In the mustard-seed we saw the kingdom growing great by its inherent vitality; in the leaven we see it growing great by a contagious influence. There, the increase was attained by development from within; here, by acquisitions from without. It is not that there are two distinct ways in which the Gospel may gain complete possession of a man, or Christianity gain complete possession of the world; but that the one way in which the work advances is characterized by both these features, and consequently two pictures are required to exhibit both sides of the same thing.
The thought which is peculiar to this parable, the specific lesson which it teaches, is, the power of the Gospel, acting like contagion, to penetrate, assimilate, and absorb the world in which it lies. The kingdom grows great by permeating in secret through the masses, changing them gradually into its own nature, and appropriating them to itself.
The material frame-work which contains the spiritual lesson here is, in its main features, easily understood. Immediately below the surface, indeed, lie some hard questions; but all that is necessary is easy, and the discussion of difficulties, although it may well repay the labour, is by no means essential.
The chief use of leaven in the preparation of bread is, as I understand, to produce a mechanical effect. A certain chemical change is caused in the first instance by fermentation in the nature of the fermented substance, and for the sake of that change the process is in certain other manufactures introduced; but along with the chemical change which takes place in the nature of the substance, a mechanical change is also effected in its form, and for the sake of this latter and secondary result fermentation is resorted to in the baking of bread. The moist, soft, yet dense mass of dough, is by fermentation thrown into the form of a sponge. Owing to the consistence of the material, the openings made by the ferment remain open, and consequently the lump, which would otherwise have been solid, is penetrated in every direction by an innumerable multitude of small cavities. Through these the heat in the oven obtains equal access to every portion of the dough; and thus, though the loaf is of considerable thickness, it is not left raw in the heart. Other methods, essentially different from fermentation, are in modern practice adopted in the preparation of bread; but by whatever means channels may be opened for the admission of heat to every particle of the dough, the result is practically the same as that which is obtained by leavening. The operator converts the mass of solid dough into swollen, light, porous, spongy leaven, by introducing into it a small quantity of matter already in a state of fermentation. It is the nature of that substance or principle to infect the portion that lies next it; and thus, if the contiguous matter be a susceptible conductor like moistened flour, it spreads until it has converted the whole mass. The knowledge of this process is not so universal amongst us as it was then in Galilee, or is still in many countries, because baking by fermentation, especially in the northern division of the island, is not much practised in private families. In countries where bread is prepared by that method, and every family prepares its own, the process is, of course, universally familiar.
The three measures of meal, which together make an ephah, were the understood quantity of an ordinary batch in the economics of a family, and as such are several times incidentally mentioned in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. See, for example, the preparation of bread by Sarah, as it is narrated in Gen. xviii. The various suggestions which inquirers have made regarding the specific significance of the three measures of meal, are interesting and instructive. As they do not directly traverse the lines of the analogy, they are entitled to a respectful hearing; but the subject is subordinate, and the meaning must ever be comparatively obscure. Whether the three measures are understood to point to the three continents of the world then known, or to the three sons of Noah by whom the world was peopled, or to spirit, soul, and body, the constituent elements of human nature, an interesting and useful conception is obtained. Each of these suggestions contains a truth, and that, too, a truth which is germane to the main lesson of the parable.
The same historic incidents which show that three measures were the ordinary quantity, show also that the women of the house were the ordinary operators. Baking the bread of the household was accounted women's work; as men ploughed and sowed in the field, women kneaded and baked at the oven. An inversion of this order would have been noticed as incongruous, and presented a difficulty. Exceptions may be found, both in ancient and modern times, but the representation in the text proceeds obviously upon the ordinary habits of society. On this account, although I willingly listen to interesting and ingenious speculations regarding the significance of the woman who hid the leaven among the meal, I cannot accept them as the foundation of any positive doctrine. I am jealous, not without cause, of ecclesiastical tendencies and prepossessions in the interpretation of the parables. It is quite true that both in the discourses of the Lord and in the epistles of his followers, reference is made sometimes to the community or communities of believers constituted as a Church; but the Church in the Scriptures is a much simpler affair than it is in ecclesiastical history. Moreover, in these lessons which were taught by the Lord in the beginning of the Gospel, we find much about the individual man, and about the aggregate of mankind, but little about the Church in its visible organization. Accordingly, while I endeavour to keep my mind open for everything that the Scriptures bring to the Church, I am disposed to shut the door hard against anything that I suspect the Church is bringing to the Scriptures. When the woman who kneaded the dough, and the woman who lost and found the silver coin, come forward, backed by much learned authority, saying, We are the Church, I stand on my guard against deception, and carefully examine their credentials. A man took the mustard-seed and sowed it in his field; a woman took the leaven and hid it in three measures of meal. The two parables are in this respect strictly parallel; in both alike an ordinary act in rural economy is performed, and in either it is performed by a person of the appropriate sex. The converse would have been startling and inexplicable. Whatever the operator may represent in the sowing of the seed, the operator in the hiding of the leaven represents the same. To neglect the strict parallelism between the two cases, and attribute some meaning to the selection of a woman as the operator in the one, which the selection of a man in the other does not convey, is, as I apprehend the matter, to forsake the main track of the analogy, and follow by-paths which lead to no useful result. The same divine hand that dropped the word of eternal life as a mustard-seed into the ground, also hid the word of eternal life as leaven in the ephah of flour. Looking to the spiritual significance of the two parables, we have in both cases the same act, and in both cases, therefore, the same actor.
