There’s nothing like the smell of fresh bread in the morning. Flour, water, and yeast go in the bread maker in the evening, and in the morning the aroma of fresh bread helps you rise to a new day.
We have it so easy. Back in Jesus’ day they kneaded the dough by hand, kept aside some sourdough as leaven for tomorrow, waited for it to rise, punched it down again, waited some more, and then built a fire to bake it.
Jesus told a story about a woman who must have been baking for a party. She took her leaven and hid it in three big 8 kilogram batches of flour. How on earth is the heaven’s kingdom like that?
Matthew 13:33 (my translation, compare ESV)
Another parable he told them, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three buckets of flour — until the whole lot fermented!”
Even his audience would have found this an odd story. They were a bit suspicious of leaven, particularly its power to permeate the dough like mould spreading from a rotten apple to the others around it. That’s why the Pharisees found leaven a handy symbol for sin: allow sin in the community, and it spreads from one person to another until it ferments the whole place. A Pharisee named Saul issued this warning in two of his letters: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6; Galatians 5:9).
The annual Festival of Unleavened Bread confirmed this negative view of leaven. The nation of Israel was born when God led them out of Egypt so suddenly that there was no time to wait for the bread to rise. As they celebrate Passover each year, Jewish people cleanse their houses of all leaven. Pharisees applied that principle to community life in general: “Cleanse out the old leaven so you may be a new lump” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
That’s good advice, of course — especially for vulnerable people. You wouldn’t let a good apple rub shoulders with a bad one. Otherwise you’ll be throwing them both out.
And that’s the problem with the Pharisees’ approach. It can never cleanse the earth. No matter how many bad apples you throw out, you never stop things from going bad.
But Jesus took a radically different approach. Jewish law declared that touching a leper made you unclean, but when Jesus touched him the leper became clean (8:3). Diseases and infections did not bring Jesus down; he took the infections and diseases away (8:17). Others feared walking into the territory of gentiles with their unclean pigs and unclean spirits, but Jesus released the terrorized people and sent the demons down the slope into the abyss (8:32). Instead of ostracising “sinners” and tax collectors, Jesus built community among them (9:10).
Jesus had no programme to isolate and remove the bad. He planned to infect the world with good. Like the woman with the leaven in his story, Jesus was preparing a meal for the whole community.
Jesus was hiding the kingdom leaven in the dough, knowing it would eventually spread through everyone and everything.
You can sow the seeds, but you can’t make them grow. You can knead the leaven into the dough, but you can’t make it rise. The kingdom of heaven does require a partnership with God, but ultimately it’s God who makes it grow.
The world is not going to hell in a handbasket. As yeast spreads through dough, God’s kingdom is rising.
What others are saying
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 389:
Although leaven symbolized the corrupting influence of evil in the OT (though not consistently; cf. Lev 23:17) and was thus to be purged entirely from Israelite households at Passover (Exod 12:15, 19), there is no indication that Matthew here thinks of the leaven as something evil. What he portrays, rather, is the dynamic power of leaven whereby a small amount, which is imperceptible (note the verb ἐνέκρυψεν, “hid”) when first mixed in a lump of dough, has an eventual, inevitable, and astonishing effect upon the whole.
Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 158:
Ah, yes, it may be hidden. But so is yeast when you put it in your dough. Hidden it is, but it will permeate the whole loaf. So with the kingdom. Obscure and hidden, it will pervade society and permeate the whole world.
John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 554:
The kingdom of heaven is like the action of leaven, but more so. … God can be trusted regarding the potential in a lump of leaven; how much more can he be trusted concerning the potential set loose by the ministry of Jesus!
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[next: Parables help us get our bearings]
Update 2022-05-18: Translation added.
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