Parable of the Leaven; Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984.

Matthew 13:33 ESV
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

Matthew 13:33 NIV
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

In this chapter (Matthew 13) there is nothing more significant than the sources from which Jesus drew his parables. In every case he drew them from the scenes and activities of everyday lifer. He began with things which were entirely familiar to his hearers in order to lead them to things which had never yet entered their minds. He took the parable of the sower from the farmer’s field and the parable of the mustard seed from the husbandman’s garden; he took the parable of the wheat and the tares from the perennial problem which confronts the farmer in his struggle with the weeds, and the parable of the drag-net from the seashore of the Sea of Galilee. He took the parable of the hidden treasure from the everyday task of digging in a field, and the parable of the pearl of great price from the world of commerce and trade. But in this parable of the leaven Jesus came nearer home than in any other because he took it from the kitchen of an ordinary house.

In Palestine bread was baked at home; three measures of meal was, as Levinson points out, just the average amount which would be needed for a baking for a fairly large family, like the family at Nazareth. Jesus took his parable of the Kingdom from something that he had often seen his mother, Mary, do. Leaven was a little piece of dough kept over from a previous baking, which had fermented in the keeping.

In Jewish language and thought leaven is almost always connected with an evil influence; the Jews connected fermentation with putrefaction and leaven stood for that which is evil (compare Matthew 16:6 ; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 ; Galatians 5:9 ). One of the ceremonies of preparation for the Passover Feast was that every scrap of leaven had to be sought out from the house and burned. It may well be that Jesus chose this illustration of the Kingdom deliberately. There would be a certain shock in hearing the Kingdom of God compared to leaven; and the shock would arouse interest and rivet attention, as an illustration from an unusual and unexpected source always does.

The whole point of the parable lies in one thing–the transforming power of the leaven. Leaven changed the character of a whole baking. Unleavened bread is like a water biscuit, hard, dry, unappetizing and uninteresting; bread baked with leaven is soft and porous and spongy, tasty and good to eat. The introduction of the leaven causes a transformation in the dough; and the coming of the Kingdom causes a transformation in life.

Let us gather together the characteristics of this transformation.

(i) Christianity transformed life for the individual man. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 , Paul gathers together a list of the most terrible and disgusting kinds of sinners, and then, in the next verse, there comes the tremendous statement: “And such were some of you.” As Denney had it, we must never forget that the function and the power of Christ is to make bad men good. The transformation of Christianity begins in the individual life, for through Christ the victim of temptation can become the victor over it.

(ii) There are four great social directions in which Christianity transformed life. Christianity transformed life for women. The Jew in his morning prayer thanked God that he had not made him a Gentile, a slave or a woman. In Greek civilization the woman lived a life of utter seclusion, with nothing to do beyond the household tasks. K. J. Freeman writes of the life of the Greek child or young man even in the great days of Athens, “When he came home, there was no home life. His father was hardly ever in the house. His mother was a nonentity, living in the women’s apartments; he probably saw little of her.” In the eastern lands it was often possible to see a family on a journey. The father would be mounted on an ass; the mother would be walking, and probably bent beneath a burden. One demonstrable historical truth is that Christianity transformed life for women.

(iii) Christianity transformed life for the weak and the ill. In heathen life the weak and the ill were considered a nuisance. In Sparta a child, when he was born, was submitted to the examiners; if he was fit, he was allowed to live; if he was weakly or deformed, he was exposed to death on the mountain side. Dr. A. Rendle Short points out that the first blind asylum was founded by Thalasius, a Christian monk; the first free dispensary was founded by Apollonius, a Christian merchant; the first hospital of which there is any record was founded by Fabiola, a Christian lady. Christianity was the first faith to be interested in the broken things of life.

(iv) Christianity transformed life for the aged. Like the weak, the aged were a nuisance. Cato, the Roman writer on agriculture, gives advice to anyone who is taking over a farm: “Look over the livestock and hold a sale. Sell your oil, if the price is satisfactory, and sell the surplus of your wine and grain. Set worn-out oxen, blemished cattle, blemished sheep, wool, hides, an old wagon, old tools, an old slave, a sickly slave, and whatever else is superfluous.” The old, whose day’s work was done, were fit for nothing else than to be discarded on the rubbish heaps of life. Christianity was the first faith to regard men as persons and not instruments capable of doing so much work.