 To the question what the woman specially represents in the parable, Draeseke answers, "The grace of God." -- ii.263.
A question of deep interest and considerable difficulty arises from the fact that here, and here only, the greatest good -- the kingdom of God in the world -- is unequivocally compared to leaven, whereas this similitude, in all other places of Scripture where it occurs, either stands indefinitely for progress of any kind, or expressly represents the energy of evil. I assume without argument that in this parable the diffusion of leaven through the mass represents the diffusion of good in the world, although here and there, both in ancient and modern times, an inquirer appears who understands the leaven in this place to predict the prevalence of false doctrines and practices in the Church. This interpretation no man would voluntarily adopt in the first instance, for it is obviously incongruous with the signification of the kingdom in every other parable of the group; but some have permitted themselves to be driven into it by a difficulty that threatens on the opposite side. Because in other portions of Scripture they find leaven employed as an emblem of evil, they think themselves obliged to take it as a representative of evil here. But the difficulty which is presented by the use of a type to denote good, which is elsewhere employed to denote evil, must be fairly met and explained: to escape an imaginary difficulty we must not plunge into a real mistake. I am convinced that here, as in many similar cases, that which at first sight and on the surface wears the appearance of harshness, will be found, on fuller consideration, to contain a new beauty, and impart additional power.
It is obvious, in the first place, from the references made to it both by the Lord and his apostles, and especially from the iteration of the same maxim by Paul in two distinct epistles, that the similitude was current and familiar among the people as a proverb. It is conceded, that apart from this parable, wherever its application is expressly indicated, it is employed to designate the progress of evil; but it ought to be borne in mind that Paul has twice, in the same words, enunciated the universal proposition, "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (1 Cor. v.6; Gal. v.9). By expressly mentioning the leaven of malice and wickedness in connection with this proposition, he leaves room for the supposition that there may be also a leaven of truth and holiness. In like manner, the Lord in another place warns his followers to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy; but he nowhere says that leaven is hypocrisy. Leaven does, indeed, illustrate the method in which falsehood spreads; but it may, for aught that is said in the Scriptures, illustrate also the manner in which truth advances, when it has gotten a footing in the world or in a man. If truth and error, though opposite in their nature, are like each other in their tendency to advance, as if by contagion; and if error is in this respect like leaven, then truth must be in this respect like leaven too. When two things are in a certain aspect like each other, and one of them is in the same aspect like a third thing, the other must also be like that third thing, provided the point of view remain unchanged. Leaven represents evil not in its nature, but only in the manner of its progress; and in this respect the symbol is equally applicable to the opposite good.
This argument, indeed, may be carried one step further. It is not enough to show that no loss of meaning is sustained by the application of this analogy to a new and opposite class of facts; a positive gain thereby accrues. The circumstance that in all other places of Scripture in which the symbolical meaning of leaven is specifically applied, it is, in point of fact, employed to designate the progress of evil, instead of obscuring, rather reflects additional light on the comparison as it is used in this parable. The Teacher who speaks here is sovereign. By him the worlds were made, and by him redemption wrought. In both departments he executes his own will: when he speaks, he speaks with authority. Observing that the principle which ordinarily enters and pervades human hearts is evil, a leaven of hypocrisy, he does not submit to that state of things as necessary and permanent: this is, indeed, the condition of the world; but he has come to change it. Such is the direction of the current, and the proverb which compares moral evil to a leaven correctly describes its insinuating and persevering course; but here is one who has power to turn the river of water so that it shall flow backward to its source. Corruption has, indeed, spread through the world as leaven spreads through the dough, but here is Truth incarnate, another leaven, introduced into the mass, having power to saturate all with good, and thereby ultimately to cast forth evil from the world. The kingdom of darkness, for example, comes secretly, -- the wiles of the devil constitute his policy and secure his success; the kingdom of God, although opposite in essence, is similar in the method of its advance, for it "cometh not with observation." The wheat and the darnel were opposite in character and consequences as light and darkness, but they were precisely alike in the manner of their growth. The loyal army adopts the same tactics which the rebels employ, while it strives to defend the throne which they are leagued to overthrow.
