What Is Hidden in the Parable of the Leaven

An evergreen tree with a mountain behind it on a sunny day - a goat is hidden in the shadows

Myth as Self-Creation

We invent ourselves with our stories. Not that we would cease to exist in body or form if we lost our memory, but we would not know who we are. Instead of being embedded in history and culture, we would be so caught up by the sweep of the present moment that we would lose hope, purpose, and intention. To be fully human, we need stories.

Humans have always passed down stories through an oral tradition, whether among families or communities. These tales create us as individuals and give us an identity as a people. When communities put their stories on paper, though, something changes. In Nicole Krauss’s book, Forest Dark, one of the characters explains that the act of writing and compiling the Hebrew Scriptures turned a rag-tag collection of families into a nation, a nation made important by a god who claimed them. Over the centuries, they stayed together no matter how big nor how scattered they became. That’s because, along with the past they created for themselves, they also created a future. [1]

Neither their past nor their future were laudatory. The Hebrew Scriptures tell a depressingly human story. Though the Hebrews enter into a covenant with Yahweh, they fail time and again to obey their god. Their tales show humans realistically, as fractured and inconsistent. Even so, the god they write about believes in them and forgives them, over and over again. This is the meaning found within the myths, histories, and folks tales they tell, and it is what gives the stories their power to change us.

Learning Through Parable

Indeed, stories change us more effectively than do rational arguments. The scriptures of all religions depend on myth, parable, folk tale, metaphor. Today, we use novels, movies, and songs to not only invent ourselves, but also to discover the essence of life, love, and divinity. We’ve been doing this ever since we’ve been writing, and probably long before. Jesus did this through parable.

In the Jewish Encyclopedia, parable is defined as “a short religious allegory.” [2] According to John Dominic Crossan, this definition is limited. Parables may be short, sometimes a sentence or two, but they can also be long and involved, and they are not only allegorical.

Crossan prefers to think of parables as a narrative that creates meaning through metaphor. [3] Parables may compare one thing to another, such as a mustard seed to the kin-dom of God [4], so it’s easy to understand why some commentators interpret them as allegories. The point, though, is not to explain what a mustard seed is like, nor even to provide a new way to look at heaven, but to explore who we are, what it means to be neighbors, and how we can live in right relationship with the holy.

That doesn’t mean these stories are easy to understand. Jesus doesn’t give us definitive explanations, so we must struggle to comprehend his meaning. According to biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine, this is a good thing. If we initially feel confused, we have to engage. We have to seek out the difficult truths Jesus was trying to teach. By seeking and engaging, we learn, we mature, and our understandings mature with us. [5] We might not believe literally in a heaven or a god, but regardless of our faith, the teachings hidden within these strange stories can help us become better human beings.

An evergreen tree with a mountain behind it on a sunny day - a goat is hidden in the shadows

Understanding the Parable

Crossan describes three ways to interpret the parables. As we saw, the first is as allegory. The father in the prodigal son story is God, the groom in the story of the ten bridesmaids is Jesus, the mustard seed is God’s word. [6] Levine cautions against reading the parables that way. When we look only for what we must do to get into some mythical heaven or for how we are to evangelize while waiting for the second coming, we lose sight of what Jesus meant to teach. We turn his stories into evidence of Christian exceptionalism, as Luke did when he condemned the Jews. We domesticate the message so we don’t have to face hard truths. [7] Jesus was not interested in a future home in the sky. He was concerned with what it means for us to work together to create a heaven on earth.

Like Levine, Crossan believes Jesus’s goal was to compel us to live differently. Thus he calls the parables “challenge parables.” Unlike allegorical parables such as Aesop’s fables that have one-to-one correspondences, or example parables such as folk tales that teach ethical life lessons, challenge parables turn our normal worldview upside down. They invite us to reconsider our “social prejudices, [our] cultural presumptions, and . . . [our] most sacred religious traditions.” [8] These stories are “mysterious” and “difficult,” writes Levine, because “they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives.” [9] To truly engage with these stories, we must consider questions we don’t want to ask and accept answers we don’t like. If we’re reading the parables properly, we should feel at least a little resistance to the message we find hidden there.

Parable of the Leaven

Take the parable of the leaven. It reads: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matt 13:33 NRSV).

The yeast mentioned in the passage is a kind of sourdough starter. When fresh and viable, it smells clean and rich, like earthy bread. Starter can go bad, though. Then it not only smells rancid, but the bread won’t rise. Some commentators think this yeast, being foul and fermented, symbolizes impurity. They interpret it as the corrupting influences in the church [10] or suggest it’s the sinners, outcasts, and gentiles whom Jesus welcomed into the kin-dom. [11]

Other commentators liken the story to the one about the mustard seed, which reminds us that from small things can come great kingdoms. Once the right conditions are in place, growth is inevitable. [12]

Interpreting the Parable

Levine has little patience for such simplistic interpretations. Is Jesus really just trying to tell us to watch out for evil influences or that great things can come from small packages? Everyone knows that. It’s more radical to suggest that all are welcome at Jesus’s table. Perhaps that is the message of this story, but leaven is not unilaterally considered bad. It can also represent that which nourishes us, that rises and is joyful. [13] Could the kin-dom of God be a place where everyone is nourished, where everyone is risen, and everyone knows joy?

Perhaps. After all, the leaven in the story could easily represent something life-giving. To make that life-giving dough, however, we need more than yeast; we also need flour. And what a lot of flour we have!

