Chapter 5

work in progress

The Leaven Parable

Then the disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?” Jesus answered, “The knowledge about the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven have been given to you, but not to them. For the person who has something will be given more, so that he will have more than enough; but the person who has nothing will have taken away from him even the little he has. The reason I use parables in talking to them is that they look, but do not see, and they listen, but do not hear or understand. So the prophecy of Isaiah applies to them:

‘This people will listen and listen, but not understand; they will look and look, but not see, because their minds are dull, and they have stopped up their ears and have closed their eyes. Otherwise, their eyes would see, their ears would hear, their minds would understand, and they would turn to me, says God, and I would heal them.’

As for you, how fortunate you are! Your eyes see and your ears hear. I assure you that many prophets and many of God’s people wanted very much to see what you see, but they could not, and to hear what you hear, but they did not [Mk 4.10-12; Lk 8.9-10; Matt 13.10-16].”

Jesus’ teachings and philosophies are predominately analogical; he tried to encourage new insights by allowing people to draw comparisons with familiar situations. Perhaps this is why simple foodstuffs and domestic chores feature so many times in the Bible. It is fairly evident that his preferred audience are not the wealthy or powerful so many of the terms he uses are familiar to them. By using parables he is encouraging freedom of thought in an imaginative style that would appeal to this audience. Parables encourage self-assessment, are memorable and others could pass the stories through the community. Moreover, they would permeate through society in a leaven-like manner.

Return of the prodigal son. Rembrandt, 1665.

The parables also tend to be grouped together by subject manner. For instance the parable of the Lost Sheep is grouped with the parable of the Lost Coin and the parable of the Lost Son [Lk.15]. These parables all deal with the issue of finding belief when it has been lost. In the Lost Sheep Jesus describes how joyous a shepherd is when one of his sheep strays and is found even though he has several that are not lost. Similarly, in the parable of the Lost Coin a woman loses one of her few coins searches frantically for it and rejoices when it is rediscovered. In the final parable a father celebrates when a sinful son repents, he was lost and then was found. Some of the parables are told within the context of life at that particular time in history, perhaps referring to a current or political situation. Therefore, the parables are sometimes difficult to interpret accurately.

The Leaven parable, mentioned by Mathew and Luke, is grouped with several parables describing the Kingdom of Heaven, such as the parable of Weeds [Matt. 13.24-47] and the parable of the Mustard Seed [Mk. 4.30-32, Matt. 13.31-32; Lk. 13.18-19]. In each of these parables the coming of heaven could be interpreted as the end product resulting from the growth of all these items; the leavened loaf of bread, the weed-free harvest and the fully-grown tree from a mustard seed. The parable of Weeds describes how the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a field sown only with good seed. Any weeds that grow represent evil and are separated from the crop to be destroyed by the harvesters. In the context of the era leaven may have had a different connotation. The parable of the Leaven consists of just two sentences:

“The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A woman takes some leaven and hid it in three measures of meal until the whole batch of dough rises”
[Matt. 13.33; Lk. 13.20]

To many this parable is thought to illustrate how the Gospel will slowly permeate through society until all is converted to Christianity. This is in contradiction to how leaven is usually interpreted in the bible, to symbolically represent corruption. The leaven parable can be divided into three component parts: the leaven, the woman and the meal or flour. Each of these component parts plays a different role in the message being conveyed within the parable and are discussed separately in following paragraphs.

Leaven when used figuratively in the bible is most often used to denote something that is corrupt. The initial conception of it in the leaven parable (see previouspost) is of a favourable component in the dough, this implies that Jesus is contradicting its symbolic use in the Bible.

The Leaven Parable. Illustration by Jan Luyken from the Bowyer Bible

This parable could be interpreted in many ways. The leaven is taken by the woman and hidden in the meal or flour. The leaven may represent the subtle way that evil can permeate through the dough. In this manner leaven still represents something that corrupts, disintegrates and breaks up. The woman is impregnating the pure symbol of heaven symbolised by the meal with evil symbolised by the leaven. The first indication that leaven was associated with corruption in the Bible was when Lot baked unleavened bread for the angels:

But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without leaven, and they ate.
[Gen. 19.3].

Lot did not give leavened bread to the angels because he did not want to offer them anything containing impurities. The next reference to leaven is in the book of Exodus when the Hebrews left Egypt. They received a command from the Lord, through Moses, not to eat leavened bread for seven days. Similar sentiments occur in later sections of the Bible when the Lord demands that leaven should not be offered in sacrifices to him.

