And again Jesus said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
It happened long ago, but I vividly remember the moment to this day! I remember where I was standing in the church and what I was feeling as the first lines of a hymn we were singing began to sink in. I heard myself singing, “Jesus! What a friend for sinners! Jesus! Lover of my soul…” Yes, I had believed that I was a sinner, but in that moment I also believed Jesus loved me, a sinner. I believed Jesus was the Lover of my soul!
I think many farmers, fishermen, housewives and Roman soldiers remembered the moment they heard Jesus spin the parable in today’s Scripture. It is another of Jesus’ provocative and head-scratching parables about the Kingdom of God. Like all of Jesus’ parables, it got His listeners really thinking. Even later Jesus’ disciples will ask Him to explain the meaning of His parables.
For Jesus to dare and compare the Kingdom of God to yeast or leaven must have caused panic among His disciples. They would have never thought of God’s Kingdom likened to yeast. Caesar’s kingdom, yes, but not God’s Kingdom! They would have understood something very different about yeast than our western minds do two millennia later.
A quick word search of a Bible concordance reveals that yeast, or leaven, was always symbolic of evil and of spreading corruption. In fact, Jesus warned those same disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:6, 12). Likewise, the apostle Paul warned about the “yeast” of false teaching (Galatians 5:9), and admonished Christians to get rid of the “yeast of malice and evil” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). Any Jewish listener of Jesus would have known the Law of Moses forbade them from having any yeast in their homes during the Passover celebration (Exodus 12:15, 19). That same Law also prohibited yeast being offered on the altar (Leviticus 2:11, 6:17), as yeast was “the arch-symbol of fermentation, deterioration, and death and, and hence taboo on the altar of blessing and life.” (Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16)
So here again Jesus is telling a parable that might catch us by surprise. But New Testament theologian Ernest van Eck sheds light on the surprising good news Jesus wants listeners to hear:
“The parable of the leaven must have been shocking to those, like the temple elite, who understood God in terms of his holiness (that is, ‘unleavened’). For the ‘leavened’, however, the parable was good news. In the kingdom there was a place for women and the socially ‘impure’ (i.e. the so-called ‘sinners’, such as the lame, the blind, cripples and lepers)…God’s holiness was like leavened, not unleavened, bread, which means that the boundaries of the sacred, as established by the understanding of God in terms of his holiness were eliminated. (Ernest van Eck, A Prophet of Old: Jesus the Public Theologian)
In this daring parable Jesus wants people to know there are no boundaries to God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of God comes where people might least expect or look for it. The grace of God’s Kingdom is not restricted to holy people in the holy confines of the holy temple where sinners, tax collectors and lepers are excluded. Jesus’ radical good news is that the Kingdom of God springs up in wrong places and with the wrong people. Limits are never to be set to how far the love of God will go! Even in life’s most discouraging and hopeless situations, the grace of God surprises. Or, as the apostle Paul personally experienced and gladly proclaimed: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).
I knew that I was a sinner and couldn’t get my life together, but I thank God for that moment I really heard Jesus’ good news: “Jesus! What a friend for sinners! Jesus! Lover of my soul!” He does love even the ‘yeast’ of us!
Grace and peace,