Parable of the Leaven, by Father Basil William Maturin

He spoke to them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.” – Matthew 13:33

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Nothing could be greater than the contrast between this Parable and that of the Mustard Seed. It is not possible to describe in any one image the workings and methods of the Kingdom of Heaven. We read one description as it is drawn for us by the Hand of Christ in the form of some simple type, and it seems, as we fix our attention upon it, that it is a living picture of what we see and what we experience in our lives. Then we turn to another wholly different, which brings out another set of phenomena wholly different, but equally true to experience. It is impossible to bring so wide-reaching and many-sided a thing as the Kingdom of Heaven down to any simple definition. It can only be grasped through studying it from different points of view. Yet all these various analogies are drawn from the simplest events of ordinary life.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed showed us the way in which grace grows in the soul – it grows by its own law. As the seed is buried in the soil and unfolds its life, drawing its nourishment from the soil, so the gift of grace grows in the soul of man. Another life planted in the depths of the old life growing out of it, assimilating what it can and rejecting what it cannot, and at last manifesting itself in its perfect form, the outcome of the action of the seed upon the soil. But the chief point to which our attention is especially drawn is the method of the growth. It works by the law of its own organic development; ‘first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.’ All is orderly and methodical, and manifests itself in a seemly and well-shaped form. Each step in its growth is well proportioned and duly ordered.

We saw that the fact of grace developing in this way is a matter of encouragement We have not to plan the method by which it is to grow; we have but to remove all obstacles and yield ourselves to its action.

But then we ask again, Is this true to our experience? and we turn to examine our own lives. What do we see of order, of form, of anything approaching a steady development upon clearly marked and well-defined lines? What does it all look like? Is there anything that it resembles less than a growing plant, almost every stage of whose growth we can tell beforehand? Certainly there are no retrograde steps as the seed unfolds and passes steadily onwards through the stages of its growth – blade, ear, and full corn. There is no unevenness of growth. It may be held back for a time by such uncongenial circumstances as frost and cold, but remove these and it proceeds again in its proper course – a course which we can accurately foretell.

Is this the type of our spiritual growth? Is it not rather true to say that whatever else may be, this certainly is not? We look at ourselves and we say the leading feature in our spiritual life is perhaps disorder. Inward stirrings; blind, restless movements towards no clearly perceived end. Today uplifted and quickened by strong emotions, tomorrow a collapse of all that seemed gained. How indefinite and disorderly it all is. How irregular and undisciplined. What can it all end in? What does it mean, these yearnings and longings that never seem satisfied; wrestlings now with one sin, now with another? A fermentation, now in this direction, now in that, and then an apparent breakdown and a sinking earthward of the whole nature. Certainly there is nothing less like the growth of a plant There is no assurance of growth at all, nothing shapely or well formed; it all seems a blind struggle of a living force with a dead, heavy, unquickened and unspiritual nature. At times we are conscious of the great burden of vast portions of our nature, untouched by grace and presenting a weight of resistance like a mass of inert matter. Now the mind, stupid, heavy, uninterested; now the heart, cold, earthly, indifferent; now the body, weighing down the spirit as it tries to soar upwards. Is not this to many the history of their spiritual life? – a spark in the midst of a stifling mass of unilluminated matter, striving to kindle it, burning up for a moment as if it was all aglow, then smouldering with scarcely a token of life. A day of vivid faith and spiritual perception followed by a day of stupor and sensuality.

But then we turn to this Parable, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.’ And everything becomes illuminated and interpreted. What more vivid picture could be drawn of all such experiences? The leaven seething in the heart of a sodden, inert, sluggish mass of dough, probing, penetrating, fermenting, conquering the dead weight that hangs round it, that seems as if it would stifle it, but which, as a matter of fact, is its proper home. It has for this a remarkable affinity. It understands it and can live and thrive in it Nothing else could live there, such conditions would paralyze the action of any other life; but the leaven can, this is the very soil in which it can thrive, the atmosphere that develops its life. No sooner is the leaven placed in this torpid mass of matter than it knows itself to be in its true sphere of action; here it can grow and work as nowhere else. There is an out-going of its forces, an irresistible spread of its heat and energy, and it will work there till the whole is leavened. But who can understand the method of its work? What less like an organic growth this pushing and upheaving and fermentation; this constant rising and falling of the material in which it spreads? What more hopelessly lawless and irregular than all these blind and purposeless movements? What more unlike that other picture which appeals so strongly to our sense of order and fitness in the working of God: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field’?

Yet, as a matter of fact, these two images are not so opposed as they seem; both are, in truth, the growth of an organic life. The working of the leaven hidden in the meal is as truly the growth of a plant as the seed hidden in the earth. Its growth does not seem so orderly and well defined, we may not understand the method of its working so well, but there it is, spreading and growing like a plant, and when we get to analyze and understand it better we shall see. Not much like a plant indeed this tumultuous disturbance bursting forth in the midst of the formless meal. But, nevertheless, it is a plant, and the growth is, as a matter of fact, as regular and as truly under law as the growth of the mustard tree. Our Lord speaks of it as ‘the Kingdom of Heaven,’ working as it were steadily out towards a well-formed and organized kingdom ruled by laws and principles that are changeless.

