By Ryan Shaw
The parable of the leaven is the fourth parable (vs. 33) of eight in Matthew 13. The first four were given by the seaside and focus on the human side of “the Kingdom of God.”
There is no explanation of this parable given by the Lord. The original hearers did not need an explanation. Because of their background in Jewish literature and symbolism, they knew instantly what Jesus was referring to and teaching through the parable.
There are generally two interpretations of the parable. The first is the most popular and generally accepted interpretation. The “leaven” represents the Gospel and its increase. The “woman” symbolizes the Church.
The idea is that the Kingdom will be completely victorious in this age. This refers to all humanity in time being saved and regenerated by Gospel power. This understanding is so woven in the minds of most church goers today, that to get them to think otherwise is a great challenge.
This interpretation contradicts the symbol of “leaven” in every other place in the Bible. If in this parable the symbol for “leaven” is something good, it is the only place in the Bible it is used this way.
In addition, this common interpretation contradicts the teaching of the other three parables in Matthew 13 already considered. The other parables clarify a mixture throughout this age among the visible Kingdom of God.
In the parable of the sower, the result is not universal fruitfulness of the Gospel, but ¾’s of the seeds sown being ineffective. In the second parable, there is deliberate sowing of tares among the wheat – introducing a counterfeit, imitation form of Christianity looking similar to the real.
In the mustard seed parable, there is great growth but not according to God’s way of simplicity and humility. The growth is mixed with pride and selfish ambition.
A second, and we believe, correct interpretation of our parable understands the “leaven” as representing a type of evil, a corrupting force, not the Gospel. The leaven brings mixture to the Kingdom, harming it rather than helping it in this age.
This parable, like the other three before it, is a warning to true believers. We are to guard our hearts and lives from the powerful influence of leaven.
The picture is of three measures of meal, of a woman purposefully hiding the leaven in the meal and of the outworking of the leaven until all the meal is influenced. The most important image to understand is the three measures of meal.
It is important to interpret the meal according to its other uses in Scripture. Three measures of meal are mentioned first in Genesis 13:6 where Sarah prepares meal for the visitors to Abraham. Gideon used it as an offering as did Hannah. The book of Ezekiel refers to three measures of meal as the “perfect” offering.
The meal offering represents perfect relationship established between God and a believer based on the believers’ service to God. The act of making three measures of meal symbolized dedication to serving God as the basis of ongoing relationship with God.
The Old Testament clarifies no leaven was to be mixed with the meal offering. Leaven always represents a corrupting influence in Scripture. When leaven enters, the meal cannot fulfill its purpose. Intimate relationship with God, through serving Him, is negatively impacted due to the presence of a corrupting influence.
In Corinthians, Paul writes the church had become leavened and lost its power of witness because of inner corruption. Again in Galatians, Paul states clearly, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.”
What does it mean that the woman hid leaven within the three measures of meal? The woman, signifying a type of authority or management, hides the leaven, representing spiritual corruption, in the meal, the symbol of service and communion with God.
The power of genuine witness in the Kingdom of God is based upon relationship with God through Jesus, free from corrupting influence. True believers can only effectively influence the age they live for the Kingdom of God as they are separated from “leaven.”
“Leaven” hinders relationship with God, causing our witness to lack authority, power and credibility. The measure to which our relationship with God fails due to leaven, is the degree we fail to be a testimony of God’s Kingdom.
In doing so, we join the ranks of the mere religious lacking God’s power in life and ministry. The testimony and authority the body of Christ is meant to possess is weakened by the intrusion of corrupting leaven.
Scripture provides many examples of leaven. Tolerating sexual immorality, observing rules and regulations instead of intimate relationship with God, hypocrisy, unforgiveness, perpetuating injustices, pride and materialism have always had a leavening affect upon believers.
A major leaven through the centuries is believers and churches alike having a mere form of following Jesus but living empty of true spiritual understanding and power. They are committed to forms and rituals of church life, apart from fresh and vibrant communion with Jesus.
We are called in this parable to be vigilant to spiritually fight against all such mixture and corruption in our own lives and our churches and ministries.