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Parable of the Leaven

by Brant Pitre August 28, 2020 0 Comments

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Okay, so that is the parable of the mustard seed. What about the next parable? Again, this one is commonly referred to as the woman and the leaven, or just the parable of the leaven. It's a short one, but it's important. In verse 33 it says:

He told them another parable. "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened."

Alright, let's pause there. Once again, where's the twist in this parable? Where is the unexpected part of this parable? Well it is in the very first line, “the kingdom of heaven is like leaven.” Alright, if you were a first century Jew and you knew the Old Testament, you would know that in the Old Testament, leaven — which is another word for yeast — is something that is considered unclean. It's frequently a symbol of being unclean. So when you want to celebrate the Passover meal, you had to eat bread without leaven, bread that had not had yeast mixed into it to make the dough rise. It was kind of a symbol of purification. You can even look at some of the other teachings of Jesus. For example, in Matthew 16 Jesus says “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” So the leaven of the Pharisees is their teaching and their hypocrisy. So it is a symbol of uncleanness. In 1 Corinthians 5, St. Paul does the same thing. He says “cleanse out the old leaven and bring in righteousness and holiness.” So he uses leaven as a symbol for sin. So that's a weird thing for Jesus to do, to take something that was known as being unclean and saying the kingdom of God is like that. Which by the way, just as a kind of scientific side note, it it interesting that the Jews regarded leaven as unclean, because as contemporary science has shown us, what yeast is, is it is a small microorganism. It is a small bacteria and what it does, the way it makes bread rise, is the the yeast, the microorganism, gets into the bread and it eats all the sugars, and when it eats the sugar it produces gas. The carbon dioxide that the little organisms emit, make bubbles and the bubbles cause the bread to rise. So you can see how even contemporary science would show that there is a certain natural logic to considering yeast to be unclean. Well in antiquity that was the kind of standard association with yeast, it was unclean. So when Jesus says that heaven is like leaven, people would be scratching their heads, “what is this guy talking about? The kingdom is like leaven!?”

The other element here that's interesting is that the woman takes the leaven, she hides it in three measures of meal, which is about 50 pounds — that is a lot of meal. And and even just a little leaven leavens the whole lump. So what's the meaning of this parable? Well again I think it is very similar to the mustard seed. The kingdom starts out really small, like a little bit of leaven, but it's powerful and it's transformative. Just a little bit of leaven is able to cause the three measures of meal to rise and to become this great loaf of bread. It is kind of like the mustard seed starts small and becomes a great bush. But it also shows that there's something mysterious about the way the kingdom grows, especially in ancient times too. They would not have had the science behind it. They wouldn’t have known how and why, that if you take some of this yeast and you put it into bread dough that it's going to make it rise. It's mysterious. You take the dough and often you put it in the dark too in order to let it rise, and then you come back and sure enough it has risen. So there is a kind of mystery there, and I think that's what Jesus is getting at too. The kingdom is not what you expect. It's mysterious. It starts out small but it ends great. And of course, there may be a Eucharistic image there as well. Anytime you see bread, bread is going to play a key role in Jesus' mission and message when you get to the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist.

The next few verses here are important, because Jesus once again gives us an insight into the parables when he says this:

All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: "I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

Alright, pause there for just a second. This is very similar to what we saw last week with the beginning of the discourse. The parables are about revealing hidden mysteries. Jesus is leading the disciples into the mysteries of the kingdom, to the supernatural nature of the kingdom, to the invisible character of the kingdom. It is like yeast that grows and spreads in the dark. You can't see it and you don’t understand why and how it does it, and yet it does. By the way, from that he's quoting Psalm 78:2. So he's drawing on one of the passages from the Psalm to show that he's speaking in these mashalim, these parables, these riddles, in order to unveil these mysteries that have been hidden since the foundation of the world.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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