Thus, it is not enough to say that although the diffusion of evil in God's intelligent creatures is like the diffusion of leaven in the dough, Jesus may notwithstanding employ the same analogy to indicate how grace grows: we may proceed further and affirm, as Stier has ingeniously suggested, that because evil has often been compared to leaven in the manner of its advance, Jesus adopts that similitude to illustrate the aggressive, pervasive power of the truth.
Boldly, as a sovereign may, this Teacher seizes a proverb which was current as an exponent of the adversaries' successful stratagems, and stamps the metal with the image and superscription of the rightful King. The evil spreads like leaven; you tremble before its stealthy advance and relentless grasp: but be of good cheer, disciples of Jesus, greater is He that is for you than all that are against you; the word of life which has been hidden in the world, hidden in believing hearts, is a leaven too. The unction of the Holy One is more subtle and penetrating and subduing than sin and Satan. Where sin abounded grace shall much more abound.
The appropriation by Christ and to his kingdom of a similitude which had previously been applied in an opposite sense may be illustrated by many parallel examples in the Scriptures. Of these, as far as I know, the different and opposite figurative significations of the serpent are the most striking and appropriate. The conception of secret motion, followed in due time by a surely planted effectual stroke, which is associated with the faculties and habits of a serpent, Christ found appropriated as a type to express the power of evil: but he did not permit it to remain so appropriated; he spoiled the Egyptian of this jewel, and in as far as it possessed value, enriched with it his own Israel. The serpent, as a metaphor, was in practice as completely thirled to the indication of evil as leaven had been, but Jesus counselled his disciples to "be wise as serpents." A similar example occurs in the parable of the unjust steward: it teaches that the skill of the wicked in doing evil should be imitated by Christians in doing good. Christ acts as king and conqueror. He strips the slain enemy of his sharpest weapons, and therewith girds his own faithful followers. Whatever wisdom and power may have been employed against them, wisdom and power inconceivably greater are wielded on their side.
 "Thus in different passages the lion is used as a figure of Satan, but also of Christ; the serpent as a figure of the enemy, but also of the wisdom needful to the apostles; birds as a figure of believing trustfulness, but also of the devil catching away the word." -- Lange in loc.
We shall be better prepared to appreciate for practical purposes the peculiar meaning which the symbol bears in this parable if we advert, in the first place, to its ordinary meaning in other parts of Scripture. Both in the typical worship of the Old Testament and in the doctrinal teaching of the New, leaven is ordinarily employed to denote the insinuating, contagious advance of sin. When the Hebrews were instructed to cast all leaven out of their houses during the solemnities of the Passover, their lawgiver meant to teach them by type that in worshipping God through his ordinances they should cast all malice and wickedness out of their hearts. In like manner, when the great Teacher warned his followers to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees, he meant that they should eschew on the one hand the lie of self-righteous superstition, and on the other the lie of libertine unbelief. The Apostle Paul, too, while he does not forbid another use, employs the conception, in point of fact, to illustrate the presence and power of sin.
Evil is a mysterious, self-propagating principle, like leaven. In the fact of the fall a piece of this leaven was hidden in the mass, and all mankind have consequently become corrupted. The leaven of sin that touched humanity at the first has infected the whole. The fact of a universal corruption appears in all history, and its origin is explained in the beginning of Genesis. The whole lump has been leavened: break off a bit at any place, at any time, and you will find it tainted. "The innocence of childhood" is a fond, false phrase, employed to conceal the terrible reality: there is no innocence, no purity, except that which comes through the gift of God, the sacrifice of Christ, and the ministry of the Spirit.
