Jesus also used this illustration: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.” [Matthew 13:33 (NLT)]
Immediately after the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to the yeast a woman added to “three measures of flour” when making bread. While “measures” seems vague, the original word used wasn’t. It was seah (about a peck and a half of flour) and three seahs were over 167 cups (nearly 50 pounds) of flour. This was an enormous amount of flour for just “a little yeast” and, as He did in the previous parable, Jesus used hyperbole to emphasize the power of something very small. The question in this parable is whether the yeast is a metaphor for a bad or a good thing.
This is the first mention of leavening in the New Testament but, by the 1st century, yeast had come to represent sin. Sticking to yeast’s traditional symbolism, some commentators liken the story’s yeast to false doctrine that can sneak into the Kingdom and see this parable as a warning about the dangerous power of false teaching in the Church. Enekrupsen is the Greek word used to describe the woman’s action in adding the yeast and this is its only use in Scripture. From egkruptó, which literally meant to bury within, enekrupsen has been translated with different meanings. Some translate it as hid or concealed (which implies she did something sneaky and devious in adding yeast) while others merely translate it as put, blended, or mixed in. Since enekrupsen is used both ways in other Greek literature, we can’t be sure which correctly communicates Jesus’ meaning. Considering that bread was being made, it seems that burying yeast in the dough would be expected rather than sneaky.
I find it hard to interpret this parable in a way that associates anything sinful or evil with the Kingdom of Heaven. Although His listeners may have expected yeast’s power to represent something bad, Jesus’ parables rarely fit his listeners’ expectations. When they anticipated one thing, He usually gave them another! That a Levite and priest had failed their fellow Jew while a hated Samaritan was the hero of one parable was as surprising as a beggar ending up in Abraham’s bosom at a heavenly banquet when the rich man ended up tormented in Hades. Jesus threw society’s expectations out the window when telling of a father who’d been offended and hurt by his wastrel son. Upon the boy’s return, rather than rejecting him as the law required, the father ran to welcome him home, restored him to the family, and even had a festive celebration in the boy’s honor. Equally unexpected was the story of vineyard workers getting the same pay regardless of how long they worked and the prayers of a tax collector being heard when the Pharisee’s were not.
I agree with the commentators who take this parable at face value. Believing Jesus simply is speaking of the pervasiveness and power of yeast, they see this analogy as a continuation of the lesson in the mustard seed parable. Rather than a corrupting influence, the leaven, like the mustard seed, illustrates that great things can come from small beginnings. Yeast is even smaller than the tiny mustard seed and yet both are powerful enough to expand and effect change. While both parables illustrate the extensive growth of the Kingdom, the second parable emphasizes the Kingdom’s transformative power. Just as yeast changes dough, the Kingdom will transform the world! In both parables, the message is clear—the Messianic Kingdom comes from small beginnings, operates quietly, but has the power to accomplish great things! That God’s Kingdom would start from small and humble beginnings to grow and change a much larger entity (the world) would have been reassuring news to Jesus’ small band of disciples.
Like the Kingdom of Heaven, yeast is a living organism. Like the Holy Spirit, yeast is invisible once in the dough and yet its effect, like that of the Spirit, becomes obvious as it permeates the mixture. Just as leavened dough grows from inside out, the Kingdom moves from our hearts into our actions and from our actions into the world. Yeast transforms what it mixes with and, as we are transformed, we transform those with whom we interact. Just as yeast needs certain conditions to grow, so does the Kingdom and, just as there are 1,500 different kinds of yeast, God’s Kingdom is made up of a wide assortment of people. Yeast is found everywhere—from the bottom of the ocean to the Arctic and from flower nectar to the lining of our stomachs—and God’s Kingdom should be as pervasive! Indeed, the Kingdom of Heaven is alive, it’s everywhere, it takes attention and patience to grow, and it transforms all it touches.
What Jesus’ listeners probably didn’t understand was that the Kingdom already had arrived. But, like a tiny mustard seed, a bit of yeast, or a baby in a manger, it entered the world quietly without fanfare. Like a small yellow flower, a lump of dough, or an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, the Kingdom didn’t look that impressive at first. Appearances, however, can be misleading. Like a mustard seed that grows 1,440 times its original size or the more than fifty loaves of bread leavened by that bit of yeast, the Kingdom will increase and prevail. In the end, when Christ returns as a conquering king, no one will be able to miss its arrival. Until then, like a small amount of yeast, God’s Kingdom will transform the hearts and lives of all it touches! May we always remember that little things become great when God is at work!
When the dough is leavened, then to the oven with it; trials and afflictions commonly attend this change; but thus saints are fitted to be bread for our Master’s table. [Matthew Henry]