“Watch out!” Jesus warned them. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”… Then at last they understood that he wasn’t speaking about the yeast in bread, but about the deceptive teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. [Matthew 16: 6,12 (NLT)]
In Moses’ day, people didn’t have packets of Fleishmann’s rapid rise yeast. They had to gather yeast from grape leaves and wait for the yeast to raise the dough. When the Israelites fled Egypt, they needed to take provisions but there was no time for yeast gathering or bread to rise. In a rush, they baked unleavened flat bread or brought unleavened dough with them. Tonight, Passover begins; it celebrates the day the death angel passed over Jewish homes when striking down all of Egypt’s firstborn sons and male animals. Tomorrow night, the Feast of Unleavened Bread begins. This seven day festival commemorates the Hebrew’s emancipation from slavery in Egypt. Typically, the two celebrations collectively are called Passover.
When God ordained these celebrations, the Jews were told to rid their homes for seven days from all leavening agents or products that contained leaven. For the devout, preparing for this holiday is more than eliminating bread, cookies, pastries, yeast, cake mixes, or baking powder from the grocery cart. Any traces of those items must be completely eradicated. The house is meticulously cleaned so that no crumbs remain under cushions or in pockets. The stove, oven, toaster, refrigerator, counters and cabinets are thoroughly cleaned for the same reason. The night preceding Passover, families do one last search for chametz (anything with leavening); any found is removed from the house and burned outside. In actuality, cleaning one’s house of all yeast is just about impossible. Yeast is a mold and exists in the air (which is how it ends up on grape leaves) and it will find a way to enter even the cleanest house.
When yeast is added to water and flour, it starts to grow and multiply and, once added to something, there is no way it can be removed. In the right conditions, yeast seems nearly immortal. The Boudin Bakery in San Francisco claims that its sourdough starter dates from 1849. That yeast may not be immortal, but it is long lasting and far-reaching, especially when one considers how many times a portion of that starter has been shared with other bakers in the 168 years it has existed.
Although it’s a leavening agent, when yeast is mentioned in the Bible (42 times in the NLT Old Testament and 13 times in the New), it usually represents sin. Jesus used it to describe corruption, false teaching and hypocrisy. Sin, like yeast, is in the air all around us and can enter our lives through the tiniest cracks. It can grow, multiply and take on a life of its own. Just as a little yeast can go a long way and spread through dough, a little sin can spread through a person and into those around him.
Thinking of yeast as sin gives additional meaning to Passover for Christians. Because Jesus freed us from the laws and rituals of the Old Testament, we don’t need to search for crumbs in our cushions and pantry this week. Nevertheless, there is sin hidden in our lives. This week, as we look forward to Easter Sunday, rather than leavening, we might search for our sins. We could look deep into the nooks and crannies of our thoughts and actions and remove that which doesn’t belong. For Jews, this week celebrates their deliverance from Egypt. As Christians, may this Holy Week prepare us for the celebration of our deliverance from sin!