Many sections of scripture seem abrupt, out of place. They don’t seem to fit in neatly with their surrounding stories, prophecies, or laws. They’re jarring, as though the narrator is clapping hands in front of your sleepy face while screaming, “Pay attention! This is important!”
We find one in Mark 8, wedged awkwardly between miracle narratives; right after Jesus fed 4,000 and right before he healed a blind man. After Jesus rejects Pharisees’ request that He perform more miracles, His disciples realize they neglected to pack bread. All of a sudden Jesus issues a warning to “be careful. Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
This line is interpreted in various ways:
- “Beware the lure of power!”
- “Beware hypocrisy!”
- “Beware the unbelief that obstructs acceptance of my Kingdom!”
Regardless, these interpretations point to the same root: “Religion” and power can blind us to the reality of, and participation in, the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ spoke not only to the founders of our Church but also the future Church — He thinks big like that.
Wait, but who were the Pharisees?
(For the sake of length, I’ll focus on Pharisees and sideline Herod.)
Pharisees weren’t all bad. A progressive social movement, they expanded [contemporary Israel’s corrupted form of] Judaism to better include people of various classes, they challenged the idea that worship shouldn’t be restricted to the Temple, they loved prayer, and we owe them for much of scripture’s preservation. We read about cool ones in the New Testament, like Nicodemus and Gamaliel, and even Paul.
However, Jesus didn’t always meet the most open-minded Pharisees, and it’s these particular ones’ yeast he spoke of. The ones he debated thought they were tight with YHWH, and their lips honored Him but their hearts were far from him — their worship was based on human rules. They obsessed with rules so much that they forgot that true worship is to love YHWH and His people, not get bogged down by legalities that miss the heart of the Law. They loved studying scripture, but they tended to twist it to fit into their own beloved traditions and philosophical molds.
As a popular people wielding political sway, these Pharisees balked at the Kingdom’s tide rising from the dusty irreligious and (formerly) powerless, like traitorous tax collectors, prostitutes, and Samaritans.
It’s tragic. These people so genuinely wanted to love YHWH, but stubbornness callused their hearts. These zealots feared “getting it wrong”; feared Jesus was a fraud or demonic; feared that if He was right, then their lives up to that point had been insulting to the One to whom they’d devoted their lives.
We can empathize with much of that, right?
Are we Pharisees?
“Beware the thinking of this powerful, political, hyper-religious force,” Jesus basically said. He implied that adopting their thinking could endanger the Church.
When we read scripture, do we shallowly read ourselves as the Daniels, Josephs, and Johns? Or do we stop to consider if we are oppressive Egyptians, traitor Judases … religious-political Pharisees?
Do we have the wisdom to read from new perspectives and consider that we are the in-denial/denier Simons? The Simon who held back from giving everything to Christ? Only once we move out of that denial can we become the Peters who feed His sheep by sacrificing comfort and security.
It’s true that that the Church outside of America is no stranger to miracles. I’ve visited oppressed churches across the oceans that exude a special vibrancy in their worship. In those places, I’ve experienced and heard of things I thought undoable and unhearable.
Those believers scratch their heads at the common Western belief that the Spirit simply doesn’t move like it did in the era of the Twelve. These brothers and sisters make impossible sacrifices simply to worship, and yet possess a technicolor joy while Westerners’ hearts are weighed down by worry, shame, cynicism.
We’re missing something. “Why them and not us?” In America, I’ve attended beautiful, humbly powerful, Gospel-driven churches and I remain tied to them today, but still yet we seem to hold back from experiencing the Spirit’s radical, transformative might.
We must repent
(Before I continue: This post isn’t meant to discount the wonderful believers and churches in our nation, but instead is based on those wonderfuls being a relative rarity.)
Much of the American Church has been oppressive, shame-driven, lazy, double-minded, cowardly, doubtful. As have I.
This is a reality, not a theory: If even a fraction of the 240 million Americans who claim to be Christians lived as Jesus instructed us to …
- would the American Church rest beside revolting poverty and extreme injustice?
- would the American Church be complacent while the voices of the oppressed cry out, while blood cries from the ground?
- would the American Church expend more energy in arguments and defense of personal comfort than in love and justice?
- would the American Church focus so much on voting and profiteering rather than sacrificing for others?
- would the American Church be more obsessed with policing nonbelievers than liberating them from shame through compassion?
- would the American Church attempt to suppress the prophetic peoples’ responsibility to speak out against abuse of power and stand with the crushed?
- would the American Church ignore the Biblical emphasis on generational and communal responsibilities to take ownership for systemic sin?
Christ didn’t preach the need to release earthly power only so his Church could later claw desperately for it. I so often hear mainstream American Christians claim we are persecuted: ironically, that claim seems birthed from the insecurity of losing power. A poor reputation is not the same as persecution. And what’s our reputation? That much of the American Church is a powerful, hyper-religious, legalistic political party that flails a hammer of shame.
It’s quite yeasty, really.
We must realize that the American Church is not living in the Promised Land, but is breaking in Babylon. Through brutal slavery and genocide, we constructed a nation of materialism, violence, and soul distraction — yet much of the Church upholds this disaster and refuses to repent. What I say is not rewriting history; I’m merely removing its filters.
Sometimes I wonder if we need to send fewer missionaries, and receive more.
An American faith revival won’t look like people realizing the current Church is for them. The revival will come when we realize our Church must first unite to repent.