We come to a parable that has traditionally been interpreted in two diametrically opposed ways. One view sees the leaven as representing corruption, making this a parable of how the kingdom of God is going to go from bad to worse. The other sees the leaven as a good and positive image (representing the growth of the kingdom), and this then is a parable of God’s saving purpose for the whole world. We will be considering the parable with this second meaning.
“Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened” (Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:20-21).
Summary of the Text
This is a very short parable about growth, in the midst of other parables about growth. In most of these parables, the kingdom is growing, and alongside it an anti-kingdom is growing as well. In this parable, the only growth that is mentioned is that of the kingdom itself. Matthew says that Jesus spoke another parable to them (v. 33). Luke has the Lord introducing the parable with a question—to what shall I compare the kingdom? The kingdom is like leaven, Jesus says, which a woman took and placed in three measures of flour (v. 33), and the result was that “the whole” was entirely leavened.
Leaven Biblically Understood
Those who take leaven as an image of sin do have a lot of material to work with. This is the predominant meaning of the image in Scripture. Their mistake is in taking it as a necessarily negative image. We are warned against the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy (Luke 12:1). We are warned against the leaven of Herod (Mark 8:15), which is best understood as a hard-bitten sensualism. We are warned against the leaven of the Saducees (Matt. 16:6), which was the arid rationalism of liberalism. Within the church, Paul uses leaven as an image of malice and wickedness (1 Cor. 5:7-8). Elsewhere he describes legalism in these same terms (Gal. 5:7-9). The meat offerings that Israel would present to God needed to be without leaven (Lev. 2:11).
There is a possible reference to leaven as a good potency in Romans (Rom. 11:16). They used to leaven a new batch of bread with a small lump from before, much the way we do with sourdough. After atonement had been made through the blood offerings, and it came time to offer the peace offerings of thanksgiving, the offering required leavened bread (Lev. 7:13; cf. Amos 4:5). The law required leavened bread to be presented at the festival of Pentecost (Lev. 23:17). Incidentally, though Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper at Passover, meaning that unleavened bread was the only bread available, the first instance of His followers celebrating the Supper was on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:46), which was a day not purged of leaven.
Weights and Measures
How much flour are we talking about? In the ancient dry measures, a measure was about three omers. Ten omers made up an ephah, which means that our “three measures” were approximately an ephah. In modern terms, we are approaching a bushel. This is not a mom baking a little kiddie loaf—this woman is a serious baker.
Gideon made this much (unleavened) bread for the angel of the Lord (Judges 6:18-19). Hannah brought this amount of flour up to the tabernacle at Shiloh when she brought Samuel there (1 Sam. 1:24). This is an amount Ezekiel mentions presented in sacrifice (Eze. 45:24).
Why a Good Image?
We have seen that leaven can represent both good and bad. It is like Jesus, the lion of the tribe of Judah, or the devil, a lion seeking whom he may devour. Leaven represents potency and growth, but the growth of what? The Israelites were not to take with them any of the leaven of Egypt, because they were to make a clean break. Taking the leaven of Egypt would simply have grown them another Egypt. But once they had made that clean break, and had entered the promised land, they were to present leavened offerings in thanksgiving. Leaven is potent, whether for good or bad. In our surrounding parables, we have both possibilities. The mustard seed grows, the wheat grows, the darnel grows, and so on. Why should we take the leaven here as being a good thing?
First, Jesus is announcing and preaching the kingdom, and He says that the kingdom is like leaven. Second, we have the way the parables are paired. This parable is next to the mustard seed parable, and is paired up with it. The man and the woman are paired, as Jesus does elsewhere (Matt. 13:44-46; Luke 15:1-10). We are not out of line to take them as making the same basic point. Third, we have the “law of first mention.” The first mention of bread baking with three measures of flour (Gen. 18:6) shows Abraham and Sarah showing hospitality to the Lord and the angels, who were on their way to judge Sodom. Abraham tells them that he wants to fetch “a morsel of bread,” which they agree to, and then Abraham has Sarah make enough bread for a hundred people. Abraham does this, and they promise Sarah a son, who will be the child of promise—the ancestor of the one who told a parable about the kingdom being like a woman working with three measures of flour.
Resistance is Futile
Abraham did not serve the Lord hipster bread, full of whole grains, Ponderosa bark, and pure thoughts. It was three measures of refined flour. Think about this for a minute. Abraham served the Lord bread made from fine flour (Gen. 18:6), red meat from a tender calf (Gen. 18:7), butter (Gen. 18:8), and whole milk (Gen. 18:8). Abraham is apparently trying to give the Lord a heart attack. And there is absolutely no reference to them attempting to extract the gluten.
This process of leavening is mysterious, secret, inexorable, and impossible to thwart. The birds of the air can pick seeds off the path, but here the leaven cannot be extricated from the loaf. The thing is done, and the only thing required is time. What do you tell yourself when you read the terrible headlines, or you read about the prospect of so-and-so getting elected? Tell yourself that this woman knew her business, and the leaven is in the loaf. We can’t get it out. Sorry.
How does leaven work? It works by releasing carbon dioxide as the loaf warms, filling the loaf with thousands of little pockets of air, breath, wind, carbon dioxide. Bread that has risen is bread that is filled with the Spirit. And the loaf that will rise in this way is the entire world.