When Heaven Is Leaven and God Is a Woman – July 26

A sermon based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 KJV

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 26, 2020

by Rev. Scott Elliott


Two weeks ago, I mentioned that I think  words in the Gospels that scholars can trace back directly to Jesus are very Holy. They are literally a part of what Jesus taught and they can lead us to Jesus’ Way.  “The Parable of the Leaven” in the Lectionary text for today that Laura just read so well is considered by most scholars to be traceable back to Jesus. It is one of his stories.  So just like two weeks ago,  I am pretty excited about looking at this very Holy parable that Jesus’ told. The parable is very short –it’s Jesus’ shortest. It’s a small part of our Gospel lesson but in large part I am going to focus on it today.  I am going to read it a couple of times as we consider it.

We are using the King James Version today because it is a more accurate translation of the wording Jesus’ used–  and HIS audience heard:

“The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.”

This may seem off topic– but stick with me– whenever I hear any translation of  “The Parable of the Leaven” I think of my days mixing dough as a prep cook and manager in pizza parlors.  One of my jobs was to make pizza dough.   Pizza parlor dough requires yeast, a form of leaven.  It also requires exactly three measures of flour,  which is fifty pounds. I put a packet of yeast in a giant Hobart mixer bowl with some water. After the yeast fermented I emptied a fifty-pound bag of flour into the bowl and I mixed it.  To modern ears that pretty much sounds like what the woman is said to have done in our lesson. And it is even described in the more modern translations as sounding precisely like what I did.  Here’s the New Revised Standard Version:

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Sure sounds like I did exactly that, right?  I took yeast and mixed it in with that same amount of flour until all of the flour was leavened. Whether that makes pizza a Biblical food, or not,  could be the subject of another sermon, but today we are going to dig deep into the meanings of the wording Jesus likely used in his parable and try to tease out meaning from his context for us in ours.

So, let’s listen again to the King James Version and notice this time how Jesus does not say yeast, but leaven.  And also note how the woman baker is said to hide the leaven in meal– meal is wheat flour.  “Leaven”  and the woman hiding leaven are important parts of the story that we miss in the NRSV and other modern translations.  Alright, here’s the King James Version one more time:

“The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.”

So, what do we do with the message that God’s realm is like leaven hidden by a woman in fifty pounds of meal?  What does that mean?  Does it mean anything holy?

I mentioned two weeks ago that Jesus’ parables are meant to tease the mind. It helps if we try and put ourselves in the mind set of Jesus’ audience, their minds are the ones Jesus first sought to tease.  So, it can help to think like they did, as best we can. To get to the ancient mind set we need to understand that my mixing yeast and flour in a pizza parlor was not in reality much at all like how a woman in First Century Palestine would have done it.  She made the leaven from scratch. She ground the flour by hand. She mixed the fifty pounds of flour by hand.

I bought the yeast and flour and put it in an industrial sized mixer that churned it with relative ease at the push of button. When it was done, I wrestle the fifty pounds of dough into a plastic bag and placed it in a container in a walk-in cooler to rise.  Often the dough rose up so big in the walk-in that it would fall out of the container and I’d have to wrestle with much bigger lump of dough to get back in.  Having made literally tons of that dough in fifty-pound batches in a giant electric mixer, I cannot conceive one person – male or female–  being able to mix a single fifty-pound batch of dough by hand all at once. They have to do it piece meal

Of course, it is a female in the story who spreads the kingdom of heaven out in the parable. In the context of First Century Palestine she would have been understood as a peasant woman, that’s who ground and mixed flour. She’s an ordinary woman, but she is doing extraordinary things– as Jesus tells us heaven is in her hands. Heaven is the leaven that she hides in an exceptionally generous amount of flour.

Fifty pounds of leavened flour is far too large to make just daily bread for herself or even her family. Fifty pounds of leavened dough risen large is a lot of potential bread– I cannot emphasize that enough. An adult can probably hand mix upwards to about two pounds of flour at a time which makes a very hefty loaf but it’s only a small portion of the dough. So, the audience in Jesus’ day understood the woman in the parable would have had to mix and knead for hours, and that she was making more than she needed, she was making this for others.

As I eluded to already, the woman would have had to first grind wheat berries for hours to get the fifty pounds of flour before she started mixing. All of this labor-intensive dough preparation from scratch, in the hands of an ordinary woman, would have been in the minds of Jesus and his audience when he told the parable. We miss that in our mind set. And there is something else we miss, back in Jesus’ day bakers did not have yeast in packets like I dumped in the mixer. Bakers used fermenting dough as leaven, what we call “sour dough.” The baker saved dough from an older batch, let it go sour and then worked it into subsequent batches to get the bread to rise.

