After feeding the four thousand, Yeshua went to Magdala. When some Pharisees there asked Him to repeat the miracle, He refused; “leaving them, He again embarked and went away to the other side” (Mark 8:13).
They were still on the lake, crossing toward Bethsaida, when the disciples realized that no one had purchased supplies before leaving town. They had only one loaf of bread with them. No one told the Master.
Yeshua sat in the stern of the boat, still reflecting on His acrimonious encounter with the religious leaders in Magdala. He turned to the Twelve and said, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6).
Exactly what teaching did the Master classify as leaven? He could not have meant the tenets of Pharisaic doctrine and interpretation; He taught the same tenets and employed the same interpretations. In other words, Rabbi Yeshua did not consider belief in the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, punishment and reward after death, the existence of Gehenna and Paradise, the doctrine of Messiah and the Messianic Era, and so forth as insipid leaven—neither did He intend to impugn Judaism and Jewish practice.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees did not share a common teaching that could lump them together. To make the interpretation even more difficult, Mark’s version says, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:15). Some versions say, “the leaven of the Herodians.” What did the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and Herod Antipas (or the Herodians) all share in common?
Luke’s version of the saying offers a further insight: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). The Pharisees and the Sadducees did not agree on any teaching, but both parties agreed in the practice of religious hypocrisy. Hypocrisy means “acting.” It refers to putting on a performance.
In the case of the Pharisees, they taught high standards of ritual observance which, in many cases, created a false impression of genuine piety. Likewise, the Sadducees occupied the sacred vestments of the priesthood. They looked like holy men, but they engaged in decadence and godless political corruption as they nestled themselves in with Roman and Herodian power. Even the Herodians acted the part of being devout Jews while living like Roman idolaters.
The three parties of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians represented the Jewish religious and political leadership of the age. The Master saw through their façade of piety. He warned His disciples against the leaven of engaging in religious pretense and disingenuousness. He did not want to see His followers become a new breed of elitists and corrupt politicians masquerading behind a veneer of religious piety.