The Deadly Toxin of Christian Cynicism

August 17, 2016

Matthew 16:5-12

5 When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. 6 “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

7 They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”

8 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? 9 Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11 How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.


My friend, Ben Witherington III, who is also one of my teachers and who also happens to be a world renown New Testament scholar often uses a specialized term in describing Jesus’ disciples’ response in situations like we see in today’s text. He calls them the “duh-ciples.” ;0)

I’ve done my share of referencing the myriad ways the disciples in the Gospels just don’t seem to get it. More and more, though, I am learning to simply accept that they are us—more specifically, me. After who knows how many times I’ve read through Matthew’s Gospel, I am finally learning to approach Jesus, the Disciple-Maker, with a beginner’s mind. I am learning to come to him with the presupposition that I don’t get it rather than coming with the assumption that I do. This is God, for crying out loud! Where do I get the gumption to come before God thinking I know anything at all. This is where real humility comes from—my posture before God—not my feigned humble posturing before others. I need Jesus to teach me, constantly, simply, and line by line. Don’t you?

Speaking of teaching, part of submitting to Jesus as my teacher involves seeking out those who have given their lives to becoming his teachers. I mentioned Ben. Another of my teachers (aka sherpas) and one who is walking with me through Matthew is Dr. Craig Keener.

He has helped me with this mystery of what Jesus means by “the yeast of the Pharisees.” Given the context of the present text and their demanding a sign from Jesus, he speaks of the yeast of the Pharisees as unbelief. He takes it a step forward, though and labels it as an active unbelief characterized by cynicism. This is the rotten fruit of hard heartedness. Cynicism is death to faith. More insidiously, cynicism infects the faith of other people; even entire communities. Cynicism, or active unbelief, is the kind of unbelief that is ever looking for more reasons to not believe. It has the effect of creating passive unbelief in others. It works like yeast to leaven faith. It’s why we must “be on our guard” says Jesus. And isn’t that what Jesus is struggling with in his “duh-ciples?”

What does this mean then, to be on our guard? It means to open ourselves to the possibility of our own cynicism. A disciple of Jesus simply cannot tolerate it. It is perhaps one of the great undiagnosed causes of so much arrested development in the church today. Remember how it works. Cynical people, especially Christians, have a way of eroding the faith of those around them. Cynical people don’t tend to make those around them cynical as much as they make those around them timid. Timidity produces insecurity and insecurity leads to self protection, and yes, self protection often leads to cynicism.

Cynicism breeds a kind of prideful self assurance that over time will blind people from realizing they are cynical. Worse though, is the way cynical people can actually own their cynicism and wear it like a badge of authority. That’s precisely what the Pharisees and Saducees were doing. The root of cynicism is ultimately the need to be in control and the root of this insatiable need to be in control is fear. It’s why cynicism, when less bold, operates under the pretense of being a discerning person. Cynicism has a way of excusing itself in quite socially acceptable ways.

One more step. Fear is real and it is so often rooted in a real life situation from our past. Perhaps we were misled, taken advantage of, betrayed or even abused by a religious leader in our past. Perhaps we grew up in a home where we breathed in the toxic fumes of cynicism on a daily basis. On it could go.

Bottom line: cynicism is soul cancer. It is the yeast of the Pharisees. And we must, to borrow the immortal phrase of Barney Fife to Andy Griffith, “Nip it in the bud.” For a little fun after such a heavy post check that scene out here (or google “Nip it in the bud Andy Griffith Show). Worth your 44 seconds. ;0)

Daily Text MATTHEW 08-17-16THE PRAYER

Lord Jesus, we want to renounce our cynicism. I want to renounce my cynicism. Come Holy Spirit and ferret it out in me that I might cease admitting it and start confessing it. I want for my faith to encourage faith in others and I’m sorry for the way my cynicism has eroded the faith of others. Reveal to me what I am afraid of. Unearth the wound which drives my cynical self protection. I’m ready to leave it behind. In your name, Jesus, Amen.


1. What do you think about this thinking about the yeast of the Pharisees being cynical unbelief? How do you understand the ways cynicism works and where it comes from?

2. Are you a cynical person? Do you tend to be a controlling person? If so, why are you afraid of losing control? Do you see how cynicism is a way of protecting yourself?

3. Bring someone to mind who you consider to be a cynical person. How does being around them impact you?


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J.D. Walt, is a Bond Slave of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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