The Leaven Parable

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

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 posts.

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…the bread of purity and truth

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Following the crucifixion and resurection of Jesus, several of his followers began to spread his philosophy. Politically there was a thirst for change. Instead of halting the spread of Christian philosophies, the death of Jesus served to intensify the movement. Jewish Christians spread throughout Palestine and beyond, establishing themselves in Syria. Early missionaries extended the philosophies to Rome. Where the founding of the Catholic Church was attributed to Simon Peter.  Armenia became the first Christan state through the work of Thaddeus.

A major contribution to the spread and writing of  the New Testament philosophies was the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee,  to Christianity. Previously he had been responsible for imprisoning the followers of Jesus. On travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus, with some prisoners, the resurrected Jesus appeared to him in a great light. So bright was the light that he remained blind for three days untill his sight was restored by Ananias of Damascus.  The apparition and blindness, which may have been a consequence of heat exhaustion, served to show Saul the error of his ways. He changed his name to the Roman equivalent Paul and began to preach in lands around the Mediterranean, especially in Greece were the name Christ from the word christos, Greek for Mesiah, was first used.

The Conversion of Saint Paul. Caravaggio 1600

Paul established a church in Corinth and was attributed with fourteen epistles in the New Testament. In the following passage he speaks about immorality within the congregation and again uses leaven as a synonym to describe corruption:

Now, it is actually being said that there is sexual immorality among you so terrible that not even the heathen would be guilty of it. I am told that a man is sleeping with his stepmother! How, then, can you be proud? On the contrary, you should be filled with sadness, and the man who has done such a thing should be expelled from your fellowship. And even though I am far away from you in body, still I am there with you in spirit; and as though I were there with you, I have in the name of our Lord Jesus already passed judgement on the man who has done this terrible thing. As you meet together and I meet with you in my spirit, by the power of our Lord Jesus present with us, you are to hand this man over to Satan for his body to be destroyed, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord.
It is not right for you to be proud! You know the saying, “A little bit of leaven makes the whole batch of dough rise.” You must remove the old leaven of sin so that you will be entirely pure. Then you will be like a new batch of dough without any leaven, as indeed I know you actually are. For our Passover Festival is ready, now that Christ our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us celebrate our Passover, then, not with bread having the old leaven of sin and wickedness, but with the bread that has no leaven, the bread of purity and truth.
[1 Cor. 5-13]

Interestingly, here old leaven is portrayed as sin and wickedness. Perhaps another benefit of throwing out all leaven during the Passover was to ensure that a fresh, uncontaminated batch would be started. Leaven is also used by Paul to  illustrate corruption when trying to persuade the Galatians that they only required faith to be right with God and there was no need to rigidly obey the Torah:

“You were doing so well! Who made you stop obeying the truth? How did he persuade you? It was not done by God who calls you. It takes only a little leaven to make the whole batch of dough rise, as they say. But I still feel confident about you. Our life is union with the Lord makes me confident that you will not take a different view and that the man who is upsetting you, whoever he is, will be punished by god.”
[Gal. 5. 7-9]

In the above passage Paul was mainly attacking the practice of circumcision. Paul argued that circumcision no longer meant the physical, but a spiritual practice and labelled those that advocated it as false brothers. When he argues against the use of circumcision he refers to the old laws in general.