Matthew 16: 1-12 Demanding a Sign or Needing Instruction

By Unknown – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection: entry 453683, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32908844

Matthew 16: 1-12

Parallels Mark 8: 11-2; Luke 12: 54-56, 12:1, 11:29

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.

5 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6 Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” 8 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? 9 Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11 How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” 12 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.

The Pharisees, the Sadducees and the disciples all fail to understand Jesus in this passage, but there is a critical difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees whom Jesus leaves and the disciples whom Jesus teaches: the openness to the work that has been done by Jesus already. While the Pharisees and Sadducees in the narrative demand a new sign from the heavens the disciples are reminded of the acts of power and the teaching of Jesus to correct their misunderstanding. It seems a little faith can make a lot of difference in the relationship between Jesus and those who approach, and yet even the faithless will not be left without a sign. But the sign which is given will not be a sign easily accepted by the religious leaders who are in conflict with Jesus or the disciples attempting to follow him where he leads. This scene marks a transition in the narrative as the focus intensifies on the disciples and their journey to understanding who Jesus is and what being a faithful one of his followers will mean for their own lives.

The scene begins, presumably in the region of Magadan, with Jesus separated from his disciples and approached by the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees have been in conflict with Jesus throughout the previous eight chapters but this is the first introduction of the Sadducees since their encounter with John the Baptist in Matthew 3. The Pharisees and Sadducees may have been competing for positions of authority and prominence among the Jewish people and they did have theological differences but both groups find themselves in conflict with John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus seems to have little use for the representatives of these groups other than to confront the way they impede the advance of the kingdom of heaven and lead others astray.

The Pharisees and Sadducees come to test Jesus, and the word for test (Greek piarazo) alludes to the temptation of Jesus where the tempter (Greek piarazon) attempts to challenge Jesus’ identity and one of Jesus’ responses is to quote Deuteronomy 6:17 “Do not put the LORD you God to the test (Greek ekpiarazopiarazo with he prefix ek attached).  The Pharisees and scribes already asked for a sign in 12: 38-42 and received the same answer, no sign except the sign of Jonah, but even more recently Jesus said to his disciples, about the Pharisees, “Every plant that my Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides to the blind.” (15: 13-14) We expect the Pharisees and Sadducees to be unsatisfied with Jesus, but it is worth slowing down to attend to the answer Jesus gives in this scene. Jesus takes their demand from a sign from heaven and shows they are looking for the wrong thing, the signs of the times have been all around them. Most English translations obscure the play on words going on when the Pharisees and Sadducees ask for a sign from the heaven (Greek ouranos) and Jesus replies with the accepted wisdom the “It will be fair weather, for the heavens (ouranos) are brilliant red in the evening, or it will be storms because the heavens (ouranos) are gloomy and brilliant red in the morning. They know how to interpret the face of the heavens (prosopon tou ouranos) but are not able to know the signs of the time. (kaipos-appointed time) They are looking to the heavens, but as Jesus said in 12: 40, the sign of the times they will receive will be, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” The sign they seek will not be in the heavens, but in the earth. They fail to see in all the things Jesus has done the presence of the kingdom of heaven among them, and so Jesus leaves them to attend to the disciples who are open to learning.

The disciples enter the scene unaware of the previous conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees, and we are given the key to their misunderstanding of Jesus in their failure to take bread with them to this new location. When Jesus says, “See and attend to (that) from the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” Most English translations smooth this out to make the focus the ‘yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ missing the crucial preposition apo which means from, but this also misses why the disciples may think of bread which is made out of leaven folded into flour. While the kingdom of heaven may be like a woman who fold leaven into three measures of flour, (13:33) what is resulting from the actions of the Pharisees and Sadducees is, in Jesus’ view, decidedly not the kingdom of heaven. Jesus wants his disciples to see and attend to what results from the Pharisees and Sadducees, but they begin discussing the lack of bread they have.

Most English translations of Matthew tend to make Jesus sound angry and judgmental towards his disciples (try to read Jesus’ response to the disciples in a kind manner, it is difficult in English) but the Greek which the scriptures are translated from leaves open a much softer reading. Those who have followed this reading to this point will be familiar with my translation of oligopistoi/oligopistos as ‘little faith ones’[1] but the harshness of the NRSV and other’s translations carries throughout Jesus response. I would modify this to:

And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “Why are you discussing among yourselves not having bread little faith ones? You don’t understand yet, but rather remember the five bread for the five thousand and how many baskets (of pieces of bread) you received. Or rather the seven bread and the four thousand and how many large baskets (of pieces of bread) you received. How do you not understand (now) that not about bread I spoke to you? But attend to (the things) from the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.[2]

Perhaps, rather than berating the disciples for their misunderstanding of what was said, Jesus interprets for them what he said as he has done with multiple parables previously. The disciples may be ‘little faith ones’ but that ‘little faith’ will enable them to understand, at least in part, who Jesus is and be willing to accept correction when they become stumbling blocks. This faith will allow them to see what has been revealed by the Father in Heaven. As Jesus said earlier, “you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (11: 25) Now the Pharisees and Sadducees in our narrative are the ‘wise and intelligent’ who cannot see while the disciples, the little faith ones, are the infants who have truth revealed to them.

[1] This term always refers to the disciples of Jesus and occurs in 6:30, 8:26. 14:31, and 17:20 in addition to here.

[2] The punctuation included in NA28 indicates questions in the middle sentences, but like English, a line of questions can be statements leading up to a final question. Otherwise the translation stays pretty literal to the Greek (insertions for context shown in parenthesis.

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2 Responses to Matthew 16: 1-12 Demanding a Sign or Needing Instruction

  1. Pingback: Matthew 17: 14-20 A Little Faith is Enough | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Matthew 22: 23-33 One Bride for Seven Brothers | Sign of the Rose

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