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Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:20-21. What does this mean?

Matthew 13:33 (KJV): Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.

Is the leaven a good thing or a bad thing? How so?

Related:

http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9694-leaven

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    Hello and welcome. This would be a better question if you would edit to 1) quote and/or summarize the relevant text, 2) cite the translation you're working from, and 3) tell us what thoughts you've had about the interpretation and what you're still wondering about. – Susan Jun 28 '15 at 6:40
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Hidden kingdom, visible impact

This parable and the previous one about the mustard seed refer to the visibility and size respectively of this ‘kingdom of heaven’ at the moment of installation in relation to its potential.

Once leaven is added to flour, it is no longer visible - it is hidden. You cannot then go through the measures of flour and say ‘here is the leaven’, nor can you remove the leaven to arrest its work on the flour once it’s been added. The only thing that is visible is its impact on the whole, and this impact is undeniable to those who know that the leaven is present in the flour.

Likewise, the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not visible in the world. You cannot look at the world and point out the kingdom of heaven saying ‘here it is’, nor can you put a stop to it once it is in the world. It is only this impact on the world that can be seen, and it is undeniable to those who know that the kingdom is present in the world.

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Both the leaven of Matthew 13:33 and the mustard seed of Matthew 13:32-32 represent the Apostles themselves. Theophylact comments:

He calls the Apostles leaven as well as a grain of mustard seed. For just as leaven, although it is small, transforms to itself all the flour, so you will transform the whole world, though you are few.

Explanation of the Gospel According to St. Matthew

A similar explanation can be found in John Chrysostom's Homily XLVI on Matthew.

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We can know that the leaven in the parable is a similitude for some part of the operation of the Kingdom of Heaven; not only because the parable falls in the midst of a series of parables in Matthew that are explicitly stated as parables given to impart knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven Mat 13:11 but because the specific parable in question declares that the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto leaven. Also in Luke Jesus asks, "To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God?" as a preface to the parable.

That leaven represents some aspect of the Kingdom of God is clear. The interpretation of what the leaven specifically illustrates of the Kingdom is the only debatable question. Several factors weigh in heavily toward leaven representing a negative influence in the Kingdom:

First is that leaven is given the meaning of false teaching and hypocrisy Mat 16:11-12 by Jesus

Second is Paul's generalized usage of leaven as representing malice and evil 1Cor 5:6-8 and, more specifically, as deceptive teaching Gal 5:7-9

Thirdly, the larger context in which these kingdom parables are given in both gospels show them following contentious discourse (also here) with the Scribes and Pharisees

Fourth, many of the Kingdom parables contain both a positive and negative aspect of the Kingdom which are allowed to simultaneously occur such as The Parable of the Weeds and The Parable of the Net

Last, and more speculatively, if the woman in the parable is an allusion to Sarah then the leaven could be the doubt wherewith she laughed and by which she previously had tempted Abraham to provide his own offspring through Hagar rather than trusting in the promise of God This closely follows the pattern of the Fall where the command/promise was given to Adam alone (Eve was not yet created), Eve is then deceived as she had received God's directive secondhand, and she in turn tempts Adam to disbelieve. In like manner God's promise of offspring was made to Abraham alone and whatever Sarah knew of the promise was secondhand through Abraham.

It is not a stretch to interpret leaven as representing the unbelief/sin that is mixed by us into the Kingdom of God, especially to the degree that we rely on unconfirmed teaching rather than asking and receiving directly from God.

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It seems to me that the Author intends us to read the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leaven together, hence the periscope of v31-33:

31 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, 32 "which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches." 33 Another parable He spoke to them: "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened." (Mat 13:31-33 NKJ)

The NAC commentary notes:

Jesus’ next two parables prove closely parallel. They are not full-fledged narratives but short analogies or similes. Each presents only one main character and probably teaches only one central truth. Jesus likens the kingdom to a mustard seed or lump of yeast that grows from inauspicious, seemingly insignificant beginnings to attain a greater size (the mustard seed) or have more widespread influence (the leaven) than many would ever have suspected. The current manifestation of God’s reign within Jesus’ small band of disciples seems relatively impotent; one day many will be astonished about how their movement grew and impacted the world.1

In the book He Spoke in Parables, Keddie identifies the mustard plant in question as most likely being the black mustard (brassica nigra) which is an annual, belong to the cabbage family. This plant grows rapidly and can apparently attain a height of 3 metres in the right climate, yet it comes from a tiny seed - the point seems to be that from inauspicious beginnings the kingdom of God will grow tremendously in the growing season.

In regards to following (linked) parable of the leaven, the women in question is making a large batch of bread. "The “measure” here indicated, though not always and everywhere identical in capacity, is generally held to have averaged about a peck and a half. Three such measures would therefore amount to a huge quantity, not less than an ephah; one might say “more than a bushel.” But it was not at all unusual for a woman to make so large a batch. Sarah did it (Gen. 18:6). A similar amount is also mentioned in Judg. 6:19 and in 1 Sam. 1:24."2

Again, the point is the same, it doesn't take much yeast to provide a massive batch of dough, once the yeast is added (and fed) the fermentation process will continue until the whole batch has risen.

