we too must be wary of the leaven of the Pharisees, remembering who it is that gives us life. James writes, “[God] willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” We ourselves are made by the Word of Truth, reborn in this Truth, and, if we choose to leaven our desires with true holiness, we will conceive and give birth to His Word made flesh, Christ Jesus.

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1 comment:

  1. What was the "leaven of Herod"? Was it the same as the "leaven of the Pharisees"?