In Northern California where I grew up  extra sour-sourdough bread was a local thing, and it has always been my favorite bread. It’s hard to find anywhere else. Sourdough bread is very flavorful, and people in Jesus day no doubt thought sourdough was good too. Leavened bread was common and popular. But there was a twist back then, sourdough leaven, in the mind set of Jesus’ culture, had negative connotations. Leaven “to the ancient Jewish ear was foremost an unclean thing. It was one of the things banned from the house during the highest holy days in ancient Israel.” 1  Since people cleaned it out of the house on holy days, that meant it was in the house at ordinary times. Why? Because it makes bread rise, not only making it lighter but larger and flavor full. Leavened bread was popular, even if the leavening agent had a bad symbolic rap.

Given all of this contextual stuff, here’s how the parable was likely heard in the context Jesus told it:   “The kingdom of heaven is like a wad of unclean food that a peasant woman snuck into fifty pounds of flour to infused it into everything created from the flour. ” Now, that gets our attention, doesn’t it? Heaven is like what? Professor Stephen Patterson points out this short parable is “[a] few words wrapped around a simple image, they appear small and harmless, and relatively inconsequential. But they are like grenades.” 2.

Dr. Patterson is right, we are very surprised that the God we thought was male, acts like a peasant woman sneaking in unclean leaven to leaven all the dough. This next quote from Dr. Patterson is a bit long but so interesting and mind teasing, I decided to include it. He goes on to note that

“A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Or is it one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. Is this a good thing or a bad thing, leaven? . . .

Leaven . . . – which is, after all mold– was almost universally regarded as a symbol of decay in the ancient Mediterranean world. In the view of antiquity, Semitic and non-Semitic, penury fermentation represented a process of corruption and putrefaction in the mass of dough….  So maybe it is not such a good thing, this Empire that is like leaven. What will it do if it gets into our dough? Will it corrupt? Is it unholy? Unhealthy? Unclean? Perhaps that is why the woman “hides” the leaven in the flour.  What if she were caught? Would she be punished for her subversion? . . . Fifty pounds of rising flour-become-dough could get out of hand very quickly. The Empire of God is not what you expected. But large loaves, how bad can it be?    3

Wow!  I am liking the leaven and the woman who sneaks it in, both seem ordinary, but not at all in this story! One is like the kingdom of heaven. The other works hard to sneak it in. They are both extraordinary, as is the amount of flour which is not yet anyone’s daily bread, but promises to be a whole lot of people’s daily bread. Clearly the peasant woman has worked hard to prepare the makings of bread, not just for herself but in an amount she can feed her neighbors with.

We can find a lot of meanings in all this. You are probably thinking of some already, and I encourage us to all let Jesus’ lesson tease out meanings beyond what I am about to suggest.  And I have just two suggestions, an earthbound one and a cosmic one. I am sure you all can come up with many more.

Here’s the earth bound one, that I already sort of laid out: heaven hitchhikes in on the acts of ordinary people doing generous things– like being God’s hands answering the Lords’ Prayer to give us this day our daily bread, by actually doing just that. That act is infused with heaven. The making of that bread is the kingdom come, it is God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. That’s a cool meaning and sounds like a solid Jesus message to me. So that’s one holy meaning teased out in my mind: an ordinary woman doing an extraordinary thing. A holy thing.

A different more cosmic meaning teased out in my mind too. In Genesis 1 the creating moving spirit of God is “Ruah” a feminine Hebrew word meaning breath. It is God’s female breath that births creation by speaking it into existence. Another feminine word,  “Neshamah”  is used for God’s breath that is breathed into humans as God makes them out of dust in Genesis 2. When God births creation and life into being in Genesis, she does so with her female side of supreme being-ness.  You can probably see where I am going with this, in Jesus’ “Parable of the Leaven,” the creating force is also female. She infuses heaven, like leaven, into the dust of flour she as she is preparing to create, to bake it into bread. That female creating force makes sure that heaven has permeated the dusty dough mix before she bakes loaves into being. What if those loaves symbolize the bread of life? That would mean the makings in the mixture of life – the dust of earth in Genesis– are infused with heaven through and through from the start, actually before even being fully formed. God is a female who makes us out of dust already laden with heaven. That’s a cool meaning and sounds like a Jesus message to me too.

Both of the meanings I just suggested can be found and are indeed very holy teachings. God is in good acts . . .  and God is in Her good creation, including, especially, all humans. There is so much hope and promise in that . . . and God incarnate too. We can be Holy. We are created Holy.




  1. Patterson, Stephen The God of Jesus, p 136.
  2. Ibid., 135
  3. Ibid., 136