In Mark 8.15 Jesus cautions his disciples to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” This is one of those verses that are positively dense with meaning if the reader understands the background.
On one hand you have the Pharisees, the radicalized religious elite, who advocated the violent overthrow of Rome (or any other foreign oppressor). They were zealots in the tradition of the Hasmonean rebels, who had driven the Seleucids out of Israel a couple of centuries before. Much smaller in number than the Sadducees, the Pharisees were in many ways the heroes of the Jewish people and wielded political power disproportionate to their size. You can imagine their reaction to Jesus, who spoke against their policies of exclusion and zealous violence, who insisted that they were accomplishing precisely the opposite of the mission God had intended from the beginning for Israel: to be a light to the nations; to draw the Gentile (yes, even the oppressor) to worship of YHWH, the one true God. The Pharisees were shepherds who had lost their sheep.
On the other side we have Herod (or the Herodians, depending on your translation). Herod was a Jew, supposedly descended from the discredited priesthood which had merged with the monarchy many generations before.
That was bad enough, but he had also been installed by Rome as a harmless, controllable regent with a viable pedigree. Herod represented everything a good Jew (particularly a Pharisee) despised. He was a morally corrupt and religiously compromised political puppet of the Roman oppressors. Worse still, Herod seems to have considered himself something of a messianic figure, a fact which further repelled the Pharisees. He even printed his own money, a coin emblazoned with the image of a reed (now does Matt 11.7 and its Lk 7.24 parallel make more sense?). So, we have radical zealotry on one hand and religio-political corruption on the other.
If you understand what’s going on, you’ll understand that Jesus is teaching about something we don’t talk about a lot: the Radical Middle. He’s telling them that neither of those options is acceptable, and that both movements, small as they may have been, would be rejected by God and come to a bad end. Instead, the true people of God were to reject those polarizing options and follow Jesus instead. They were to “repent and believe the good news” (Mk 1.15). So it is with us. We are called to reject both religious elitism and moral corruption. We are called to leave off with our agendas and take Jesus for his. We are to follow the way of love, compassion and inclusion. We are to share in his passion, walking the road of suffering, renewal and hope. We are called to walk a narrow road along the ridgeline, avoiding the chasms of radicalism falling off to either side.
The radical middle is the new counter-culture, an irony which should not be missed. Let anyone with ears to hear listen (Mk. 1.23).
Oesterheld is the lead pastor at Richmond Hill Vineyard Church.