Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Beware the Yeast of the Pharisees!

Today’s First Reading begins the story of Noah, a descendant of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. Many generations had come and gone between Adam and Noah, and the people of the world had once again become wicked, and the LORD proposed to wipe out from the earth not only the human beings he had created, but also the beasts and the creeping things, and the birds of the air. No mention is made of the fish, the whales and other water creatures, because the means by which the LORD would end his experiment of creation would be water. There would be a great flood that would cover the entire earth.

But then, the LORD remembered Noah, and decided to spare him and his family. He told Noah to build a boat, and to place in the boat seven pairs, a male and its mate, of every clean animal, and one pair of every unclean animal; likewise, seven pairs of all of the clean birds, and one pair of all the unclean birds. The primary purpose was to provide food for Noah and his family during the coming flood. Seven days later, the waters of the flood began to rise throughout the whole earth.

In today’s Gospel, the disciples of Jesus had forgotten to bring bread, and they had none, except for one loaf they had left in the boat.”Be careful,” Jesus warned them, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” They wondered what he meant. One of them said, “It must be because we have no bread.” Aware of their discussion, he asked them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Don’t you remember? When I fed the five thousands with five loaves, how many basketfuls of leftovers did you pick up?” “Twelve”, they answered. And when I broke seven loaves and fed four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you collect?” “Seven.” Then he asked, “Do you still fail to understand?”

When I was a lad, there was a brewery in the town across the river, where they made Hampden Ale. On a windy day, the aroma of the yeast they used would waft around the houses and apartment blocks at both ends of the bridge. My mother baked pies and cakes, but her mother, my mémère, used to bake her own bread, and she also used yeast in that process. That may be one reason I prefer bread from a local bakery – or homemade bread, like my friend JG baked to go with the lasagna prepared by the Father Ed, of the Ukrainian Church across the river for JG, Fr Paul and Fr Charlie and myself.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus warns his apostles to guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. In the parallel passage in Luke, this “yeast” is interpreted as hypocrisy. The word “hypocrisy” in Greek originally referred to playing a role on the stage. A hypocrite was simply an actor. The French playwright Molière wrote a play entitled Tartuffe (full title: Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur – Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite) It was written and first performed in 1664 at the Palace of Versailles, and immediately censured by the outcry of the dévots (the “devout” people). The name has passed into many languages, used to denote a hypocrite, especially one who affects religious piety. Someone else once wrote that we out “to mix a leaven of charity” with our judgments.

Hypocrisy is virtue that is devoid of everything but external appearance. There is little mercy in Molière’s caricature of the religious bigot, no suggestion of hope. But Jesus repeatedly said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” But then he sat at table with them, became friends with a few of them. There were two Pharisees, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea standing with him at the foot of the Cross. He held upon the door of hope.

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