And then Jesus told yet another parable, the parable of the yeast (or leaven; yeast hadn’t been discovered yet!), which seemed to be targeted at the women in his audience just as the previous parable was targeted at the men.
First a quick class on baking bread. There were two types of bread: unleavened and leavened. The former was flat bread, very much like the rotis so popular in various parts of the world. The latter was lighter and fluffier, because of the inclusion of yeast in the mix. This is a practice still followed today by those who bake bread. Here again, we see how something that is small produces something that is enormous, and Jesus uses it again to illustrate the point about a huge church.
There has been some controversy surrounding the interpretation of this parable because the symbolism for yeast has generally been negative in Scripture. In the Old Testament leaven is often used to represent sin and evil. In the New Testament also, Paul warned Christians that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough (1 Corinthians 5:6) referring to the harmful effects of false doctrine. Jesus himself warns against “the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod” (Mark 8:15). However, some sacrifices in the Old Testament do involve leaven (see Leviticus 23:17), so it doesn’t always have negative connotations. Besides, whenever Jesus tells a pair of closely related parables (as in the Parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price), these parables make the same point rather than an opposite point.
But what is the leaven? It is us! There are some additional lessons that can be learned from the leaven, however, and we will examine a few of them. (In the process we will learn a little more about bread making, hopefully inspiring you to bake your own bread, which is a lot easier than you might imagine. However, we have not included any recipes).
Leaven can go back generations
One method of leavening bread is the sourdough method. Water is mixed with flour, salt, and the leavening agent. The mixed dough is then allowed to rise one or more times (a longer rising time results in more flavor, so bakers often “punch down” the dough and let it rise again), then loaves are formed, and (after an optional final rising time) the bread is baked in an oven.
There are bakeries today making sourdough that have kept part of the previous batch going back generations! Think about that for a moment. Something passed down over centuries.
The same thing happens in the church when the faith is passed down from generation to generation. That is what has contributed to its growth and helped make us who we are. Some of us have become people of tremendous vision, but as Isaac Newton said: If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. If we can see farther than others, it is because of what we have received from generations before us. But we have a responsibility to pass on the faith to the next generation, and here we seem to have failed miserably. We cannot evade responsibility by trying to pin the blame on someone else. We are all guilty: parents, catechists, church leaders. And once we accept our fault we can do things to correct it. How? Read on.
Leaven has a Purpose
The purpose of leaven is to make the dough rise so that it becomes light and fluffy and easy to eat. It isn’t to give the dough a particular flavor, although there are certain makers of sourdough who try to do that.
Similarly, the Church has a purpose, and this is stated in one form or another in all four gospels. Here it is from one. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Somehow we seem to have forgotten this basic purpose. Our pastors have become administrators rather than evangelists. Others have become social workers instead of missionaries. And still others have become politicians instead of kingdom growers. We need to remind ourselves of our mission beyond the sermons we prepare or hear on Mission Sunday!
Yeast is microscopic, yet, given a little time, it will spread right through the dough. We have examples not just in the spiritual world, but also in the secular world of how a few people were able to make a huge impact on society.
There was Rosa Parks, a black woman who refused to take the back seat in a bus, who sparked the Civil Rights movement in the US in the 1950s. There was Mikhail Gorbachev, who through glasnost and perestroika, brought about the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990. And then there was Mahatma Gandhi, who through his non-violent movement gained Independence for India and spurred the dissolution of the British Empire.
But all these pale in comparison with what twelve men and a few companions succeeded in doing two thousand years ago. They took the gospel around the world until the name of Christ was known in every corner of the globe.
All it takes is the right ingredient-—and that is a heart for God and his people. And then this leaven could be you. Every time we do something for God, whether it is a small Bible study group, a little leaflet telling people about Jesus, a magazine like this one, or even sharing love in a little community of faith, it is like a little bit of leaven being added to the dough. Great things will come out of it because that is what leaven does.
It works from within
Yeast makes the dough rise from within, and if we are to exert influence in the world, our hearts need to change first, then our culture within the church needs to change. We have become too worldly, both as individuals and a body. We need to turn to the gospel and discover—or rediscover—Jesus. We need to believe the things that he says, and belief always translates into action. We need to stay true to our original calling, which is making disciples of all nations. And we need to live the two most important commandments which are to love God and to love each other. Then we can just watch what happens in awe.
Invisible yet visible
Yeast works slowly, secretly and silently as it goes about its task; yet its effects are visible to all. We don’t need to call attention to ourselves and the work that we do; we just need to go about doing what God plants in our hearts quietly. When the works are of God they will be noticed, no matter what obstacles may come our way. And the ultimate benefits of the work will be worldwide.
So what next?
There is a revival happening the likes of which the Church has not seen in a very long time. It is happening in little groups as it did in the early Church. We see the evidence of this in China, where the government has inadvertently made a showcase for the efficacy of small communities. It has placed a prohibition on religious gatherings comprising more than a couple of dozen people. So whenever a group reaches 25, it breaks up into two groups, mimicking the multiplication of amoeba. Something similar is happening in Africa, where the church is growing with a rapidity that is simply spectacular.
Small Christian communities, like those being put into practice in several countries, are the answer, but the gatherings need to focus on growing in a knowledge of the faith rather than just prayer. Year long programs, such as HSI’s Schools of Discipleship, are proving to be powerful tools for achieving this purpose, with its emphasis on learning, living and sharing the gospel message. The logical progression from this is to have pockets of people engaged in serious study of Scripture and Tradition. A lack of a knowledge of the word of God is one of the main reasons why people are straying from the faith. As Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians: We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:14-16).
In order to mature we need to know God’s word, but know it experientially, living in a manner that would be pleasing to God. This would be like Paul advises earlier in the same letter: with humility, gentleness, patience, unity, peace, and love. And then like the mustard seed or the yeast, the Kingdom will grow. And we can give glory to God.