Summary: As individuals and as a church where do we stand when it comes to being the leaven? Are we pursuing to build a strong communion with Jesus Christ or being lured by the leaven of legalism, liberalism and materialism?
Introduction: This passage/verse may seem tricky because that was doubtless the reaction of the disciples when they heard this little story. Our Lord arrested them with this story and shocked them somewhat. When he told them that there was a woman who hid leaven in three measures of meal they must immediately have thought, "What a dirty trick! What a sneaky thing to do!" Perhaps it does not strike us that way, but this is because we are not in their shoes. We do not understand the symbols as Jesus used them. So the purpose of our study together is to put ourselves back in their place and to hear this story as they heard it.
For this is one of those parables which has been greatly misinterpreted. It has been treated in a very cavalier fashion and its meaning has been grossly distorted into something entirely different from what our Lord intended. Most of the major commentators on this passage seem to throw all principles of interpretation to the winds and to take no notice of how Scripture uses these symbols in other places. So they arrive at a meaning which is simply a result of their own wishful thinking.
The usual interpretation is that the leaven is the gospel and the woman is the church. The church is to take the gospel and put it into the world of humanity which is represented by the three measures of meal. The gospel quietly but surely will work away like leaven, like yeast in bread, until all of humanity is reached by the gospel and the whole world is changed. Then, finally, the kingdom of heaven will come in. Though that is far and away the most popular interpretation of this parable, it does not line up with the complete counsel of God!
For here we are, two thousand years after the time our Lord told this story. And there are outstanding, increasingly significant signs, from day to day almost, which indicate that we are nearing the time which our Lord at the end of this series of parables called the "close of the age." If that is the correct interpretation then we should see the world almost completely leavened by the gospel, almost entirely Christian. But what are the actual facts? Well, you know as well as I that never in all of history has there been more hatred, more crime, more violence, more injustice, more wretchedness, and more vicious evil among mankind than there is in our day. Of all the centuries, historians agree, the 20th is the bloodiest. There is more persecution of Christians in the 20th century than there ever was in any other, including the 1st. The world is a hundred times more pagan today than it ever was in the days of the Apostle Paul.
But in this parable of the leaven Jesus comes nearer home than in any other parable, because he takes it from the kitchen of an ordinary home.
Why was the Kingdom of Heaven likened to the Leaven?
1. Communion with God
Jesus is using here a very common picture from any Hebrew household, and everyone present knew that he meant that this woman did an evil, and sneaky thing when she hid this leaven in the meal. So we want to look at this as they would have, with their background and their understanding of what these symbols mean.
Let's begin with the meal. It is the central thing in this story. The woman and the leaven both did something to the three measures of meal. That is what our Lord is trying to get across to us. So the central question is: "What does the meal represent?" This crowd of Jews would know instantly what he had in mind because with their Judaistic background and training in the Old Testament, their minds would flash back immediately to one of the most common offerings in Israel -- the meal offering, consisting of three measures of meal precisely prescribed to be unleavened, i.e., without any yeast in it at all.
Very likely many of them would think back to the very first time the phrase "three measures of meal" appears in the Scriptures. It is in Genesis 18. Abraham was in his tent by the oaks of Mamre one day and he looked out the door and saw three strangers approaching. He went to meet them, for strangers were an uncommon sight in those days and anyone passing by was offered hospitality. He welcomed them and offered them, according to the Scripture (Genesis 18:6-7), three measures of meal baked into bread which Sarah made in the tent while they were fellowshipping together out under the trees. During their conversation it suddenly broke upon Abraham's astonished intelligence that God himself was visiting him, accompanied by two angels. That was the beginning of the use of the three measures of meal as a symbol.