Do not offer bread made with leaven when you sacrifice an animal to me. Do not keep until morning any part of an animal killed at the Passover festival.
[Ex. 34.25].

Leaven was excluded from any sacrifice because it was thought of as a contaminant that did not reflect sinlessness. Leaven  during the Biblical era would have contained many undesirable elements in addition to microbes that fermented bread dough. It’s unlikely that the primitive baking processes used at that time would have destroyed all pathogenic microbes and therefore there was the potential for leaven in bread to transmit diseases. This is perhaps why it earned such a bad reputation and why people tended not to offer it to guests during festivals or at other times. Perhaps one person’s leaven was another person’s poison. Interestingly, animal sacrifices were disposed of before they started to decompose or they could become contaminated also. Perhaps there was the additional fear that Egyptians would look unfavourably upon this practice and there would be consequences for  the Hebrews if they were caught with animal remains:

If we use these animals and offend the Egyptians by sacrificing them where they can see us, we will be stoned  to death. We must travel three days into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, just as he commanded us.
[Ex. 8.26-27]

The words leaven and unleavened occur over sixty times in the Old Testamentand nearly twenty times in the New Testament. In every instance, except for in the leaven parable, it is used to denote something corrupt or sinful. Mostly, Jesus  uses leaven  figuratively in the same way as it is used in the Old Testament to denote corruption. For instance, Jesus compares the doctrines of the Pharisees with leaven:

Be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees, I mean their hypocrisy.
[Lk. 12.1]

In Mark’s gospel  ”and the leaven of Herod” is added to the above quote [Mk 8.14-15].  According to Lockyer the leaven of the Pharisees can be interpreted to represent the hypocritical formality and ritual of their beliefs. The leaven of the Sadducees was rationalism and the denial of supernatural events. The leaven of Herod was the consequence of these two doctrines, a departure from God and his teachings to a devotion of secularism and indulgence.

Throughout history the nature of leaven has led it to be seen with similar connotations. A rabbi reportedly said “Trust not a proselyte till twenty-four generations, for he holds his leaven.” Here leaven is used as a symbol of hostile infidelity. It was also used by the Talmund to signify “Evil affections and the naughtiness of the heart.” The ancient interpretation of leaven by the Greek historian, Plutarch, presented a figurative meaning that had similar connotations:

Leaven is both generated by corruption, and also corrupts the mass with which it is mingled.

Paul‘s also uses leaven to illustrate corruption[1 Cor. 5.6].  Paul encouraged the purging of a sinful man because if his sins remained unpunished they would spread amongst the group. This statement by Paul cements the traditional meaning associated with leaven of being  a corruptive persuasive and a permeating influence.

Of the leaven parable Martin Luther states that:

Our Lord wishes to comfort us with this similitude, and gives us to understand that, when the Gospel, as a piece of new leaven, has once mixed itself with the human race, which is the dough, it will never cease till the end of the world, but will make its way through the whole mass of those who are to be saved, despite of all the gates of Hell. Just as it is impossible for the sourness, which it has once mingled itself with the dough, ever again to be separated from it, because it has changed the nature of the dough, so it is also impossible for Christians to be ever torn from Christ. For Christ, as a piece of leaven, is so incorporated with them that they form with Him one body, one mass… leaven is also the Word which renews men.

Martin Luther assumes that leaven is used merely for its permeating quality and not in relation to corruption. He has interpreted leaven in this parable as depicting faith rather than corruption. Christ is the piece of leaven that is incorporated into the dough, which is portrayed as the human race. Once the leaven has mingled into the dough it can never be separated.

What is the significance of the woman in the leaven parable (see earlier post)? Many theologists ask if she is incidental or essential? Most of them see her role as being incidental as traditionally, men’s work was sowing and harvesting, whereas making bread was mainly seen as a woman’s work. However if she was incidental why mention her at all? Jesus could have merely said the leaven was placed in the meal without saying who put it there.

The Bible often uses the figure of a woman to represent kingdoms or cities:

The two women represent to covenants. The one whose children are born in slavery is Hagar, and she represents the covenant made at Mount Sinai. Hagar, who stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia, is the figure of the present city of Jerusalem, in slavery with all its people. But the heavenly Jerusalem is free, and she is our mother.
[Gal. 4.26]

In this way, women in the Bible can represent authority and management, especially in the role of hospitality. The Church is often spoken of as a mother andCatholics often refers to Mother Church. When  women are spoken of in a matriarchal role they are granted great responsibility. For instance, the Virgin Mary was entrusted with giving birth to the messiah. Therefore, the woman may have been trusted to place the leaven in the meal as she was perceived as being caring and conscientiousness. If the leaven representsChristianity, it appears that she has been entrusted with it.

