This articles owes a debt to an article in Touchstone – Dylan Pahman’s The Yeast We Can Do. Unfortunately right now it is behind the paywall. You could always subscribe.
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” – Matthew 13:33
Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” – Matthew 16:6
Yeast or leaven must be one of the most powerful metaphors in the bible. It is used both as a parable for the Kingdom itself, and for the forces that oppose the kingdom. If I were the disciples I might have asked Jesus to stop and tell us which. You can’t have it both ways. Nevertheless, I think there is a common thread in both cases that Jesus was calling to the disciples’ attention. It only takes a small amount of something compared to yeast to make or ruin the entire creation.
Passover, the Jewish festival that Holy Week fulfilled, contains an interesting additional law and practice. The Jews were commanded to eat unleavened bread. We know this from Exodus with the comment that it is bread made in haste. But the standing law given for Passover for succeeding generations was that for seven days they should eat unleavened bread, and on the first remove all leaven from the house. Anyone caught eating leavened bread would not just be ceremonially unclean for the Passover, but would be “cut off from Israel”. (Exodus 12:15) The old housewives’ tale is that this is the origin of “spring cleaning”. The Rabbis, thinking like Eve in the garden and observing the severity of the penalty, have erected even higher walls. To avoid even the slightest possibility of owning leaven under their roof, some Jews will sell their household for a day to a trusted agent buying it back after the Passover. The law always encourages following the letter and not the spirit.
Coming into Christianity, the ritual laws were no longer binding. The Passover week became Holy Week. The Christian’s preparation became the 40 days of lent. And the historic practices of lent were: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. One of the Desert Fathers, Evagrios, made the connection between good leaven and bad leaven. Reflecting on 1 John 2:16 – “For all that is in the world– the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life– is not from the Father but is from the world” – he called out gluttony, avarice and pride as the “frontline demons”. These were the bad yeast to watch for. When simple gluttony held sway, it would not be long before lust would follow. The person given to greed is easily swayed by wrath and envy. Whatever you might think of Evagrios’ progression of sin built around the seven deadly sins, the metaphor of leaven makes sense. It is certainly easier to laugh off a small indulgence. It is a lifetime of laughing off small indulgences that builds to greater sins and ruin of the entire life. A lifetime of disrespecting the Word is built upon that Sunday where sleeping in just felt better. A deathbed of terror and not knowing what to say is constructed from a lifetime of neglecting even our bedtime prayers.
Looking at the Sermon on the Mount and specifically Matthew 6, Evagrious countered that bad leaven with what he put forward as the good. Jesus there recommends direct almsgiving in private where the Father issues the reward. He follows that with the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer which in Matthew he precedes with “go into you private closet”. Like yeast, you don’t see this working publically. And following that prayer, Jesus issues the expectation to fast. Also in secret, adding “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face”. The Lenten practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting are connected as the small things that counteract those frontline demons of avarice, pride and gluttony. The greedy are called to give it away, the prideful to bend the knee in prayer, the gluttonous to fast for a time.
The Church Fathers were much more comfortable than most Lutheran ministers with directing works. But truth be told, so was Jesus. And there is definitely a way that these things can be made into a new law. When almsgiving, prayer and fasting would become the outward magic that we never let touch our hearts, we are being as pharisaical as selling our possessions for a day. These things become the metaphor for the Kingdom when we allow them to work on us, when that Spirit kneads into our heart the message of the gospel. Because we have received mercy, we are able to be merciful. Because Christ is our mediator, we can call God our Father. Because we have the promise of the Kingdom and the New Jerusalem, this world and its kingdoms’ glory can be turned away. Our abundance and our food comes not from mere bread.
Our faith, our families, our congregations, and our society might seem very brittle because we have not kneaded that lump of dough. We’ve let the leaven of the Kingdom sit on the surface. We’ve foresworn the spiritual practices in our lives. As James says, “be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in the mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (James 1:22-24) Jesus might put it somewhat differently, “some seed fell on hard packed ground where it was quickly devoured”. (Luke 8:5) Working the leaven through the dough, preparing the soil, changing the hard heart is not magic. It is like leaven. It starts small, and then works throughout the dough.