Idolatry, for example, is a leaven that must have been small in its beginning, but at a very early date it had grown great. The world was idolatrous when Abraham was called out to become the nucleus of a religious nation; and even his descendants, though constituted as a commonwealth expressly for the purpose of maintaining the worship of the true God while all the world beside had sunk into idolatry, were, through contact with the contaminating leaven, frequently overrun by the same sin. It became necessary that they should be poured from vessel to vessel, and tried as by fire, in order to keep them separate.
Small and apparently harmless Popery began: with the power and perseverance of a principle in nature it spread and defiled the Church. How completely that leaven penetrated the lump may be seen everywhere throughout Europe, in the architecture, sculpture, paintings, -- in the laws, habits, and language that have come down from the middle ages to our own day. The evil spirit of the Papacy has intruded into every place; into the councils of kings, into the laws of nations, into the births, marriages, and deaths of the people. Between ruler and subject, between husband and wife, between parent and child, comes the priest, gliding in like water through seamy walls, sapping their foundations. Into the inmost heart of maid, wife, mother, creeps the confessional, tainting, souring, defiling society in its springs, -- a leaven of malice and wickedness, a leaven at once of Pharisee and Sadducee, a superstition that believes everything in alliance with a scepticism that believes nothing, and all combined to conceal the salvation of God and enslave the spirits of men. Beware of the leaven of the Papacy.
Other things of grosser and more material mould follow the law of leaven in their progress from small to great, until they obtain the mastery of a community or a man. Such, for example, are the use of ardent spirits in Scotland and the use of opium in China. A hundred years ago how small was either bit! but being a bit of leaven, when it is once introduced it creeps stealthily forward, the appetite growing by what it feeds on, until it dominates, and in some cases utterly destroys. These creeping leavens stain the beauty and waste the strength of nations. Some tribes of Indians in North America have been annihilated mainly by this process; and at this day the Canadian Parliament, through a benevolent law, sanctioned by the Sovereign, entirely prohibit the sale of spirits to the Indians, and thus save from extinction the remnants of the tribes that live under our protection. Those subtile and powerful material agents which create abnormal appetites and influence the moral habits of a whole people, afford ample room for gravest thought both to Christians and patriots.
The fact acknowledged in Scripture, and manifest in all experience, that evil has transfused itself through humanity like leaven, serves to bring out in deeper relief the comforting converse truth which Christ has embodied in this parable. The universal diffusion of corruption in the world becomes a dark ground whereon the Lord may more vividly portray the progress and final triumph of holiness. Good introduced among the good is not much noticed; but when good assails, overcomes, and transforms evil, its power and beauty are conspicuously displayed. Employing the sad facts already stated as shadows filled in to make the lines of light more visible, I shall proceed now to express and enforce positively some of the practical lessons which the parable contains.
1. Christ, the Son of God, became man and dwelt among us. Behold the piece of leaven that has been plunged into the dead mass of the world! "In him was life, and the life was the light of men" (John i.4). The whole is not leavened yet, but the germ has been introduced. The meaning of Immanuel is, "God with us:" the incarnation is the link that binds the fallen to the throne of God. One without sin and with omnipotence has become our brother, -- has taken hold of our nature, and will keep hold of it to the end. He will not fail nor be discouraged. To him every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess: the prophecy has been written, and the history will follow. In the meantime, while we wait for the accomplishment of the promise, we may obtain from this parable some glimpses of the method by which the change will be effected at last.
Leaven consists in, or at least causes, fermentation. The name suggests the mechanical process of boiling. The most sublime and awful scenes which nature has ever presented have been produced in this way. When great masses are affected, a boiling becomes unspeakably grand and terrible. This earth, now so solid beneath, and so green on the surface, seems to have been once a boiling mass. Those mountains that cleave the clouds are the bubbles that rose to the surface and were congealed ere they had time to subside again: there they stand to-day, monuments of the fact. The moral government of God is like the natural. The Maker's method, when he would bring down the high things and exalt the low, is to throw in an ingredient which will produce fermentation. He can make the world of spirit fervid as well as this material globe. The earth is shaken by moral causes. The Gospel sends a sword before it brings peace. Wars and rumours of wars rend the nations, and make men's hearts melt within their breasts. In some cases it is obviously Christian truth plunged into the mass that agitates the nations; and if we were able to discern the links of cause and effect a few degrees further into the fringes of the cloud that encircles God's throne, we would perhaps see the same central fact setting in motion more distant forces. Our life is so short, and our range of vision so contracted, that we cannot observe the progress which the kingdom makes. Sometimes, and in some places, it seems to recede; but when the end comes it will be seen that every step of apparent retreat was the couching in preparation for another spring. The kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ. The captive's chains shall be broken, whether they bind more directly the body or the soul, although the ancient political organizations of Europe, and the more recent fabrics of America, should be torn asunder and tossed away in the process, as foam is tossed from the crest of a wave upon the shore. "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. Be wise now therefore, O ye kings; be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him" (Ps. ii.9-12).
