‘Leaven’ parable is full of surprises

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

On occasion, I have pointed out to the editors of our archdiocesan newspaper the irony in calling it The Leaven.

In the biblical tradition, leaven symbolizes corruption and wickedness. That is because yeast, leaven, causes the dough to rise ever so slightly making it rot or ferment.

If that process were to continue, it would render the dough inedible.

The same holds true for wine. If the process would continue, the wine will turn into vinegar.

Even though leaven may symbolize corruption and wickedness, it still remains a useful agent in the process of baking. That explains its presence in one of the parables that appears in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 13:24-43.

The parable is very short, only one sentence. Let us examine it in detail:

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”

When yeast causes the dough to rise, the dough expands greatly, often doubling or tripling in size. The three measures of flour in the parable would amount to about sixty pounds, already a huge quantity. Once made into dough, mixed with yeast and allowed to rise, it would make enough bread to feed the entire village.

This abundance of bread reflects the abundance of grace in God’s kingdom. God’s love surpasses our imagination. This parable only suggests its grand scale. Think of the parable sketching out in words what Jesus would put into action in the multiplication of the loaves and the fish.

But there is more to this parable than just that. Notice how the parable begins: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.” When we remember that yeast symbolizes corruption and wickedness, those words should shock us. They suggest that the beginnings of God’s kingdom can be found even where we would least expect, in what appears to be corruption and wickedness. God’s power can transform them into a means of bringing about the kingdom of heaven.

A further surprise awaits us in the parable. It tells us that a woman acts as the agent in bringing about God’s kingdom. It is not a man, not a priest. This undercuts the expectations of the extremely patriarchal society in which Jesus was telling the parable. It turns the world upside down.

But this is not just any woman. She is a peasant, a member of the lowest class. In the cities, people relied on bakeries to provide their bread. Not so out in the country. There, people had to bake their own. And this hot and messy task fell to the women.

The parable brings us one surprise after another. But that is the way it is with God’s kingdom.

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