A Little Leaven

by Lois Tverberg

“To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was all leavened.” Luke 13:20 – 21

In this very short parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to leaven in a favorable way, describing how a very small beginning point can increase invisibly until it has had a powerful impact on the whole thing.

bread in ovenIt is interesting that he uses “leaven” in a positive way, when it is uniformly used negatively throughout the Bible. This may be because of how leavening was done in biblical times. To make bread dough rise, a lump of old, fermented dough from the day before would be mixed into the new lump of dough. This deliberate contamination was what caused the bread to rise. Outside of this parable, the image is always negative.

Jesus inserts the detail that the kingdom is like “leaven, which a woman took and hid three seahs of flour.” A seah is a measure of about 6 liters, so three seahs would be 18 liters – almost 5 gallons in volume. This would be a large amount of flour, enough to make quite a feast. A small lump of leavened dough would have quite a powerful effect to be able to leaven all of that dough.

Interestingly, when Jesus speaks of the woman using three seahs of flower, He appears to be alluding to Genesis 18:6:

Sarah and bread“Abraham said to Sarah, ‘get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

The reference to “three seahs of flour” is unique to that particular story in the Old Testament about when God and his angels visiting Abraham and Sarah.

Jesus is most likely alluding to Sarah, who baked leavened bread and served it to these honored guests! By highlighting this unique detail, Jesus’ audience would have instantly remembered the well-known story about God coming to visit Abraham, the greatest hero of the Jewish people.

It appears that Jesus is using a rabbinic technique to “redeem” leaven in this case, hinting that Sarah used it in a good way when making a large batch of bread for their holy visitors. Probably no modern-day pastor would use such a subtle reference, but that technique is common in rabbinic teachings. References to Abraham and Sarah, some of the greatest heroes, were especially common.

Even though leaven is normally used negatively to describe contamination, as hypocrisy had infiltrated the Pharisees, we see here that Jesus is saying that it can have a positive side too. It shows us that God has the power to “contaminate” our evil world as leaven affects the whole loaf. He can stand back and watch as the tiniest numbers of people, can by his power, spread this “contamination” throughout the whole world.

Photo: Chmee2

The Mustard Seed

by Lois Tverberg

Mustard Seed“What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.” Luke 13:18-19

The parable of the mustard seed is difficult to understand. What was Jesus’ point, and why did he tell it? What was it saying about God’s redemption through Jesus?

We can get a clue from seeing that it is told along side another parable – the parable of the yeast that works its way through the whole loaf of bread. Often Jesus told parables in pairs, and both stories would have the same main point. So, by comparing parables, we can see their common, important themes.

Both parables emphasize the hiddenness or invisibility at first, but then the powerful effect later on. They are both an answer to the question that Jesus was asked at one point by the Pharisees:

Luke 17:20 Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, `Here it is,’ or `There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”

Those who questioned him were waiting for God to break into history to destroy all the wicked in one large battle, and they assumed that the Messiah would lead the war. In essence they are asking, “If you are the king, where is the battle? Why aren’t you out shedding blood? Where is your glory?”

Tree of lifeJesus answers with this parable to tell them that he is a different kind of king than they expected. Instead of coming now to destroy the wicked, he has come to begin a kingdom by his own death and atonement. He has come to show mercy toward any who would allow him to be their King and Lord. This kingdom would consist of those who would let God’s reign be established over their hearts, one at a time.

God’s power, manifested in a believer’s life, is invisible at first, but has a powerful effect as it grows deeper in their lives. And, the group of people among whom God’s reign has been established, moves outward in h his power to expand his redemptive reign. In the end, God’s kingdom is like the tree in Ezekiel 31:6, that is a mighty, powerful, and unstoppable. Then, Jesus’ reign will be fully established, and he will be the seen as the glorious king that His people had been waiting for all along.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski