When the Prodigal Church Comes Home

In Mark 8:15, Jesus warns his disciples, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” This appears to come out of left field, and the disciples miss the point right away, thinking Jesus is talking about bread (he has just fed the 4,000).

When Jesus says to beware of the leaven (yeast) of the Pharisees, he is referring to self-righteousness, what we often call legalism. But legalism doesn’t always look like rigid fundamentalist hellfire and brimstone. The point is that self-righteousness is very subtle. Just a little can spread and take over. The same is true of the leaven of Herod, by which I take Jesus to mean, essentially, “worldliness.”

The leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod appear on the surface to be opposite dangers. Pharisees are religious; Herod is irreligious. Pharisees are legalistic; Herod is licentious. These are the two extremes we sinners often find ourselves swinging between on the great spiritual pendulum of life. Because this is true, it is true that our churches tend to swing between these poles as well. And often we justify our own tendencies by in some way saying, “Well, at least we’re not like those guys.”

But, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9). If we give either legalism or license an inch, they will take a mile. This is why Jesus says to “beware” of them both. And he also says to beware of them both so we won’t think that a dose of one is the antidote to the poison of the other.

Better Than Balance

Both irreligion and religion are fundamentally self-salvation projects.

I am convinced that is the way many have forged their church movements. We hope to flee legalism by “loosening up.” Or we hope to repent of worldliness by “tightening up.” Many traditionalist churches pride themselves on not being as worldly as those contemporary churches, while many contemporary churches pride themselves on not being as out-of-touch as those traditionalist churches. If we had our eyes on Christ, we’d simply be astounded instead that we get to be a church at all!

Certainly we could all use some loosening and tightening in strategic places, but this kind of “balance” is not at all what Jesus is recommending. Jesus says to beware of the bread of the Pharisees and beware of the bread of Herod, because he wants us to find our bread in him, to find in fact that he is our bread.

This is certainly an underlying application of Jesus’s parable of the Lost Son. The man had two sons, one full of leaven of the Herodian kind, the other of the Pharisaical. They didn’t need “balance,” as it were, but to both understand that they were the Father’s sons by inheritance, a right they couldn’t lose through bad behavior or earn with good.

The very nature of grace throws off all measurements of balance. You don’t balance out law with grace, or vice versa. They don’t keep each other in check. Thinking so reveals a misunderstanding of both. Trying to strike a balance between the two is to envision them as equal but opposite forces, as if they are synonymous with legalism and license. We think the way to balance away from legalism is to get some license in the picture and call it “grace.” If we fear that “grace” is creating too much license, we seek to balance it out with a little law. But either option, to borrow from Lewis who borrowed from Luther, is “falling off the horse on the other side.”

Not So Opposite After All

One thing we notice about the prodigal son’s repentant moment in the pigsty is that he rides this pendulum to the other side:

But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’” (Luke 15:17–19)

He went where we all impulsively go to please the Father: to the law. He cannot fathom that after spending up all his Father’s mercies, there will be any left. “I’ll go work for my dad,” he thinks. And thus he shows how alike he is in the flesh with his older brother, whose only distinctive quality is that he’s been trusting in his works all along.

When we seek the better way of the Bread of life, we begin to see that these polar opposites aren’t so opposite as they appear. Both irreligion and religion are fundamentally self-salvation projects. They are equally self-righteous, even though the former is predicated on being automatically righteous and the latter aims to earn righteousness. So there is no wisdom in seeking to balance “grace” and law this way.

The Bread from Heaven

The gospel that saved us from sin and death ought to be a reminder that Christianity is sourced in God himself.

No, the true wisdom is in abandoning the twin self-exalting impulses of worldliness and religiosity and instead fixing our eyes on Jesus. So, then, whether we’re preaching thou shalts and shalt nots or six practical steps to whatever, we may actually be withholding from people the only real power they need to experience God’s love and to obey God’s commands.

Christianity is not a life system, a religious code, a set of tips or instructions for more successful living and modified behavior. Christianity is about the raising of the dead. Would anybody, after receiving the latest gobbledegook from Tony Robbins or Oprah Winfrey, write a song like this?

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, 
fast bound in sin and nature’s night; 
thine eye diffused a quickening ray; 
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; 
my chains fell off, my heart was free, 
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

The message of the gospel is an announcement about what God has done in Christ, and when it goes forth in power it is because God has done it. The gospel is not made more powerful by a dynamic preacher or a rockin’ band; those things might adorn the gospel in an excellent way, but the gospel cannot be improved. The message of Christ’s sinless life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection is capital-S Spiritual power all unto itself.

Comparatively speaking, it is much easier to gather up “decisions.” But the work of heart change we are actually supposed to be after comes only from God’s Spirit. The gospel that saved us from sin and death ought to be a reminder that Christianity is sourced in God himself. Christianity is supernatural. And it is with the bread come down from heaven itself that we should feed God’s people.