(v) Christianity transformed life for the child. In the immediate background of Christianity, the marriage relationship had broken down, and the home was in peril. Divorce was so common that it was neither unusual nor particularly blameworthy for a woman to have a new husband every year. In such circumstances children were a disaster; and the custom of simply exposing children to death was tragically common. There is a well-known letter from a man Hilarion, who was gone off to Alexandria, to his wife Alis, whom he has left at home. He writes to her: “If–good luck to you–you bear a child, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, throw it out.” In modem civilization life is almost butt round the child; in ancient civilization the child had a very good chance of dying before it had begun to live.

Anyone who asks the question: “What has Christianity done for the world?” has delivered himself into a Christian debator’s hands. There is nothing in history so unanswerably demonstrable as the transforming power of Christianity and of Christ on the individual life and on the life of society.

There remains only one question in regard to this parable of the leaven. Almost all scholars would agree that it speaks of the transforming power of Christ and of his Kingdom in the life of the individual and of the world; but there is a difference of opinion as to how that transforming power works.

(i) It is sometimes said that the lesson of this parable is that the Kingdom works unseen. We cannot see the leaven working in the dough, any more than we can see a flower growing, but the work of the leaven is always going on. Just so, it is said, we cannot see the work of the Kingdom, but always the Kingdom is working and drawing men and the world ever nearer to God.

This, then, would be a message of encouragement. It would mean that at all times we must take the long view, that we must not compare things of the present day with last week, month, or even last year, but that we must look back down the centuries, and then we will see the steady progress of the Kingdom. As A. H. Clough had it:

“Say not, ‘The struggle nought availeth;

The labour and the wounds are vain;

The enemy faints not nor faileth,

And as things have been they remain.’

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;

It may be, in yon smoke concealed,

Your comrades chase even now the fliers,

And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,

Seem here no painful inch to gain,

Far back, through creeks and inlets making,

Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And, not by eastern windows only,

When daylight comes, comes in the light;

In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!

But westward, look! the land is bright.”

On this view the parable teaches that with Jesus Christ and his gospel a new force has been let loose in the world, and that, silently but inevitably, that force is working for righteousness in the world and God indeed is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.

(ii) But it has sometimes been said, as for instance by C. H. Dodd, that the lesson of the parable is the very opposite of this, and that, so far from being unseen, the working of the Kingdom can be plainly seen. The working of the leaven is plain for all to see. Put the leaven into the dough, and the leaven changes the dough from a passive lump into a seething, bubbling, heaving mass. Just so the working of the Kingdom is a violent and disturbing force plain for all to see. When Christianity came to Thessalonica the cry was: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also” ( Acts 17:6 ). The action of Christianity is disruptive, disturbing, violent in its effect.

There is undeniable truth there. It is true that men crucified Jesus Christ because he disturbed all their orthodox habits and conventions; again and again it has been true that Christianity has been persecuted because it desired to take both men and society and remake them. It is abundantly true that there is nothing in this world so disturbing as Christianity; that is, in fact, the reason why so many people resent it and refuse it, and wish to eliminate it.

When we come to think of it, we do not need to choose between these two views of the parable, because they are both true. There is a sense in which the Kingdom, the power of Christ, the Spirit of God, is always working, whether or not we see that work; and there is a sense in which it is plain to see. Many an individual life is manifestly and violently changed by Christ; and at the same time there is the silent operation of the purposes of God in the long road of history.

We may put it in a picture like this. The Kingdom, the power of Christ, the Spirit of God, is like a great river, which for much of its course glides on beneath the ground unseen, but which ever and again comes to the surface in all its greatness, plain for all to see. This parable teaches both that the Kingdom is for ever working unseen, and that there are times in every individual life and in history when the work of the Kingdom is so obvious, and so manifestly powerful, that all can see it.

William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible