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.