Some commentators (eg. Hendriksen) suggest that the parable of the leaven refers to the inward growth of the kingdom and the the parable of the mustard seed to the outward growth of the kingdom - which ever opinion we take on that the basic point is that the Kingdom of heaven is going to grow beyond what anyone would humanly expect.


Notes

1 Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, pp. 219–220). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

2 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, p. 567). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

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In my previous answer to this question I had not yet connected it with Sarah, whom I believe to be the woman in the parable. After making that connection I find myself focusing on the fact that:

  • the person in this parable is a woman:

[Mat 13:33 DBY] (33) He spoke another parable to them: The kingdom of the heavens is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until it had been all leavened.

  • she doesn't just "add" or "mix in" the leaven but she "hides it"

[Mat 13:33 DBY] (33) He spoke another parable to them: The kingdom of the heavens is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until it had been all leavened.

  • notice that the leaven that is hid by the woman is "fine flour" (rendered simply as "meal" in some translations). This was not "the world" which was unregenerate Israel but rather the reborn/regenerated Israel, per Ezekiel 37. The parable is about what the kingdom of God is like, not what sin is like. It is linked to the previous illustration. In both cases the kingdom starts small but becomes the link between heaven and earth:

[Mat 13:31-32 DBY] (31) Another parable set he before them, saying, The kingdom of the heavens is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; (32) which is less indeed than all seeds, but when it is grown is greater than herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of heaven come and roost in its branches.

  • this indicates to me that "leaven" refers to that which is "hidden", whether it be secret sin in our hearts, faith in our hearts, the apostles in the LORD's garden, etc.

[Pro 4:23 NLT] (23) Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.

[Mar 4:22 NLT] (22) For everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open, and every secret will be brought to light.

  • what is hidden cannot remain hidden. What you hide in secret chambers in the heart will, if left in the community, ultimately influence "the whole lump" and so it must be removed immediately and with extreme prejudice

But what Sarah hid in the fine flour was faith in the Abrahamic covenant:

[Gen 18:9-15 NLT] (9) "Where is Sarah, your wife?" the visitors asked. "She's inside the tent," Abraham replied. (10) Then one of them said, "I will return to you about this time next year, and your wife, Sarah, will have a son!" Sarah was listening to this conversation from the tent. (11) Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. (12) So she laughed silently to herself and said, "How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master--my husband--is also so old?" (13) Then the LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh? Why did she say, 'Can an old woman like me have a baby?' (14) Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son." (15) Sarah was afraid, so she denied it, saying, "I didn't laugh." But the LORD said, "No, you did laugh."

So the laughter and the leaven are associated with God's promise that she would miraculously have a son. Abraham both balked at the idea but God's promise would be fulfilled with an infinite number of sons, more than can be numbered.

  • in counseling women about silence he refers to the "man hidden in her heart":

[1Pe 3:1-6 KJV] (1) Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; (2) While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. (3) Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; (4) But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. (5) For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: (6) Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.

It seems odd to me that Peter says that they are daughters of Sarah if they are not "afraid with any amazement". Sarah seemed amazed to me.

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Rex Wyler, in The Jesus Sayings, page 111, says the parable of the leaven in the flour appears to satirise a story (Genesis 18:6) about Sarah, who used three measures of choice flour to bake cakes for heavenly messengers visiting Abraham. I would call this a long shot, but then we find the story of the leaven follows the parable of the mustard seed in Luke 13:19 and Matthew 13:31-32:

Luke 13:19: It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.

Middle eastern mustard (s. hirta) does not grow into great trees, but is for farmers a noxious weed. Wyler believes the parable of the mustard seed is a parody of a common Jewish reference from the books of Ezekiel and Daniel, about a tiny sprig growing to become a giant "noble cedar” with roots that spread across the earth, branches reaching to heaven, fruit for all, and shelter for animals and birds.

Context thus makes it quite likely that the parable of the leaven was intended as a parody of Jewish tradition, as Wyler suggests. The parable of the leaven in the flour is considered by many scholars to have been sourced by the authors of Matthew and Luke from the hypothetical 'Q' document. Whether or not they actually realised this parable could have been a parody is a moot point.

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Where is the scriptural support for these parables being in regard to the Apostles? Where too is the scriptureal support for "inauspicious, seemingly insignificant beginnings" found or is this too derived from ones own understanding(s)?

Proverbs 26:7 is a cue & clue to us about being in opposition to His word/law in regard to interpreting of parables which are in truth riddles (see Ez 17:2 KJV-Only as have found no other translation that does not obscure His truth here). In this proverbs it speaks of the lame man who's legs are not EQUAL comparing him to thee SELF CONFIDENT man who's understanding of a parable/riddle interprets it giving a meaning to for example leaven in Mt 13:33 that is contrary to His law (not EQUAL) which informs us leaven is sin/evil & in forbidden so it could be nothing else, the Gospel in the riddle of Mt 13:33. Gods word is much easier to understand if we apply scripture itself to understand it & use His definitions of to get understanding.

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