How should we think about our influence as disciples?
We tend to worry about how the world will influence us, our children, our churches, and our values, but Christians must remember that influence is a two-way street. Our Lord taught us that we are salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). The gospel is invading the world, and we are its heralds.
In one of Jesus’ shortest and strangest parables, Jesus also tells us that our influence is leaven.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matthew 13:33).
And that’s it. No plot. No character development. No explanation. No go and do likewise. But in that little sentence, you can learn the true secret to Christian influence.
First, a little background information will help set the table for us. In the ancient world, baking was a community task. Average peasants didn’t have large kitchens and specialty equipment. The family often cooked together, even whole villages would work together and share resources. “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough” (Jeremiah 7:18a).
The significance of this setting is important to Jesus’ short story and its meaning. “Three measures of flour” is possibly as much as 50 pounds, enough to make bread for 100 people or a wedding feast of some kind. Unless this is a special occasion that Jesus has in mind, this wheat is the shared pantry that might belong to a village community. Various families would make use of the stored wheat for their bread.
Additionally, the Feasting on the Word Commentary explains, “The leaven in the parable is not the same as the yeast used in modern kitchens. In the culture of Scripture, leaven is almost universally understood as something evil or unclean. … The leavening agent of the time was created by setting aside a portion of leftover bread to spoil, in order to create leaven used in future baking. Not spoiled enough, it is worthless and cannot cause the new batter to rise. Allowed to spoil too long, it not only ruins the bread but can result in food poisoning. Leaven can be fatal.”
Now the story really begins to take shape. A little village has a pantry with 50 pounds of wheat that is shared among families. According to good manners and etiquette, it is kept clean and pure. This way, the wheat can be used for whatever purpose is needed, including making unleavened bread as for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12). But for no obvious reason, this odd woman decides to add leaven to the wheat bin and contaminate the entire supply.
This sounds like a bad thing, perhaps an act of petty spite. Normally in Scripture, leaven, or yeast, is used negatively. Jesus warns just three chapters later, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). Paul makes a similar analogy to describe the sexual sin being tolerated at the church in Corinth. “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” (1 Corinthians 5:6–7). Why does Jesus say that this leaven is like the kingdom of heaven?
Stranger still, the verb being used for the woman’s action is even more nefarious. The NIV in this instance offers a weak rendering, “a woman took and mixed” the leaven. The ESV is more true to the text in this case: “a woman took and hid.” The Greek verb employed is enkrypto (ἐγκρύπτω). This is the same root used by Paul to describe the “secret” wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 2:7-9). This woman is not just spiteful. She is a culinary terrorist! In secret, she contaminated the wheat supply of an entire community, and no one knew it!
The work of the kingdom is likewise subversive. In the same way that sin had slowly poisoned the church in Corinth, the gospel can slowly work to undermine a culture gripped by the power of sin. Slowly, without any fanfare, the leaven of a disciple’s quiet influence challenges the assumptions of darkness. Prayerfully, we nudge others to see and know the kingdom growing in our midst.
The kingdom grows quietly and also disproportionately. Just as a little salt and light go a long way, a little yeast leavens the entire lump of dough. It is like the seed in Jesus' preceding parable that is hidden in the earth but grows into a tree (Matthew 13:31-32). The smallest of seeds can become a home for birds, yet it begins as a tiny speck hidden in the earth.
The startling message of the Parable of Leaven is that influence works both ways. We are subversives undermining a false and sinful order. We are truth-tellers in an age of lies. We are quite literally agents of a foreign government, spies in the service of the kingdom of heaven, here in this world committing holy espionage in plain sight.
Do not lose heart when our influence and impact seem small. Such leaven as this is changing the world.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.