But the disciples had forgotten to bring any food. They had only one loaf of bread with them in the boat. As they were crossing the lake, Jesus warned them, "Watch out! Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod." At this, they began to argue with each other because they hadn't brought any bread. Jesus knew what they were saying, so he said, "Why are you arguing about having no bread? Don't you know or understand even yet? Are your hearts too hard to take it in? Mark 8:14-17
Now, I know a third of you will read my title and think, “Awesome! I hate God, too.” And another third will read it and say, “What the–?!?! I thought you were a Christian…” And the final third will say, “Huh…?,” scratch their heads, and then move right back to looking at pictures of kittens on Facebook.
So, bear with me. Or you can always go laugh at another cat trying to catch a laser.
In Mark 8, Jesus gives a strong and yet mysterious warning to his disciples: “Watch out! Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.” Was he talking about bread? No, certainly not; his next words make that much clear. Jesus is not talking about bread but about the dangers of religion.
There are two subtle ways religion can spread, multiply, and completely change, even poison, a man’s relationship with God. First, it kills by dulling a man’s sense of spiritual lack; second, it kills by demanding more than a man can give.
I don’t have space here for a history lesson, but there are a few things you need to know about “Herod.” For starters, when Jesus mentioned the name, he wasn’t talking about just one man but a family dynasty that held various political offices in Israel from just before to during the first century.
The Herods were Edomites, descendants of Esau, Jacob’s twin brother. Although related by blood, there was always hostility between these two and their descendants. You can read the biblical accounts yourself (Genesis 25:29-34, Genesis 27:1-40,, Psalm 37:7, Ezekiel 25:12-14, Obadiah 1:10-11); they range from the story of the initial squabble between the twin brothers to the stinging prophetic curses pronounced on Edom for helping Babylon sack Jerusalem in 586 BC. Later, when the Hasmoneans managed to gain some small military and national independence, John Hyrcanus sought revenge by conquering the Edomites and forcing circumcision on them. However, even though the Edomites were circumcised, most never really considered them to be Jews.
To this people group belonged the Herods of which Jesus speaks in Mark 8. I would love to go into detail here about these fascinating individuals. For now, though, it’s enough to know that the Herod dynasty was bad news for faithful, Torah-following Jews. In general, they were committed to making Israel look like Rome–doing everything from putting Roman standards into the temple to building bathhouses and stadiums–and they were willing to go to extremes to ensure their ends, even killing family members and rabbis who opposed their decisions or who became threats to their rule. They courted the powers of Rome, lived lifestyles of uninhibited sensuality, and relished their nearly-unquestioned authority.
And all the while they called themselves Jews.
In fact, the Herods claimed to be obedient, faithful Jews truly looking out for the interests of Israel. They pointed to the fact that they’d been circumcised, gave offerings, restored the temple, and had a Roman title giving them authority over the people.
This highlights the first problem of religion: religion dulls a man’s sense of his own urgent need for divine intervention and assistance. He feels no need to repent. His conscience is dulled and asleep.
Religion tells a man that he’s okay because he’s been baptized. He’s okay because he goes to a church where they speak in tongues. He’s okay because he prayed a prayer. He’s okay because he passes out tracts, feeds the homeless, preaches at churches, leads worship… Religion, to apply Karl Marx, is the opium of the people; it dulls a man’s sense of his responsibility towards man but also and especially of his responsibility towards God of a clean and pure conscience.
Religion kills first by telling a man that there is no need for him to search his heart or maintain zealous affections for Jesus because he, frankly, has a pretty impressive list of accomplishments under his belt.
My prayer for myself is that I would never lose that sense of my desperate need for Jesus, no matter how many ministry accomplishments I may some day have to my name. May my heart never be lulled into complacent sleep by my resume.