Parable of the Leaven

The Parable of the Leaven was given by Jesus in the New Testament (Matthew and Luke). It consists of essentially a single sentence, and immediately follows The Parable of the Mustard Seed in both "Matthew" and "Luke":

bibleref|Matthew|13:33|130 He proposed another parable to them. "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the 'birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.'" He spoke to them another parable. "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened."

bibleref|Luke|13:20-21|130Then he said, "What is the kingdom of God like? To what can I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that a person took and planted in the garden. When it was fully grown, it became a large bush and 'the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches.'" Again he said, "To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed (in) with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened."

In Jesus' day, leaven was sourdough in a state of fermentation. When mixed into the dough, it caused the bread to rise when baked, as does yeast today.

The traditional teaching of the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, is that the Parable of the Leaven, like the preceding Parable of the Mustard Seed, shows how something small becomes something big.

However, in modern times, the parable has been interpreted differently because in everyday Jewish imagery, leaven was tied to corruption. In his characteristic style, Jesus likened the Kingdom of God to something humble.

Leaven was spoken of metaphorically by Jesus and Paul to symbolize the doctrine of men being mixed with the doctrine of God, thereby corrupting it:

bibleref|Matthew|16:6-12|130 In coming to the other side of the sea, the disciples had forgotten to bring bread. Jesus said to them, "Look out, and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." They concluded among themselves, saying, "It is because we have brought no bread." When Jesus became aware of this he said, "You of little faith, why do you conclude among yourselves that it is because you have no bread? Do you not yet understand, and do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many wicker baskets you took up? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you took up? How do you not comprehend that I was not speaking to you about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Then they understood that he was not telling them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

bibleref|Galatians|5:7-10|130 You were running well; who hindered you from following (the) truth? That enticement does not come from the one who called you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident of you in the Lord that you will not take a different view, and that the one who is troubling you will bear the condemnation, whoever he may be.

A parable that likened God's Kingdom to "a little leaven" was bound to startle any Jewish audience. The Gospel writers chose these graphic images of leaven and of mustard seed to illustrate God's kingdom because of the innate characteristic of these particular pieces of organic matter to spread dramatically and dominate everything around them.

The dramatic imagery of this parable is made even more striking by the amount of flour that the woman adds the leaven to. Three cups (¾ lb.) of flour is enough to make a loaf of bread large enough to feed ten or more adults. The three "measures" (Greek: sata = Hebrew: seah) that the woman uses in this parable, however, amounts to half a bushel (almost 18 liters) or more than 30 pounds of flour. That would be enough to make at least 40 large loaves or sufficient bread to feed at least 400 people.

This extraordinary imagery in the parable of the leaven was designed to leave the minds of Jewish audience with the idea that there would be a super-abundant yield in due time rather than immediately.

Another version of this parable appears in the Gospel of Thomas (Patterson-Meyer Translation):

96. Jesus [said] , "The Father's kingdom is like [a] woman. She took a little leaven, [hid] it in dough, and made it into large loaves of bread. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!"

The Gospel of Thomas also has what appears to be a missing (or later added) second half of this parable:

Jesus said, "97 The [Father's] kingdom is like a woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal. While she was walking along [a] distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her [along] the road. She didn't know it; she hadn't noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty." 98. Jesus said, "The Father's kingdom is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in. Then he killed the powerful one."

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