I remember the first time I disobeyed a posted sign. I felt like such a rebel.
Signs are really powerful for us. But the signs I want to talk about today aren’t the flat signs with words and warnings printed on them.
I want to talk about the kinds of signs we look for, and listen for, that let us know if someone else is a part of our tribe, or not.
Like the way people dress.
There are all kinds of signs that are indicators, that create an in-group and an out-group. There are all kinds of signs that say, “You’re either with us, or you’re against us. And they’re not always physical signs.
The way we dress, or talk, what we talk about, who we listen to, who we hate…all of these things are signs that say what group we belong to. All of these things are signs that tell us who we are.
Signs and the belonging they signify are powerful, so powerful that they short-circuit our ability to reason and they short circuit our faith. Signs pre-determine what we believe to be true.
So we’re going to look at something Jesus taught about group think, and how he wants us to be on our guard against it. We’re going to talk about the ideas and beliefs that we hold primarily because they are indicators that we belong to, and identify with, a certain group. And the ideas and beliefs we reject because they seem to belong to a different group.
The kinds of signs that the Five Man Electrical Band were singing about in 1971.
We recognize signs instantly. Viscerally. When we see other people’s signs, sometimes we feel fear or anger, or just that feeling of curiosity, like, that is not my group and I don’t want to trespass.
When we see signs of our own group, we usually feel a flood of relief. Of recognition. Signs make us feel like we are safe, like we have support. And as people, support is much more important to us than truth.
And this makes biological sense when you consider humanity’s big advantage in the world.
We survive because we trust the knowledge of others.
The caveman that heard his buddies say there was a tiger outside and didn’t believe them until he saw for himself…well, he didn’t live long enough to become our ancestor, did he? You know who did? The one who heard that and said, “Better safe than sorry”.
You know who else became our ancestors? The ones who made sure they never got kicked out of the group. The ones who kept their access to food and safety secure by becoming super sensitive to social cues and norms, who cemented support for themselves by giving support and allegiance to the group.
Those are the kinds of processes that formed the organ that we still use to tell truth from lies. And therein lies our problem.
We are naturally good at avoiding tigers through better safe than sorry thinking. We are naturally good at getting support from a group by giving support to the group. But we don’t live in that world any more. And we haven’t for thousands of years.
Here’s another way of putting it.
Having social support feels far more important than knowing the truth. So Jesus says, “Beware.”
Let’s look at Matthew 16:5-12.
In it, Jesus has just performed a miracle of feeding thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread, and then he had another argument with the Pharisees, and then he and his disciples took their boat and went to the other side of the lake. That’s where we pick up.
When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.”
So the first thing the disciples think when Jesus tries to teach them something is “Oh No! We messed up and he’s going to throw me out of the group! We had so much bread an hour ago and we didn’t bring any with us! I’m in trouble! Tiger! Tiger!”
So we see something happen here that’s true for all of us.
The first connection we usually make when someone makes a truth claim is, “How does this affect my social support?”
Before the words even make it to the part of our brain that says “Is this true? What could it mean?” It gets routed through the part of our brain that says, “How will this affect my standing in the group, and thus my next meal?”
The disciples can’t even hear what Jesus means at first, because of what they think he might mean about their place in the group.
And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive?
This word “perceive” is a really specific word. It means to understand. To perceive with the mind. To think on, ponder, consider.
Jesus uses this word three times in our passage today. And each time he uses it, he is inviting his disciples to consider what they have personally seen, not anyone else’s experience, and to use their own experience to evaluate the words they are hearing. He goes on…
Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?
You just witnessed something, Jesus says, that should make you never worry about your own safety, or your own social support ever again.
How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!”
Stop worrying about yourself, Jesus says, and notice how the philosophies, and agendas of groups, creep into every aspect of the lives of those who are a part of those groups. You can’t separate yeast from bread. And neither can you seperate the Pharisee agenda from the Pharisee or the Sadducess agenda from the Sadducee. Beware of their teachings, because like yeast, they get into every last little corner of their lives and values.
Identifying with a group brings social support, but that social support isn’t free. The cost of that support is often the ability the understand the truth.
Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Beware of the teaching that comes with the group identity. Because groups don’t tend to advertise their agendas. They don’t say, “Believe this because it’s good for our group”. That would be really honest. No, they say, “Believe this because it’s true.” Or “Believe this, or you’re out.”
The underlying motivation for all agendas is power. And if you can’t tell that from just looking around, you can see it in Mark’s telling of this scripture today.
In Mark’s version, Jesus says,
“Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” Mark 8:15
Herod was the ruler of Judea because he collaborated with Rome, who ruled the world. Herod couldn’t see that anything was true if it affected his position of power. So equating the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducess, with the yeast of Herod, is a pretty clear indication to me that Jesus sees power as the ultimate thing that blocks our understanding of the truth.
Having social support feels far more important than knowing the truth. So Jesus says, “Beware.”
So what can you do about it?
So what can you do about it? Do what Jesus says here. Beware.
Jesus doesn’t say, “Reject all the teachings of the Pharisees! Reject all the teachings of the Saducees! Reject Herod as King!” No, he starts off with what every single one of us can do. Be aware.
Because there is truth everywhere.
The Pharisees weren’t wrong about their truth claims because they were Pharisees. And they weren’t right because they were Pharisees, either.
The problem was that their yeast crept into every part of their group’s identity and kept the members of the group from understanding. It kept them from perceiving for themselves. All that was expected of an individual Pharisee from the group of the Pharisees was obedience. All he had to do was regurgitate, not articulate.
So first, we need to be aware. Be aware that every group identity you have gives you a motivation that you otherwise might not be aware of, to accept things as true without fully understanding them. It is in all of us.
- If you feel angry when a belief of your group is challenged
- If you can’t explain your groups positions but you’re still completely certain they’re right
- If you can’t explain opposing groups positions, but you’re still completely certain they’re wrong.
Jesus says, “Be aware.”
Be aware of how the feeling of belonging can be deceptive.
Be aware of people agendas. And of your own.
Be aware of the things that make you angry. Try to just notice them rather than react to them.
Be aware the yeast of the Pharisees, of the Sadducees, of Herod. Beware the yeast of every group and affiliation.
Beware the yeast of every group that gives you a membership card or asks you to help them make the world a better place.
And if you’re thinking that I’m not talking about a certain group you belong to….I’m talking about that group.
So be aware.
This doesn’t mean we need to reject every group. We’re not just meant to be aware and be alone.
God has provided a new group for us. A primary group.
A group where you personally know the people who claim to be speaking the truth, and can question them, and know them, and correct them. Preferably over lunch.
A group where you share more than opinions and beliefs. A group where you share life. Where you can also share every thought. Every idea. Every fear. And know that you are safe.
If you’re near Orlando, Florida this Sunday, our little group is going to meet at 9:30 and 11am. All are welcome.
About the Author
David Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find him on Twitter @davidrcollins
More Readings on Truth and Being Social
- Matthew 16:5-12, Mark 8:14-21, Luke 12:1 (Be sure to read all of these passages and look for the differences!
- Matthew 6:19-24, Luke 11:34-36
- Matthew 6:25-34, Luke 12: 22-31
- Matthew 23:1-14, Mark 12: 37-40, Luke 20:45-47
- Matthew 23: 15-28, Luke 20:39-43