This section of Matthew seems to be dealing with bread, belief, signs, and wonders. Chapter 15:21-28 features Matthew’s version of Mark’s vignette of the Canaanite woman whom Jesus at first declines to pay any attention to at all. She is a foreigner. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus sneers, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs.” But she dishes right back: “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” This is one of those difficult passages that fly in the face of what we assume Jesus was like – and indeed it does contradict who Jesus was. Matthew is trying to claim Jesus for Jerusalem, not the pagan outsiders.
But that point is a diversion. Matthew follows the exchange with the Canaanite woman with a variation on the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (again, straight from Mark, but without Mark’s context). Right after threatening to ignore the foreigner’s need for bread and healing, he is afraid those “lost sheep” might collapse on the road, so – illustrating what might have been the shared ritual meal of the early Jesus movement – Matthew’s Jesus once again takes “seven loaves and a few fish,” gives thanks, and breaks them into pieces for distribution to the crowd. Alakazam! Everyone gets more than enough to eat and they pick up seven baskets of leftover scraps. Not counting the women and children (of course), this crowd numbered 4,000.
Then Jesus takes a boat to Magadan, where the Pharisees and Sadducees try again to get him to give them a sign. Having just performed the second miraculous feeding of a huge crowd of people, which the Jewish leadership apparently refused to accept, he tells them again that the only sign they will get is “the sign of Jonah.” For Matthew that sign means repentance, from rejection to belief, in Jesus’ resurrection. See Matthew 12:38-40.
After that scene, Matthew returns to the bread motif. When the disciples join Jesus on the shore, he tells them “Guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They think he is talking about bread, but they have forgotten to bring any. In Mark’s version (Mark 8:14-21) Jesus rails at the followers because they continue to miss the point that providing food for two separate crowds was a demonstration of the radicality of God’s covenant where distributive justice holds sway. Matthew’s purpose is to warn would-be followers of Jesus’ Way to ignore the teachings of traditional Jewish religious leaders, who despite their belief in the resurrection of the dead, refuse to believe that Jesus was the resurrected Messiah.
Once again, we see the contrast between the two Gospel writers: Mark’s story about the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem is an extended parable about Jesus and the nature of the kingdom (realm, covenant) of God, and how to participate in it. Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses, Jesus’ teachings as the new law, and his Gospel as a five-part replacement for Torah. Interpreters of Matthew must be constantly on guard against anti-semitism – the “leaven of the Pharisees and Saducees” that still plagues Christianity today. Simply put, 21st century exiles from the Christian church have a choice between “belief” in an impossible legend and participation in a possible transformation in human life.
Plenty of examples can be found of the profoundly negative consequences of choosing to “believe” traditional church dogma. For example, look at Acts 1:6-14, which is one of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter – also known as “The Ascension of the Lord.” As he takes off for a point beyond Antares, Luke’s Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” After Jesus has disappeared from sight, two angels appear and announce, “This Jesus who has been taken away from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Combine this with the Revelation of John of Patmos (not one of the disciples!), the “little apocalypse” of Mark 13, Matthew 25:1-13, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; throw in Daniel 7, and we have Apocalypse Now. More “leaven of the Pharisees” like Harold Camping, not to mention the Christian Zionists who support the government of Israel no matter what.
All this is based on a profound and fundamental misunderstanding of pre-modern, mystic metaphor, developed by oppressed, occupied, and desperate people, kept out of the main stream by imperial social systems. Unfortunately, like the clueless followers of Matthew’s Jesus, post-modern Christian traditionalists, conservatives, and fundamentalists alike treat it all as photographically verifiable, provable fact.
Anti-church skeptics like to claim that such “belief” has been and continues to be used to control the masses. A case can certainly be made, and not only regarding the appalling activities engaged in by the Inquisition, the various European royal families in the crusades, and other political-religious entanglements of popes and landed gentry. The present-day Christian right-wing is determined to legislate its social agenda, all of which is based on traditional, conservative, belief. Most people who support the religious right also support the “tea party,” which was largely responsible for the take-over of the House by Republicans. While most people who identify themselves as right-wing Christians are tea-party supporters, it is possible to be a tea party supporter and not subscribe to the right-wing Christian agenda. Nevertheless, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Tea Party supporters are disproportionately white evangelical Protestants, have conservative opinions about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, and “are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues.”
Liberals – whether religious or not – tend to write off the belief systems of the Christian right as irrelevant. But the results of granting governing power to the Christian right are already becoming all too clear as human rights, public education, and social safety nets thought to be enshrined forever are now in jeopardy. A recent letter to the editor in the Martinsburg (West Virginia) Journal suggests that voter registration drives and attempts to make voting easier for more people is a waste of time and money. The writer asks, “What difference does it make if 1,000 or 10,000 people vote as long as the candidate wins by a simple majority of one?” The obvious answer is, if 999 are right-wing Christians determined to deny equal protection to women, establish Biblical creationism as public school curriculum, and make being gay subject to the death penalty, and 1 votes against it, American social progress would be rolled back by 100 years.
Sam Harris’ recommendation to eliminate all religions is understandable. If present-day poor, disenfranchised, uneducated, oppressed people are not liberated from religious fundamentalism, they will continue to be trapped by imperial systems, which are highly likely to be corporations, not governments. What Sam Harris and other exasperated atheists are unable or unwilling to consider regarding the Christianity of the last 1,700 years (post-Constantine) is twofold: the role that metaphor and mysticism continues to play in human psychology (including atheists), and the radical, counter-cultural, anti-imperialist, conviction that if we want a world where distributive justice-compassion is the rule (God’s Covenant), then it is up to us to create it (participatory eschatology).
“Leaven,” which really refers to fermentation, is banned from Jewish homes during Passover. In the parable – whether in Mark’s context or Matthew’s – the disciples think Jesus is talking literally about bread. In both Mark’s and Matthew’s settings of the phrase, “guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” the metaphor is of corruption. For Mark, the corruption refers to the religious collaborators with Roman rule. For Matthew the corruption refers to the refusal of religious leaders to accept the story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the apocalyptic prophecy of liberation found in Daniel. Both interpretations can be useful to post-modern, post-Christian exiles. From Mark’s point of view, beware the corruption that comes when religion collaborates with empire. From Matthew’s point of view, beware the corruption that follows from outmoded tradition.
Both require participation in order to bring an end to the present paradigm.