COLUMN: Of donuts and yeast

Published 12:45 am Wednesday, October 18, 2023

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“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” (Mark 8:15)

I know almost nothing about breadmaking. I enjoy a donut with my coffee, but I cannot tell you how to make it. I know flour and water are involved, and I know sometimes yeast is included to make the donut light and airy. Yeast has been around for millennia, making bread much more enjoyable to eat. It has a long and important role in human history.

Which might be why Jesus used it to instruct his disciples.

As Jesus traveled around Galilee, teaching the curious and healing the sick, he drew a lot of attention. Some of it was good, but other attention was more alarming. The Pharisees, who were deeply faithful Jews, included in their midst some who believed their job was to police the thoughts and beliefs of others and insist that everyone hold to their interpretation of faith. Of course they would be interested in the teachings of a popular new rabbi with some unorthodox teachings. Meanwhile, Herod Antipas, the local government middleman under the Romans, started to pay attention to this constituent who was proclaiming some new kingdom…one that wasn’t Rome. Pharisees and friends of Herod began noticing each other keeping tabs on Jesus, and even though they were hardly allies, they began to conspire together to get rid of Jesus.

To a casual observer, the way of the Pharisees and even the way of Herod could be attractive. The Pharisees were committed, after all, to the teachings of Moses, to the ethical and spiritual lessons of the Torah; they had a special concern with how to live faithfully each day what they deeply believed. That was laudatory. Herod wasn’t as high-minded, but he did care about maintaining public order and ensuring that life in Galilee continued as peaceably as it could…under Herod’s oversight, of course, but peaceably.

Yet Jesus tells his disciples to beware the yeast of the Pharisees – the hyperfocus on religious rules over practical need – and the yeast of Herod – the idolatry of political power over true fidelity to God and God’s ways. Such yeast could be deadly to the spirit, Jesus seems to warn here. Instead, Jesus offers himself. The next time bread is mentioned in Mark, it is the unleavened bread of the Passover festival, which he breaks and gives to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” (Mark 14:22)

May we heed Jesus’ warning and avoid the yeast of the Pharisees – religion that places rules and rituals ahead of love and grace – and the yeast of Herod – a worldview that seeks political power at the expense of everything else. Instead, may we eat the unleavened bread of the one who taught us to love God, love neighbor, and bring the kingdom of God closer to reality each day.

But I’m pretty sure he would say donuts are okay.

Rev. Dr. J. Adam Tyler is the senior pastor for Farmville Baptist Church, and he can be reached by email at