2. Converted men, women, and children are let into openings of corrupt humanity, and hidden in its heart. There they cannot lie still: they stir, and effervesce, and inoculate the portions with which they are in closest contact. In this respect the lesson is the same with that which is taught in those other short parables of Jesus, -- "Ye are the light of the world. Ye are the salt of the earth."
Nor is the conception essentially different from that of Christ or his word dropped into the lump of humanity; for Christians have no life and no expansive power, except in as far as Christ dwells in their hearts by faith. They are vessels which contain the truth, and when these vessels are hidden under the folds of families and larger communities, the word of life, which is within them, touches and tells upon their neighbours.
The most recent experience of the Church exhibits the kingdom spreading like leaven, as vividly, perhaps, as any experience since apostolic times. By contact with one soul, already fervid with new life, other souls, hitherto dead, become fervid too. One sinner saved, his heart burning within his breast, as he consciously communes with his Saviour, touches a meeting and sets it all aglow; the prayer-meeting thus moved touches the congregation and throws its settled lees into an unwonted and violent commotion; this assembly, all throbbing with the cry, What must we do to be saved? infects a city; and the city so infected communicates its fervour to the land; and a nation thus on fire kindles another by its far-reaching sympathy beyond intervening seas. Thus some portions of the world have been thrown into such a state of effervescence, by the leaven of the Gospel hidden in their heart, that for a time the sound of praise for sin forgiven has risen in the highways and market-places, louder than that other old, strong cry, What shall we eat, and what shall we drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?
The leaven, like gravitation, follows the same law on smaller spheres that it follows on the larger. Brother infects sister, and sister brother; parent child, and child parent; shopman shopmate. We often lament the contagious influence of evil, and it is right that we should; but it is an unthankful, unhopeful spirit, that thinks and speaks of the dark side only. Oh, thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? The new life which Christ has brought into the world is a leaven too. Working on the same method, but backed by a mightier power, good will yet overcome evil, -- life will destroy death. Life from the Lord and in the Lord, though small at first as to the number of persons whom it animates, will increase until it fill the world. It will absorb surrounding death, and in absorbing quicken it. He that sat upon the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. xxi.5).
3. There is yet another branch of the practical lesson which ought not to be overlooked: The life of faith, when it is hidden in the heart, spreads like leaven through the man, occupying and assimilating all the faculties of his nature and all the course of his life. The whole lump of the individual must be leavened, as well as the whole lump of the world. Christ will not be satisfied until he get every man in the world for his own, and every part of each. Whatever amount of ground there may be for the judgment of some expositors that the three measures of meal in the parable represent spirit, soul, and body, the constituents of human nature, certain it is that if the leaven of the kingdom is deposited in the heart, it will not cease until it has interpenetrated the human trinity and conformed all to the likeness of Christ. In the new creature, as in the new world, "dwelleth righteousness." That which is now laid on the conscience of Christians as a law will yet emerge from their life as a fact, -- "Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God."
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From a circumstance not expressly mentioned in the parable, but obviously contained in the nature of the case, springs a thought of tender and solemn import. The piece of leaven was hid in the meal, and the whole quantity, in consequence, was converted into leaven; but the leaven will not spread through meal that is dry; the meal is not susceptible, receptive, until it is saturated with water.
Within some persons, some families, some congregations, some communities, the leaven of truth has been deposited for a long time, and yet they are not moved, they are not changed. The leaven remains as it came, a stranger; all around, notwithstanding its presence, is still, is dead. It is when the Spirit is poured out as floods that the leaven of the kingdom spreads with quickening, assimilating power. I will pour out my Spirit upon you, saith the Lord: the promise is sent to generate the prayer, as a sound calls forth an echo. Behold, I come quickly, says Christ: Even so, come, Lord Jesus, respond Christians. Catch the promise as it falls, and send it back like an echo to heaven. I will pour out my Spirit upon you: Pour out thy Spirit, Lord, on us, as floods on the dry ground; so shall the word already lying in our Bibles and our memories run and be glorified in our life and through our land.