“Watch Out for the Leaven of the Pharisees”

Jesus warned his disciples: “Watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1) A parallel account of Jesus’ words makes it clear that he was condemning “the teaching” of the Pharisees.​—Matt. 16:12.

The Bible sometimes uses “leaven,” or yeast, as a symbol of corruption. No doubt both the teachings and the attitude of the Pharisees had a corrupting effect on their listeners. Why was the Pharisees’ teaching dangerous?

1 The Pharisees prided themselves on being righteous, and they looked down on the common people.

This self-righteousness figures in one of Jesus’ parables. He said: “The Pharisee stood and began to pray these things to himself, ‘O God, I thank you I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give the tenth of all things I acquire.’ But the tax collector standing at a distance was not willing even to raise his eyes heavenward, but kept beating his breast, saying, ‘O God, be gracious to me a sinner.’”​—Luke 18:11-13.

Jesus praised the tax collector’s humble attitude, saying: “I tell you, This man went down to his home proved more righteous than [the Pharisee]; because everyone that exalts himself will be humiliated, but he that humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14) Although tax collectors had a reputation for dishonesty, Jesus sought to help those among them who listened to him. At least two tax collectors​—Matthew and Zacchaeus—​became his followers.

What if we were to think that we are better than others because of our God-given abilities or privileges or because of the failures and weaknesses of others? We should quickly dismiss such thoughts, for the Scriptures say: “Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offence. Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat over other men’s sins, but delights in the truth.”​—1 Cor. 13:4-6, The New English Bible.

We should have an attitude similar to that of the apostle Paul. After mentioning that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” Paul added: “Of these I am foremost.”​—1 Tim. 1:15.

Questions for meditation:

Do I recognize that I am a sinner and that my salvation depends on Jehovah’s undeserved kindness? Or do I view long years of faithful service, privileges in God’s organization, or natural abilities as a basis for feeling superior to others?

  2 The Pharisees sought to impress others by public displays of their righteousness. They desired prominence and flattering titles.

But Jesus warned: “All the works they do they do to be viewed by men; for they broaden the scripture-containing cases that they wear as safeguards, and enlarge the fringes of their garments. They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues, and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men.” (Matt. 23:5-7) Contrast their attitude with that of Jesus. Although he was the perfect Son of God, he was humble. When a certain man called him “good,” Jesus said: “Why do you call me good? Nobody is good, except one, God.” (Mark 10:18) On another occasion, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, thereby setting a pattern of humility for his followers.​—John 13:1-15.

A true Christian should serve fellow believers. (Gal. 5:13) Especially is this so in the case of those who want to qualify as overseers in the congregation. It is proper to be “reaching out for an office of overseer,” but this goal should spring from a desire to help others. This “office” is not a position of prominence or power. Those serving as overseers need to be “lowly in heart,” as Jesus was.​—1 Tim. 3:1, 6; Matt. 11:29.

Questions for meditation:

Do I tend to favor those who have positions of responsibility in the congregation, perhaps with the hope of gaining prominence or additional privileges? Am I inclined to focus primarily on aspects of God’s service that seem to bring recognition and praise? Indeed, am I trying to shine before others?

  3 The Pharisees’ rules and traditions made the application of the Law burdensome for the common people.

The Mosaic Law furnished the overall structure for Israel’s worship of Jehovah. However, minute details were not provided. For instance, the Law forbade work on the Sabbath, but it did not explicitly define what constituted work and what did not. (Ex. 20:10) The Pharisees sought to fill in such supposed gaps by means of their laws, definitions, and traditions. While Jesus ignored the arbitrary rules of the Pharisees, he did observe the Mosaic Law. (Matt. 5:17, 18; 23:23) He saw beyond the letter of the Law. Jesus discerned the spirit behind the Law and the need for mercy and compassion. He was reasonable, even when his followers failed him. For example, although he urged three of his apostles to stay awake and keep on the watch on the night of his arrest, they fell asleep repeatedly. Nevertheless, he sympathetically remarked: “The spirit, of course, is eager, but the flesh is weak.”​—Mark 14:34-42.

Questions for meditation:

Do I seek to lay down arbitrary, inflexible rules or to turn my personal opinions into law? Am I reasonable in what I expect of others?

Reflect on the contrast between Jesus’ teaching and that of the Pharisees. Do you see ways in which you could improve? If so, why not resolve to do so?

[Picture on page 28]

The Pharisees wore scripture-containing cases.​—Matt. 23:2, 5

[Pictures on page 29]

Unlike the haughty Pharisees, humble Christian elders serve others

[Picture on page 30]

Like Jesus, are you reasonable about what you expect of others?