When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” (Matthew 16:5-7)
The disciples certainly don’t make themselves look good in the gospels, do they? In the past few chapters, they come off like that kid in school who always forgot his lunch. It’s just amazing.
Jesus decides to take the opportunity to teach the disciples a lesson, and the disciples once again can’t get past their own stomachs. They think that Jesus is talking about food. Maybe they thought Jesus was warning that the Pharisees and Sadducees would try to poison them so they needed to make sure they purchased their own bread. Whatever the case, Jesus and the disciples are still not functioning on the same wavelength.
There is a sense of urgency to Jesus’ warning, however. He commands the disciples to both watch (literally, “see”) and beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. This leaven is something the disciples will need to make an effort both to recognize and to stand on guard against.
It is also interesting that Jesus lumps the Pharisees and Sadducees together, as they often stood diametrically opposed to each other (at least on matters not concerning opposition to Jesus). Pharisees were legalists, adding man-made laws to the Mosaic law, and opposing compromise with the Gentile authorities. Sadducees were more involved politically and frequently compromised with the Greeks and Romans, thus becoming more of an aristocratic elite. Sadducees also tended to be more materialist, denying things like fate (or providence), angelic beings, and the afterlife.
The Jewish historian Josephus describes the differences this way:
“[T]he Pharisees are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their laws… These ascribe all to fate, and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does cooperate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies,–but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment. But the Sadducees… take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men’s own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades. Moreover, the Pharisees are friendly to one another, and are for the exercise of concord and regard for the public. But the behavior of the Sadducees one towards another is in some degree wild; and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them.” (The Wars of the Jews)
“Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate…. And for the Sadducees, they take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the cause of what is good , and receive what is evil from our own folly.…
[T]he Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers; and concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side…
These are those that are called the sect of the Pharisees, who were in a capacity of greatly opposing kings…. Accordingly, when all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good will to Caesar, and to the king’s government, these very men did not swear…
Now, for the Pharisees, they live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet… They also believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again… But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies; nor do they regard the observation of anything besides what the law enjoins them…” (The Antiquities of the Jews)
So, what are we to make of this?
First of all, I think it’s important to note that the disciples missed what Jesus was saying because they were thinking about food. How often do we allow ourselves to become so distracted by our physical surroundings that we miss what Jesus is trying to teach us? How often are we unable to focus on prayer, Scripture readings, church services, or the needs of others because we are worried about what we want to have for lunch, what time our favorite sports team is playing, or the next episode of our favorite TV show? May we not allow our physical comfort to distract us from our spiritual calling.
Secondly, I think this reminds us of the Kingdom parables in Matthew 13 and that there are really only 2 types of people in this world: those who belong to the Kingdom and those who don’t. The Pharisees and Sadducees were on opposite sides of the political and religious spectrums, but Jesus takes the opportunity of their joint testing of him to lump them together and tell the disciples to watch out for both. Both groups were wrong because neither one fell in line with God’s will. Often we like to side with the “lesser of two evils” or we think that one group of sinners is somehow less evil than another group of sinners because their beliefs fall more in line with ours. (We already know from Matthew 15:12 that the disciples had some sympathies for the Pharisees.) But (as we’ll see in the explanation in Matthew 16:12), identifying ourselves with anything or anyone besides Jesus puts us in immediate danger.