One thing I really enjoy about using Faith Church’s 4 Year Bible Reading Plan to read through the entire Bible in 4 years by reading a chapter a day (6 days a week) is that each time I read through a book of the Bible, I find new and interesting insights that I had not noticed before – the Bible truly is an inexhaustible storehouse of treasures! Our recent reading of Matthew prompted me to connect and ponder anew an image that Jesus uses in two different passages: leaven.
What is “Leaven”?
“Leaven” is sometimes translated as “yeast,” but because the item in the ancient world might not reflect what we think of as yeast, it seems best to render it “leaven.” In fact, it is probably better to think of the leaven more like the starter for sourdough than the yeast used for making bread, as the leaven of Jesus’s time was typically fermenting dough. Interestingly, Jesus utilizes this common item in the ancient world to describe both something good and also something bad.
Good Leaven (Matthew 13:33)
Jesus uses the image of leaven in a positive way in the parable found in Matthew 13:33: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and mixed into fifty pounds of flour until all of it was leavened” (CSB). There is no explicit explanation for this parable, but both the image itself and its pairing with another parable (that of a mustard seed in Matthew 13:31-32) point to it teaching about the small and seemingly insignificant beginnings of the kingdom that Jesus proclaims comes with his arrival (see Matthew 4:17). The previous parable points out how a small seed like the mustard seed can become a much larger plant in which birds can nest. This parable then points out how a small batch of leaven that is placed in 50 pounds of flour (that’s around 90 cups, and you only need a few cups for each loaf!) impacts and affects the whole thing.
A primary purpose in both parables is to encourage those who could be discouraged when seeing only small or modest signs of God’s kingdom activity. A potential additional flavoring to the parable of the leaven may be the expansive and pervasive impact that the kingdom of God ultimately has – it will affect every area of life and the world in time. As I reflected on this parable in this reading through Matthew, it caused me to reflect and think more about the influence and impact of the kingdom of God in my life. If the kingdom of God is like leaven and influences everything, how am I seeing the impact of the kingdom of God in each and every aspect of my life? Are there areas of my life in which I am resisting the leavening process of the kingdom of God? And if so, why? As I continued to read the Gospel of Matthew, I realized that the reason could very well be the work of another leaven in my life.
Bad Leaven (Matthew 16:1-12)
A few chapters later, Jesus again uses the image of leaven but in a much different sense. He tells his disciples, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). The disciples initially misunderstand this statement, thinking that Jesus is literally speaking about leaven and telling them to be careful about getting their leaven from these groups because they had failed to bring bread as they traveled by boat and thus would need to get some (Matthew 16:5-7). This focus on getting bread from the right sources was somewhat understandable as there were debates among religious groups whether or not the leaven from the other groups would make them impure because they didn’t keep purity laws. However, Jesus has already taught his disciples that purity does not come from the things that go into the body but rather than things that come out (see Matthew 15:1-20), so it wouldn’t make sense for him to be talking in a literal sense. In addition, he reminds them of the miracles he performed in feeding crowds of 5,000 and 4,000 (Matthew 16:8-11, referring back to Matthew 14:13-21 and 15:32-39); a lack or scarcity of bread wasn’t a problem for Jesus. He told the disciples that he wasn’t speaking about literal bread (Matthew 16:11) but rather “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
What exactly is the teaching of these groups that the disciples – and we – should beware? There are similar passages in other gospels in which Jesus speaks of the leaven of the Pharisees being their hypocrisy (see Luke 12:1). This is definitely something Jesus warns against elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew as he speaks against the Pharisees and hypocrites in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and pronounces a series of woes upon them due to their hypocrisy that are meant to warn the church against such behaviors (Matthew 23). However, here Jesus focuses upon their teaching rather than the lack of correspondence between their teaching and actions and speaks about the Pharisees and the Sadducees together rather than just the Pharisees.
Linking the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees is interesting because those two groups taught different things on most matters. For example, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, but the Pharisees did. While Jesus could be warning the disciples about absorbing the distinctive teaching of each of these groups – as Paul’s letters to various churches show some of them believing things that seem similar to either of these groups – the singular reference to “leaven” of these two groups seems to link them together, especially when compared to a similar statement in Mark 8:15 that discusses two parties and speaks about each of them having leaven (“leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod”).
The context of this statement points to this unifying thread between these two groups. This statement appears on the heels of these two groups coming to test Jesus by asking for a sign from heaven (Matthew 16:1-4). Jesus refuses to give this “evil and adulterous” generation a sign “except the sign of Jonah.” Their “leaven” thus seems to be that they want Jesus to fit inside of their expectations and desires rather than pay attention to what Jesus has already done and the sign that he has promised to give (which is death and resurrection!). They imply that if Jesus would just do certain things, then they would believe in him. Their desire to have things done their way might manifest itself in vastly different ways as shown by their different teachings, but it came from the same root, the same leaven. And it is important for Jesus’s disciples to recognize that we can have this same danger. In fact, this sort of thinking may be at work in Peter’s rebuke of Jesus after he speaks about his death in Matthew 16:21-23, as he wants Jesus to fit his image of the Messiah rather than God’s plan for a dying and rising Messiah. While the Pharisees and Sadducess no longer exist, their leaven remains and continues to be a danger that we are wise to be on guard against, as we continue to desire Jesus to fit our expectations and ask him to do what we want instead of accepting what he has done..
What’s Leavening You?
Using leaven to describe both the kingdom of heaven and the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees invites us to realize that we are being influenced by something (and through someone) and this can be a good or bad thing in our lives. May we remember that the kingdom of heaven is moving and working even when it seems hidden or small. Let us ask God to not allow our desires or expectations to get in the way of allowing it to change and transform every area of our lives, but rather gladly let God leaven us to reflect his kingdom.
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