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Jesus’ parable of the leaven is recorded in both the Gospels of Matthew (13:33) and Luke (13:20-21). It is one of many parables dealing with the “kingdom of heaven,” God’s rule in the hearts of people. As was typical of Jesus’ parables, He again uses something common to His audience to teach a spiritual lesson. Leaven was an important ingredient in the process of breadmaking. Historically, its use can be traced back 4,500 years to the ancient Egyptians. Among the Jews, bread was made daily, except for the Sabbath, and consisted of simple ingredients including flour, salt, olive oil, water, and leaven (yeast). Only at certain religious festivals and when haste was necessary did people eat unleavened bread. The Passover, sometimes referred to as “The Feast of Unleavened Bread,” was the most notable (Luke 22:1). It was held to commemorate Israel’s escape out of Egypt after the tenth plague.

How was leaven important to the breadmaking process? Leaven was the agent that initiated fermentation, a chemical reaction that produced carbon dioxide, making the dough rise and giving it a light, airy texture while baking. The amazing thing about leaven is that, when added to dough, it spreads throughout the whole lump when given the proper temperature. It works thoroughly, invisibly, and silently. Time is all that is needed.

References to leaven in the Bible are primarily negative. On numerous occasions, Jesus warns His disciples to “take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:6) This refers to the teachings of these “religious” groups that were filled with hypocrisy, spiritual pride, and self-righteousness. He tells His followers to “purge out the old leaven” of sin, malice, and wickedness, because even a “little” sin can leaven the whole lump (I Corinthians 5:6-7; Galatians 5:9). The parable of the leaven, however, highlights the positive characteristics of leaven.

It is interesting that Jesus told this parable after that of the mustard seed. In the mustard seed the growth of God’s kingdom is evident to all. From a tiny seed a tree is born capable of housing nests for birds. This is the type of obvious growth we see in the events of Pentecost, the day on which three thousand souls were added to the church. A contemporary example of this obvious church growth would include certain Christian missions in Africa and Asia whose growth numbers are astounding.

Leaven, however, represents a different type of kingdom growth—that which takes place hidden and often outwardly unnoticed. Do you recall Elijah thinking he was alone in following the true God until it was revealed to him that seven thousand believers still existed in his land? God’s Word is like leaven; it works unseen . “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11) When communism took hold in the former USSR and Christianity, “the opiate of the people,” was outwardly crushed and churches closed, God’s Word did not cease to have power. Millions worshiped secretly and faithfully. In Nero’s Rome, did persecution of Christians prevent God’s Word from prospering? Of course not. God’s Word prevailed; the blood of the martyrs indeed became the seed of the church.

Therefore, let us take heart. Just like leaven, God’s Word works silently, invisibly, and miraculously to expand His kingdom here on earth. We have the ingredients. We know the recipe. The oven door is open. Let’s bake some bread!

Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.