On their way to the other side of the lake, the disciples discovered they had forgotten to bring along bread. In the meantime, Jesus said to them, “Keep a sharp eye out for Pharisee-Sadducee yeast.”
Thinking he was scolding them for forgetting bread, they discussed in whispers what to do. Jesus knew what they were doing and said, “Why all these worried whispers about forgetting the bread? Runt believers! Haven’t you caught on yet? Don’t you remember the five loaves of bread and the five thousand people, and how many baskets of fragments you picked up? Or the seven loaves that fed four thousand, and how many baskets of leftovers you collected? Haven’t you realized yet that bread isn’t the problem? The problem is yeast, Pharisee-Sadducee yeast.” Then they got it: that he wasn’t concerned about eating, but teaching—the Pharisee-Sadducee kind of teaching. (Matthew 16:5-12)
The late Gilda Radner played an odd character on Saturday Night Live named Emily Latella, who was notorious for her misunderstandings and her long winded rants that they inspired. Once she railed for a long time against the movement to limit “violins on television.” When told that the movement was, in fact, against “violence” she got very quiet and then murmured, “never mind.” The disciples often seem to resemble Emily Latella in their equally hilarious misunderstandings of Jesus.
Jesus warned them about the “Pharisee-Sadducee yeast” and they thought he was scolding them for having forgotten to bring bread with them.
But what was wrong with the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees? They took the Bible seriously. They were concerned about sin. They were concerned about the survival of the Jewish nation. How could those be bad things?
Because they missed the point of the Bible completely. They approached scripture as a bureaucrat approaching paperwork. Getting the blanks filled, the boxes checked, and getting everything signed and stamped was all that mattered. But for Jesus, what mattered were not the forms, but the people behind them. The religious establishment had lost sight of the fact that the paperwork ideally existed to make sure that people got helped. It wasn’t to make sure the filing cabinets were full.
Like yeast permeating a bit of dough, so the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees had permeated the thinking of the Jewish people, including his disciples. Jesus warned them not to get caught up in it. He didn’t want them to lose sight of what really mattered.