Daily Reflection
February 17th, 2004
John O'Keefe
Theology Department
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Today’s readings make me feel a bit like the disciples described in the Gospel: “do you still not understand?”  Jesus’ words are quite obscure, and I sympathize with the poor disciples who seem completely dense and lost.  What is this “leaven of the Pharisees?”  To answer that question we need more than today’s Gospel.  In the verses immediately preceding, Mark describes a Pharisee who is disappointed in Jesus for not offering enough signs.  This episode itself follows the description of the feeding of the four thousand.  So Jesus “sighs in his spirit” (Mark 12) and says, “why does this generation ask for a sign?”  Returning to today’s Gospel, we see that the disciples, like the Pharisee, have already forgotten the feeding of the four thousand and seem to interpret Jesus admonition to avoid the leaven of the Pharisees as a scolding for forgetting dinner.  Jesus was talking about their continuing doubt and lack of understanding of his true identity and purpose, both of which come into greater focus as the Gospel advances.

It seems to me that the paring of this gospel and the passage from James is remarkable.  When read in the light of Mark, James’ exhortation to persevere in temptation stings a bit more forcefully than it otherwise might.  We might say that the leaven of the Pharisees and the failed perception of the disciples indicate as common propensity toward spiritual blindness.  If we stretch our interpretive imaginations a bit, we might also say that the leaven of the Pharisees is the very attitude that “gives birth to death” when it “reaches maturity.”

Sin always alienates us from God and, I think, from true insight into his purposes.  James is, therefore, wise to exhort us to persevere in temptation.  I am personally intrigued by his insight here, especially in the line already quoted, that “when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.”  I once remarked to my spiritual director that I thought that as we age sin is harder on us than when we are young.  Just as we are more physically nimble in youth, we are also more morally nimble.  A wayward youth is a source of concern, but a hardened sinner is a tragedy.

I am personally deeply consoled by the psalmist’s words, “when I say, ‘My foot is slipping,' your mercy, O Lord, sustains me.”  Thank God.

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