Matthew 13:33 Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.
I have been greatly influenced by the idea that the use of leaven as a symbol is a type of sin and/or always has a connotation of evil. The argument seems to be that leaven is used “consistently and unanimously” in Scripture this way. For example J. Vernon McGee, a teacher I often listened to on the radio, says, “Nowhere is leaven used as a principle of good; it is always a principle of evil.” Many have been influenced in this direction by the Scofield Reference Bible notes.
4. Summary: (1) Leaven, as a symbolic or typical substance, is always mentioned in the O. T. in an evil sense (Gen 19. 3, refs.). (2) The use of the word in the N. T. explains its symbolic meaning. It is “malice and wickedness,” as contrasted with “sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5. 6-8). It is evil doctrine (Mt. 16. 12) in its threefold form of Pharisaism, Sadduceeism, and Herodianism (Mt. 16. 6; Mk. 8. 15). The leaven of the Pharisees was externalism in religion (Mt. 23. 14, 16, 23-28); of the Sadducees, scepticism as to the supernatural and as to the Scriptures (Mt. 22. 23, 29); of the Herodians, worldliness—a Herod party amongst the Jews (Mt. 22. 16-21; Mk. 3. 6). (3) The use of the word in Mt. 13. 33 is congruous with its universal meaning.[i]
The influence of leaven most often refers to a principle of evil, but is not inherently so. According to Dictionary.com “Leaven” is “a substance that causes fermentation and expansion of dough.” It is a natural process that is neither good nor evil. Leaven’s diffusive properties – which start sparsely or slowly and spread widely – are the focal point of its use as a symbol, rather some innate evil. The influence may be either “good” or “evil.” (Those who regularly eat leavened bread apparently think it is a natural good!) Older commentators seem to recognize that it is most often used to symbolize evil, but may also symbolize good. John Gill writes, of Matthew 13:33, “…here it seems to be taken in a good sense, and the Gospel to be compared unto it; nor for its disagreeable qualities, but on account of its small quantity.” Matthew Henry says “…the preaching of the gospel is like leaven” and Albert Barnes thinks “This [parable] states the ‘way’ or ‘mode’ in which [the spread of the gospel] would be done.”
The “always evil” view of leaven ignores a few exceptions to the supposed rule. For example, in contradiction to what many think, leaven was used with some offerings. It was offered with a thank offering (Leviticus 7:13; Amos 4:5) and offered with a wave offering (Leviticus 23:17; Numbers 15:18-21 may also refer to an offering containing leaven).
If leaven is not always a principle of evil, then we need to reconsider the interpretation of Matthew 13:33 that is based on that fact and commonly heard in our churches.[ii] Perhaps we need to reconsider the older “gospel influence” interpretation also. Ultimately, we end up with two main and very opposite allegorical interpretations. First, the leaven is good (the kingdom or the church or the gospel) and is inserted into the meal, which is the world. This is the “good” interpretation. Second, the leaven is evil and is inserted into the meal, which is the kingdom of God (or the church or the gospel). This is the “bad” interpretation. In either case, the parable says the whole is leavened, so that the difference between the leaven and the dough is imperceptible. Neither of these interpretations fit the general tenor of Scripture.
Rather than trying to make the parable “walk on all fours,”[iii] why not let the story itself be the point? The woman is a woman, the leaven is leaven, and the meal is meal. This is a familiar household story of a woman baking bread, preparing it beforehand with the kneading in of the leaven (rising agent) into the dough and waiting for it to take effect. There is a beginning and an ending, with a period of waiting in between. The coming of the kingdom of God acts out over a period of time – “till the whole was leavened.”
[i] Note 4, on Matthew 13:33 – The Holy Bible, Scofield Reference Bible, C. I. Scofield, editor, New York, NY: Oxford University Press 1909/1945, p. 1016. Leaven (chametz) is referenced in 18 verses in the Old Testament, and leaven (zume) is referenced in 13 verses in the New Testament.
[ii] For example, J. R. Graves: “…this parable…prophetically teaches us that a power inimical to Christ would corrupt the pure gospel of Christ by stealthily introducing soul-destroying error into it, until the whole was leavened.” (The Parables and Prophecies of Christ Explained, J. R. Graves, Texarkana, TX: Baptist Sunday School Committee, 1887/1928 reprint, p. 57)
[iii] Making a parable “walk on all fours” means insisting that every detail of the story finds some allegorical interpretation -- such as, the woman is the church, the leaven is the gospel, the meal is the world, and the leavening action is the working of the gospel in the world. Every detail of a parable doesn’t have to have a precise point beyond supporting the basic meaning of the story itself.