Week 3 – The Leaven
Last week I mentioned that the six kingdom parables in Matthew 13 come in pairs, and this week we’ll be looking at the Parable of the Leaven, the partner of last week’s Parable of the Mustard Seed. In it Jesus describes the Kingdom like a woman who added leaven, basically a sourdough starter, to a whole lot of flour. Apparently she was preparing to feed an army; “three measures” was something like 50 pounds of flour, which would’ve fed about 100 people. But despite the quantity, over time that leaven spread through the flour until it all became bread dough ready to be baked.
If you’ve been baking during quarantine then maybe this parable has taken on new meaning for you. It’s been pretty faddy recently, but sourdough is actually the oldest way to bake bread. In Jesus’ day it was the only way. If you’ve ever baked with sourdough then you did almost exactly what the woman in this parable did. With sourdough you take a slightly soupy starter dough, bubbling with live, hungry bread yeast and bacteria cultures, and you add it to flour and other ingredients and then let it sit, waiting for the yeast and bacteria to spread through your developing bread dough until it’s risen (our word leaven comes from the Latin levare, “to raise”) and ready to be baked.
Ready to get super nerdy about parables?
The Bible Project recently did a 7-episode, in-depth podcast series on the parables of Jesus. You can start at episode 1, or jump right in at episode 6 with “Finding Meaning in the Parables.”
Aside: as we read this parable it’s pretty important for us to keep the historical context in mind. Jesus’ audience had no idea what bacteria or yeast was, they simply observed that if you had this special starter on hand you could add it to flour and the whole thing would become like the starter. They knew that it worked, they just didn’t know why exactly. So any conclusions we might make about bread yeast in this parable should be taken with a first century view point in mind.
So what is Jesus telling us about the Kingdom here? Initially there are some things to observe from the way he frames the story. Bread baking was a daily chore in the first century, done by commoners, so he’s communicating in ways that make sense to average, everyday people. Out the gate we can take comfort that the Kingdom has a place for plain folk like us. But the content of the parable is anything other than plain, given Jesus’ context, and we see this two ways. First, he says the Kingdom is like something many women in his culture did everyday, meaning they would connect with his story better than anyone else. He was speaking directly to women in the crowd and using a woman as the primary character in the story. This inclusion of women, both in his teaching and in his group of disciples, was unique to Jesus, unheard of in his day, even scandalous.
Second, Jesus talks about leaven in a good way. Leaven was typically used in rabbinic teaching to metaphorically talk about corrupting influences, since in a way leaven “corrupts” flour. This negative connotation was, perhaps, tied to the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the week before Passover when Jews eat no leavened bread (basically limiting themselves to matzo crackers) and even clean their whole house to make sure no leaven is left anywhere. (Exo. 12:15) Jesus even uses leaven like this in Matt. 16:6 when he tells his disciples to “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.”
So, in his typical, quietly edgy way, Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is a corrupting influence on the world. This corruption keeps a theme running from the Parable of the Mustard Seed, in which the Kingdom of God is like a weed that keeps spreading. Jesus likens God’s Kingdom to the lowly things of the world that spread exponentially, and whose spread is often unwanted or looked down upon. Looking all the way back to the first parable in our series, the Parable of the Weeds, we understand that the Kingdom of God is placed in this world, and through the first three parables in Matthew 13 we see common themes of its growth and spread. There’s some truth to the Kingdom of God “leavening” the world, at least on a common grace level (“common grace” being the kindness God shows everyone; “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” Matt. 5:45). From the very beginning Christians have cared for the poor, destitute, marginalized, and orphaned; they opened the very first hospitals and public schools. Sure, Christians have gotten a lot terribly wrong over the years; we needn’t ignore that. But when we walk in lockstep with the Spirit and dig into the world around us, generally speaking the world is blessed because of it. In this common grace vein we should see that being a blessing to those around us, truly loving your neighbor as yourself, is simply part of the culture of the Kingdom.
The Parable of the Leaven also adds in this quality of invisible transformation; the woman “hid” the leaven in the flour, and quietly, unseen and unheard, it spread so that when she came back the flour was no longer flour. This transformational, sanctifying process occurs in the world, but it also occurs within those who are brought into the Kingdom by God’s saving grace. We go from being something inert like raw flour to something far more, something alive and active, ready to both nourish many and participate in the Kingdom’s spread.
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read Matthew 13:33 for us?
• What stands out to you from this parable?
• Looking at the past three weeks, what common themes do you see in these three parables?
• How can the parable of the leaven explain what the Kingdom has done to you or is doing to you?
• Based on this parable, how can the Kingdom spread through you?