The Parable of the Yeast

The Parable of the Yeast

The Parable of the Yeast.

“What else is the Kingdom of God Like? It is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.” (Luke 13:20-21; also Matthew 13:33).

CONTEXT

(a.) Luke’s chapter 13 has a little bit of everything… Jesus called people to repentance, including a parable about a barren fig tree. Jesus then proceeded to heal a crippled woman on the Sabbath, which infuriated the leader of the synagogue, because healing was the work of a doctor, and there was to be no work on the Sabbath, no matter what. Jesus set him straight, and apparently shamed him in the process. Jesus then told a couple of little parables about the Kingdom: the mustard seed and the yeast. After these stories, Jesus continued walking through towns and villages, teaching as He went.

(b.) The parable of the mustard seed immediately preceded the story of the yeast. The tiny mustard seed, almost microscopic, is planted in a garden, and then grows into a tree, or at least a tall bush, at least five feet high. The grown mustard seed can then even be a safe place for birds to come and nest in its branches. The Kingdom is like that, starting small and insignificant, but growing and expanding till people from all the nations will come and make a home in the Kingdom realm.

(c.) Jesus quickly completed the pair of parables about the Kingdom with His story about the yeast.

THE PARABLE

Teachers and scholars have been divided over how to understand this story. It’s amazing how something so short, so abbreviated, could cause so much difference of opinion. There are two main interpretations to this little story, and they are polar opposites of each other. That’s the thing about an imaginative story…. perhaps the dispute will allow for deeper discussion as to its meaning.

Interpretation #1: The yeast represents the Kingdom of God.

(a.) Jesus possibly implied this idea in the way He introduced the story, by saying, “What else is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare the Kingdom of God to?” He is following up a story about the smallness of the mustard seed growing into a substantial presence, and the seed definitely represents the Kingdom. Wouldn’t it make sense that these twin parables about the Kingdom make the same point, that the Kingdom may start small but it grows big over time?

(b.) Yeast is very small. It is a tiny, granular fungus, unimpressive and seemingly insignificant. Yet it has a big impact, it enlarges the flour and has an amazing influence in the dough. The kingdom is like that in the world, starting with a few fishermen and other unimportant followers, and enlarging to the point of impacting the whole earth.

(c.) Yeast is quiet. It is hidden in the flour, worked into the dough, and becomes invisible, yet still penetrates the entire dough. It doesn’t appear to make a big splash at first by its presence, but ends up making the dough double in size. The Kingdom certainly started quietly. You can’t get much quieter than a little baby in a manger in a stable in a tiny town. Maybe C. S. Lewis was right when he said that Jesus’ birth was unobtrusive on the world stage so that He could slip clandestinely behind enemy lines. Kind of like yeast hidden in the dough, isn’t it?

(d.) Yeast starts slowly and takes some time to change the dough. It took Jesus thirty years to become known publically, in a little corner of the world. It took some time before He started making a big impact.

(e.) So a little bit of yeast affects a whole lot of dough. In this case with this story, Jesus was obviously using quite the hyperbole. Three measures of flour is actually enough to feed up to 300 people! Three measures of flour is around 36 quarts. This woman in the story must have had quite the commercial kitchen. So, clearly Jesus is saying here that even a little bit of yeast is enough to affect a huge amount of dough. A little bit of Kingdom life and love is enough to influence a big, big world.

(f.) Yeast appears to be a minor ingredient, but ends up permeating the whole loaf. The Kingdom doesn’t necessarily try to be spectacular, flashy and impressive. But God’s virtue and truth, His life and Spirit, will end up changing the earth. The destiny of the yeast, the Kingdom, involves enormous growth and influence. Don’t overlook the unimpressive, in other words. It may be Kingdom yeast at work, affecting society and the world.

Interpretation #2: The yeast represents the presence of evil.

(a.) This alternative way of understanding the story is offered by many biblical scholars. The yeast represents evil, a corrupting presence in the dough, the dough being the Kingdom of God. This is opposite of the other popular interpretation.

(b.) Throughout biblical history, yeast and leaven have been something to abhor, to rid yourself of. Yeast has consistently been a symbol of evil in scripture, and something to throw out. The Israelites in Egypt were commanded by God to purge their homes of all leaven during Passover (Exodus 12:15-20). Also, there was never to be leaven allowed near the holy sacrifice (Exodus 34:25) or the altar (Leviticus 10:13). Leaven and yeast were something impure, corrupted, and have been understood as such down through Jewish history. Every God-fearing Jew would view yeast this way. This interpretation claims it is in full harmony with biblical history, and so the parable needs to be understood in that light… Yeast is evil, and should be avoided at all costs and seen as dangerous.

(c.) Since Jesus was undoubtedly aware of this history and common Jewish assumption, why would He confuse the hearers, and all of a sudden tell a story in which yeast was good and a sign of the Kingdom of God? Why would he twist the historical meaning of yeast to mean the opposite of what everybody has assumed?

(d.) Also, in all the other occasions when Jesus referred to yeast, He considered it a symbol of evil, a corrupting force, the presence of impurity. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” (Matthew 16:6 and Luke 12:1). The evil in the Pharisees was their hypocrisy, their self-righteousness, their deceptive teaching, their external legalities. The yeast of the Sadducees was their rejection of anything miraculous or supernatural, as well as their skepticism and rationalism. So yeast, in many conversations with Jesus in the gospels, was something to guard against. Why would Jesus turn the tables and now have yeast as an agent of goodness? Does that make any sense?

(e.) Besides that, the New Testament writers considered yeast and leaven to be a symbol of sin and evil, too. In 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, “Sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough.” In this passage, St. Paul considered yeast to be a symbol of “malice and wickedness.” Then in Galatians 5:9, Paul says that “False teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough.” If Paul was building on Jesus’ teaching, and he saw yeast as a symbol of corruption and impurity, it seems unlikely that Jesus would speak of yeast in this story as a symbol of goodness and truth.

(f.) If one accepts the idea that yeast is a symbol of deception and sin in this little parable, one wonders if Jesus spoke this story because He was concerned that the Kingdom has been leavened by the yeast of the Pharisees. Perhaps Jesus is expressing His concern that the corrupting influence of the Pharisees’ teaching and lifestyle is having its way in the Kingdom that He is seeking to spread.

GOING FURTHER.

(a.) Which of these two interpretations of Jesus’ parable do you believe is true to His intention? Is this an “either-or” or a “both-and” situation?

(b.) Does it trouble you that we may never get to the bottom of this biblical dispute until we can ask Jesus face-to-face?

(c.) Are there other parables of Jesus like this, where one could easily believe more than one interpretation? How does a Bible reader make the best of situations like this?

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