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
I know I’m probably confusing at least half my readers with my title. You’re saying right now, “But… aren’t you into religion? You’re a missionary in Romania, after all… What do you mean ‘religion kills’?” So, if you’re totally confused right now, just bear with me as I look at part two in this series on the dangers of religion. (For part one, visit The Yeast of Herod.)
Of all the places I’ve lived, Bucureşti is probably the most religious. Statistics say that from 96 to 98% of the two million people living here are Orthodox. It sometimes feels like every block has at least one church building on it, and it’s common to see priests walking around the city. Shoot, even a portion of the state budget goes to support the Orthodox church.
It’s a very religious place. But there is a danger to religion, a very potent danger highlighted by Jesus’ warning in Mark 8 to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees.”
Religion doesn’t kill just once by dulling a man’s conscience (see part 1); it kills a second time by giving impossible demands, demands which God has never spoken. This is the yeast of the Pharisees.
Before we get into the danger of the Pharisees, we first need to know one thing: they were never that bad.
We normally think of them as the evil super villains of the New Testament. Yes, Jesus calls them a “brood of vipers,” but if we completely vilify these men then we will fail to learn the lesson they bring. The Pharisees, you have to understand, were the religious heroes of the first century. They were the protector of the common man and took spirituality from the hands of the rich and powerful and put it into the hands of the people.
In their day, it was commonly believed that access to God was controlled by the priesthood, those fortunate enough to have been born into Aaron’s lineage, and the priests naturally protected this belief religiously (pun intended). When Rome moved into the neighborhood, the priesthood grabbed the chance to make a powerful ally; they quickly became a political as well as spiritual force in Judea, and their power only grew. Through the sacrificial system, the temple tax, and their political connections, the priesthood worked towards a virtual stranglehold on first century Jewish society.
But the Pharisees brought a new message: access to God was not dependent on the priesthood; a holy life came through living out the tenets of the Torah.
Good news, right? Well, yes and no…
Things got difficult when the Pharisees tried to compress the Torah (a book recording God’s interactions with his people) into a list of rules for holy living. Men have always been called to live by following in the footsteps of the Spirit; reducing this to an instruction manual is not only difficult, it’s impossible!
Just take a look at a few actual rules that come from the teaching of the Pharisees: don’t eat a pepperoni and cheese pizza, don’t rip toilet paper on Saturday, don’t spit from an upstairs window or pee out your door on Saturday, don’t pick your nose on Saturday, if you use a bowl for chicken soup don’t ever use it for ice cream… The rules and debates go on and on for nearly a thousand pages in the Talmud and the Midrash.
Besides distracting from those issues most pressing to God’s heart (like, I dunno, justice for the oppressed) and being impossibly difficult to sort out with all the arguments and counter-arguments, the rules were a heavy burden few could ever hope to follow. Rather than being a guide for men towards God, the list of rules became a roadblock on the way to heaven, keeping out not only those furthest from him but even those well on their way as they failed to fulfill the demands.
This is the second death of religion, and it is caused by placing impossible demands on people without supplying the power (grace) to accomplish them. This eventually leads to a dead and cold heart towards God and hopelessness for his people. Who would ever want to serve God, after all, if you can’t hope to make him happy? You might as well just give up and go have fun while you still can. At least sinning gives you some joy. Seriously.
No set of rules can ever take the place of listening to the Spirit of Jesus, following him, and enjoying relationship with him. Depending on rules leaves you at best feeling pretty darn good about yourself, but more often than not it leaves you hopelessly wallowing in addiction, inability, and a cycle of failure. A close relationship with Jesus, however, satisfies your very soul.
Religion kills by piling on demands that never came from the heart of God and that people can never hope to meet. Whether it’s the insistence that pants should never be worn by women or that a real Christian would never watch a movie, the belief that you shouldn’t be baptized until you’re perfectly holy or that babies must be baptized lest they die and suffer in “limbo,” whether it’s the priest who gives absolution only after a donation or the preacher who makes his opinions into the law of his congregation, religion kills.
The beauty of the gospel is that we are called past service to the letter and into the greater joy of loving, submitted communion with our Father.
My hope and prayer for my life is that I would know rightly the demands God has for me and feel no burden or frustration from those demands that do not come from him, that I would walk in the simplicity of surrender to Jesus’ desires for me and in the complete satisfaction of fellowship with him.