“And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.””
Luke 13:20-21 ESV
Through the Bible: Luke 12-13
One of the stranger parables of Jesus is in Luke 13:20-21. On the surface, it seems like Jesus is saying a work of God might have an inauspicious beginning but can change the world. After all, this parable comes after the parable about the mustard seed, which is pretty straightforward. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,” says Jesus. “It starts small, but then grows into a tree big enough for the birds of the air to make nests in its branches” (see Luke 13:19).
So the parable about the kingdom of God being like leaven hidden in three measures of flour is saying the same thing, right? Big things from small beginnings. Got it. I’m ready for the next lesson.
Not so fast. The confusing thing is that almost nowhere else in Scripture is leaven talked about favorably. In the Old Testament, God commanded the people to eat unleavened bread as a reminder that when they were brought out of Egypt they left with such haste that they didn’t have time for bread to rise. Thus, at the beginning of Passover, every household was to purge the house of leaven. Only once were the Israelites commanded to make an offering of leavened bread to the Lord. It was at the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost (see Leviticus 23:17).
In the Gospels, Jesus always used leaven to represent the false teaching of the Pharisees (Matthew 16:6-12). In today’s reading, Jesus tells the disciples to “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). Jesus also warned them to beware of the leaven of Herod (Mark 8:15), although He didn’t say exactly what that meant. So it would be a pretty major departure for Jesus to suddenly talk about leaven in a positive way.
Notice how Paul talks about leaven in 1 Corinthians 5:
“Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
1 Corinthians 5:6-8 ESV
For Paul, leaven represented boasting (v. 6); sin in general (v. 7), and malice and evil (v. 8).
Now, maybe Jesus really is saying that the Kingdom of God is like leaven in that, just a little bit of Christian influence can impact the entire culture. Our friends at GotQuestions take this view. They acknowledge that this is a different take on the leaven symbolism, but still argue that Jesus is speaking positively about the expanding of the kingdom of God. You can check it out for yourself here.
But maybe Jesus is saying that within the kingdom of God, there will continue to be false teachers and hypocrites, whose teaching and attitudes can contaminate the whole church. That would make sense in the context of Luke 13, which begins with Jesus referencing two current events to make the point that without genuine repentance, his listeners were no better off than the Galileans executed by Pilate or the victims of what may have been a construction accident (Luke 13:1-6). After this, He tells the story of the fig tree that didn’t bear fruit (Luke 13:6-9).
Finally, Jesus follows up the parable of the leaven with the warning that at the judgment there will be people who thought they were in, but are really out:
“Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’”
Luke 13:26-27 ESV
Compare this with the parallel teaching in Matthew:
““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
Matthew 7:21-23 ESV
Heartwarming vs. Heart Warning
So what’s our takeaway for the day? We’ve talked before about how some parables teach by comparison, and some by contrast. (See Day 286: Persistence, Impudence, Shameless Audacity…Whatever). In the same way, there are some parables that warm our hearts, but others warn them. I praise God for the heartwarming parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.
But I am also thankful for the heart warning parables like this one. And the warning is this: not all growth in the kingdom of God is God honoring and kingdom expanding. False teaching, backbiting, hypocrisy and sin are also attitudes that can start small but spread. Without genuine repentance, a big, busy church with lots of programs and a huge budget may be full of people to whom Jesus will ultimately say, “I never knew you.”