Madonna with the Yarnwinder. Da Vinci, c1510

In practice though women were not often given roles of responsibility. There were no women among the twelve disciples or among the seventy that were commissioned and sent forth:

Take the teachings that you heard me proclaim in the presence of many witnesses, and entrust them with reliable people, who will be able to teach others.
[2 Tim.  2.2]

Perhaps because the commissioning was partly undertaken by Paul the Apostle who did not consider women to be trusted with teaching or matters arising in the church:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
[1Cor. 14.34-35]

So privately women seemed to be held in high regard but publicly they were forced to be silent and not given the same privileges as men. Therefore, if making the bread is considered a domestic and caring role, then the woman could be trusted to place good leaven in the meal.

Women in the Bible are often denoted as being the source of corruption. For instance, Eve was persuaded by the serpent into eating fruit from the tree of knowledge. As a consequence of this the Lord punishes  Adam for listening to her but he also punishes Eve with the pain of childbirth and subordination to men.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 1500′s

The action of the women in the parable may be symbolic. She hid the leaven in the meal. If the leaven in this parable is associated with something good she would not need to hide it. This could suggest that if the woman was conveying positive doctrines she would boldly speak out. Jesus himself spoke openly unto the world, and his followers perhaps were expected to do the same. He said to them, “Go throughout the whole world and preach the gospel to all mankind.” It is therefore supposed that secret hiding and the spreading of false doctrine are in some way linked. In contrast to the positive message this parable first appears to be conveying some theologians believe that the woman represents a false messenger, her objective is to introduce a corrupting element into the meal. On the other hand, Jesus was condemned for his teachings therefore perhaps he is suggesting that his followers spread his message in a concealed way so they do not endure a similar persecution.  As previously mentioned, woman were discouraged  from speaking in the church or in teaching  men, so perhaps Jesus is suggesting that women should ignore these restrictions and take a more prominent role in spreading the word of the gospels.

In many translations there are three measures of meal in the leaven parable (see previous post), these are thought by many to represent the human race amongst which the Gospel is working. The number three is mentioned over 500 times in the bible: There are three MagiNoah had three sons, Lot had three daugters and then, of course, there is the father, son and holy spirit where God is represented in three forms.  The three measures of meal in the leaven parable are thought by some to represent faith, hope and love:

Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love. 
[I Cor. 13,13]

They have also been thought to represent the three elements of human-life; body, soul and spirit as  the meal has been compared to the human race. When Jesus specified three measures, he was trying to portray a figurative meaning that could be interpreted by the people in that space of time. Therefore it’s difficult to know exactly what he was referring too as those influences no longer exist.

Adoration of the Magi. Rubens, 1619

In  Laws about Sacrifices, in the Old Testament,  three measures of meal should be used as part of a sacrifice when a Bull is being offered:

When a bull is offered to the Lords as a burnt offering or as a sacrifice in fulfilment of how or as the fellowship offering, a great offspring of three measures of flour mixed with two measures of olive oil is to be presented, together with two measures of wine. The smell of the sacrifice is pleasing to the Lord.
[Num. 15.8-10]

There maybe an association between the measures of meal and the ceremony of sacrifice. The meal may represent something that is normally sacred and without leaven. The woman may have hidden the leaven into the meal because the teachings of Jesus were in direct conflict to those of the Torah. The Bible always states that no leaven should be offered as a sacrifice to the Lord.

None of the grain offerings which you present to the Lord shall be made with leaven.
[Lev. 2,11]

When the woman hid the leaven in the meal she was doing something that was prohibited by God. Therefore this parable could be deduced to mean the doctrines of Christ are the Bread of Life and must remain pure and uncorrupted. Some propose that the Parable of the Leaven represents degeneracy in power, a breaking in upon divinely ordered fellowship, the corrupting influences of apostasy. The other interpretation is that leaven is in fact being used on occasion as a positive element that permeates through the meal as teachings would permeate through society.

When Jesus compares his leaven with that of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, although there leaven symbolises corruption his leaven is symbolic of truth.

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