The Leaven of Satan? Or the Leaven of God?
Tuesday February 17, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Sixth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (James 1:12-18) Gospel (St. Mark 8:14-21)
In the Gospel today, Our Lord tells His disciples to be on the watch against the leaven of the Pharisees and against the leaven of Herod. Then after they misunderstand what it is that He is talking about, He points out to them that being able to feed them was not a problem. He can take four loaves and feed five thousand people, and have twelve baskets left over. He can take seven loaves and feed four thousand people, and have seven baskets left over. So the “food” part is not a problem. He is trying to help His disciples to be able to look at what underlies the trouble.
When we look at the leaven of the Pharisees, which becomes pride and scrupulosity, it becomes a matter of false religion; it becomes a matter of trying to redefine God according to one’s own image. That is something many people have made quite a life of: trying to tell God how to be God, trying to tell God what commandments we should be following and which ones we do not have to, or at least how we can get around the commandments of God while still claiming to serve Him.
The leaven of Herod is a leaven of materialism, worldliness, power, wealth, selfishness. Once again, these are the American virtues; these are the things that American people have made a life of. This is exactly what we need to be careful of because the two of them work together. If we give into all the materialism and all the wealth and the worldliness, what will eventually happen, inevitably happen, is that we are going to start justifying ourselves. We are going to start finding reasons why it is okay for us to do what we want to do: “God, after all, wouldn’t mind too terribly much. It’s not too bad. After all, I should be able to do these things.” We begin to become pharisaical. We go through the motions externally, but internally we do not really have much of a love for God because we are too caught up in the love for self.
The Lord calls it the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod because as it begins to work in – just as yeast does with dough, a little bit of yeast will affect all of the dough – a little bit of selfishness is going to affect everything. We cannot get around it. What tends to happen, as anyone who has ever tried to make bread knows, if you just let the dough sit there it is going to keep getting bigger, and that is exactly what happens with pride. It just keeps getting bigger. Pretty soon, the head cannot even fit in the door and we are going to be able to justify pretty much anything: why we should do something or why we should not do something. That is, why we should be able to do something we really should not do, and why we should not do something we really should do. We can justify it all. We can find some little nuance within our own minds to be able to justify whatever we want to do or whatever we do not want to do. It is the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. We play with temptation, we give into it, and we try to justify ourselves.
This is exactly what Saint James is talking about. With regard to the temptations, you first have to understand that they do not come from God. So trying to justify ourselves in giving into such things is clearly not of God; there is no justification. At the same time, he tells us that one who perseveres through all of these things is the person who has been blessed by God. And so we can look at ourselves and ask which leaven we are dealing with. The leaven of God, by which in temptation we pray, we fight, we struggle against it, and we overcome? Or the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod, by which we try to justify ourselves, by which we give into temptation, by which we try to make ourselves look good on the outside but the reality is that we are willfully giving into all kinds of wrongful things? Externally, it looks the same; internally, there is a huge difference. We need to be very careful because the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod is very subtle because it is the leaven of Satan, the most subtle of all the creatures that God made. And it is amazing how easily we can convince ourselves of all of the wrongdoing that we give ourselves over to.
So we need to really look seriously at that whole issue, and not convince ourselves that we want the leaven of God – that is not the question – the question is which leaven is in the heart, which leaven is affecting the soul. There are only two ways, and if we give to one we cannot give to the other. Jesus told us, “You cannot serve two masters.” So which one have we chosen? The leaven of God? Or the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod, that is, the leaven of Satan? We have to make a choice, and whichever we choose is going to affect the entire person. It will continue to grow, either unto virtue or unto vice; either way, it will bring us to eternal life in one place or the other. That is why it is such a critical point and such an important decision to make because no one will force it on us; we have to choose. It is that simple and it is that clear. Whom will we choose? Which one will we open our heart to? The leaven of Satan? Or the leaven of God?
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.