Three measures might not sound like much to us, but one of Jesus’s original listeners would have realized it was forty or sixty pounds of flour. Can you imagine kneading such a huge bowl of dough? It would be impossible. To bake the bread in batches would have taken days. By the time the woman finished, she’d have enough loaves of bread to throw a huge banquet, maybe even feed a small village.

This is a very concrete, down-to-earth story. Maybe Jesus is talking about what it’s like to feed our neighbors.

Hiding the Leaven

Given how concrete Jesus is being, though, let’s look more closely at what he actually says. He never tells us the woman made bread. There’s no water, no kneading, no rising, no baking. In fact, there’s not even any mixing. The Greek word translated in the National Revised Standard Version of the Bible as “mixed” actually means “hid.” That’s the word found in the American Standard and the English Standard Versions.

So the woman hid the yeast in the flour, then left it alone until “all of it was leavened.” It’s easier to slip some starter into a huge vat of flour than it is to mix it with water and make it into bread, but who would do such a thing? It’s ridiculous. After all, how would the starter infiltrate and cause the dough to rise without water or kneading? How can hiding alone be enough?

What It Means to Hide

In Scripture, according to Levine, to hide something is powerful. Secrets or things covered must one day be revealed. Luke tells us that “nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light” (Luke 8:17 NRSV). It’s almost as if the act of hiding itself incites revelation.

So the woman may be hiding something, but she wants that hidden thing to bloom and grow and become known. The starter must ferment within the flour. This is a secret process, one that does most of its work in the dark. Yet the simple act of hiding transforms inedible flour into something rich and wonderful. It’s like magic, an organic process that, without great effort or long tending, turns decay into something beautiful. That is the kin-dom of heaven.

We’re back to growing great things out of small ones, like the mustard seed that becomes a large plant simply because it is in the nature of seeds to grow. In the kin-dom of God, it is in the nature of leaven to multiply, even if conditions are far from ideal. There, hidden within the dark, something wonderful is being created. From that new creation, everyone will be fed, and everyone will rejoice.

God’s Kin-dom

The kin-dom of God is a place where everyone is welcome, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, where even the poor and the outcast receive justice, and where abundance spreads effortlessly and magically. All we have to do is start the process. We hide a little leaven and wait.

So we’re back to the beginning. What is this leaven that spreads? What is the seed that grows? To work its magic, leaven must be buried. Most seeds, to take root, must be covered with soil. That which shines was once hidden, and from it comes an entire heaven.

This isn’t something secreted away in a corner in a heavenly realm in the sky or in the cellars of our cities and towns. This leaven, this seed, this kin-dom lies within each of us.

From the Hindu faith comes a story about Brahma, the creator god, who allowed himself to be cut into billions of pieces. These pieces were then hidden in the heart of everything that lives. Concealed within us lies a piece of that divinity. We cannot see it. Our work in this world is to discover that it is there and that, like everything else around us, we are divine. Once we realize that, we can uncover the sacred light inside us and let it shine.

That Which Is Hidden Within

From the Jewish mystical tradition comes a similar story. As Krauss tells it, in the beginning was the Ein Sof, the “being without end,” the God. To create the finite world, God had to separate himself from a section of space, because if God were there, nothing but the infinite could exist. Then, in the place where Ein Sof was not, God made the world and all that live on it.

This earth exists, then, in a realm that is not-God. We feel that absence and mourn it. We try to fill the void with drugs, power, gold, incessant chatter, war, hatred, chaos. Yet none of that satisfies us. God remains hidden to us, and we remain empty. But we don’t look in the right place. Is God not here, after all, in the soil beneath our feet, in the clouds, in the stones, in our hearts? [14]

Within us the sacred waits, like a buried seed or a hidden ball of leaven. We are the mustard plant that grows, the flour that rises even when conditions are imperfect. Within us lives Brahma, Ein Sof, God.

Creating the Divine Kin-dom

And what is this sacred force that hides in us, waiting for us to notice it? In the Hebrew Scriptures, we learn that God has an “abundance of steadfast love” for us (Isaiah 63:7 NRSV), a love that “endures forever” (Psalm 136:1 NRSV). In the Gospel of John, we hear that God is love (John 4:8). That’s what lies in us, buried more deeply in some than in others, but anything hidden can be made to shine. It can be brought to life.

If we have “ears to hear” (Matt 11:15), we can discover what is concealed within the parables and within our hearts. We can create a divine kin-dom here, in our communities, with our neighbors, and we can do it not in some distant time when this sordid world has been destroyed, but here and now, today. May this be the meaning we glean from the parables. May it be story we write down, the one we use to create ourselves and our future.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Krauss, Nicole, Forest Dark, New York: HarperCollins, 2017, 81.
  2. Bacher, Wilhelm and Jacob Zallel Lauterbach, “Parable,” Jewish Encyclopedia, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11898-parable, accessed 11/30/19.
  3. Crossan, John Dominic, The Power of Parable, New York: HarperOne, 2012, 8.
  4. “Kin-dom” is a feminist revision of the word “kingdom.” It speaks to community and collaboration rather than top-down leadership implied in the idea of kings ruling over us. Though God’s kingdom would not be so violent as our own, I nonetheless prefer the idea of living together as “kin” than as “king” and subject.
  5. Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, New York: HarperOne ebook, 2014, 11.
  6. Crossan 22.
  7. Levine 568.
  8. Crossan 62.
  9. Levine 14.
  10. “Parable of the Leaven,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_Leaven, accessed 11/30/19.
  11. Levine 242.
  12. “Parable,” Wikipedia.
  13. Levine 242.
  14. Krauss 106.

Photo by Will Smith on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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