What a consolation this is. As we are conscious of the seeming disorder of our own spiritual life, the blind and passionate struggles, with no clear aims, no certain or orderly prayers, we turn to the Parable of the Leaven, and we say, ‘Can all this that is going on in me, so much that is nameless, so much that baffles definition or analysis, can all this be a real growth? Can this disorder in the eyes of a more enlightened mind be in reality order? Does this mean the growth of grace, the triumph of the life of Christ, the victory of the laws of righteousness over our lawless and rebellious nature?’ And we turn to the Parable, and we say, ‘the kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.’ Yes, it will work till the whole nature, body, soul and spirit, is penetrated and transformed by its influence, and this is just the way in which it works, like Leaven in the meal; law under the appearance of disorder; growth taking upon itself, at times, the appearance of decay. Watch the working of grace in your soul and see if it could be better described. There is the presence of a life within that can only grow and develop in that nature whose object seems to be to stifle it. Yet there is a remarkable affinity between these two. The grace of God can live in that heavy, dull, unspiritual environment; can draw from it its nourishment, can transform it Through its mass it sends its beating pulses; it makes it throb with stirrings that do not belong to itself; it quickens movements all over it, now in one part, now in another. It stirs, it boils, under its action. There are strange things going on within of which we can only get the surface effects. There is a life struggling with a thing that is dead, and that it is determined to bring to life, though at times it seems as if the sodden mass is only trying to kill the life that has taken possession of it. Yet it is not; it is, on the contrary, yielding itself to nourish this strange life. But to all appearance the action seems to be without any purpose, any plan. There is nothing that looks less like life, still less like growth, and yet in the end the whole is changed and transformed; the Leaven has penetrated everywhere, conquered throughout; it never ceases its action till the whole is leavened. Such is the Kingdom of Heaven in the soul of man.

But again. The Mustard Seed Parable has to do with the seed and its growth and the hindrances to its growth. Here the com has ripened and is gathered and ground into flour. We see no longer the good and bad soil, or the good and bad sower; the field, which our Lord said is the world, is lost sight of. We are no longer under the open canopy of the heavens and exposed to the accidents of sunshine, rain, and frost, or the spite of the enemy who may sow tares amongst the good seed. All this is changed; we are within the precincts and the limits of a house, under the shelter of a kindly roof There are safeguards that are permanent against the constant changes of the outside world. The fire is on the hearth, and can always be kept alight The protection against the accidents of the changing elements is certain and secure. In the former Parable, the work that had to be done must to a large extent depend upon these accidents; there was nothing to shield and protect the growing plant It was exposed to the same difficulties to which all kinds of life are exposed. The sower could but sow and wait for sunshine or rain. The same sunshine and rain which developed the growth of the wheat would develop the growth of the tares also. The heavenly seed was to all appearance wholly unprotected. It must grow by the same law and exposed to the same accidents as every other seed. There was no special providence which assured to it, more than to any other, immunity from danger and accident, or all that was necessary for its growth. ‘The field is the world,’ (Matthew 13:38) and the Kingdom of Heaven is planted in the midst of the world, and exposed to all the forces and dangers that act upon and through the world. ‘The children of the kingdom and the children of the wicked one grow side by side in the same field. As in another Parable, the men with the talents must go into the great market-place of life, and struggle, and compete, and work there, if the five talents are to grow into ten or the two into four. The Christian has to live and work side by side with him who is not a Christian. His life, his circumstances, his surroundings, his difficulties are the same. He is not sheltered from these things because he is a Christian. He is not, for the most part, permitted to escape from any of them. It is the very same set of circumstances which develops grace in the one which develops sin in the other, trouble, temptation, suffering, care.

Yet this Parable shows us that such is not in fact the whole case, though it may appear to be so. For, however unprotected the Christian may seem to be in the world, though to all appearance there is nothing in his surroundings to betoken any special care or providence, yet he is protected, he has not to fight alone, he is not simply left to the accidents of the world; he is a member of a family bound together for one purpose and united with one aim. He is housed and sheltered and cared for. The house cannot indeed be seen by everyone, for, ‘except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ (John 3:3) But those who are within see it and know how true its protection and shelter is. Temptations and trials do not come to the inmates of this House of God at haphazard. There is a Presence within that watches over all. The Woman, when the Leaven has done its work, places the leavened meal on the fire. The fire must penetrate it It is the fire that gives it shape, coherence, firmness, and makes it palatable. Till the fire has done its work it is soft, plastic, ready to take the shape of anything that touches it.

But it is the Woman who tempers the heat according as it is needed. And what is that fire but the heat of temptation developing and perfecting the work of grace. The action of the Leaven is useless without the work of the fire. ‘My son, if thou wilt seek the Lord, prepare thy heart for temptation.’ And the Parable shows that both these offices belong to the Woman – the taking the Leaven and hiding it in the meal, and the placing the leavened meal upon the fire. ‘Then was Jesus led of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.’ (Matthew 4:2)

Are, then, Christians, left, as they seem to be, in the open field to be acted upon only by the same influences and forces as act upon every other life – dependent wholly upon the sunshine and rain, and exposed unprotected to the biting frost? All these things it is true do act upon them as upon others, but there is another side unseen to men. The house, the Woman’s watchful care, the tempering of the heat to the needs of the leavened meal, the shelter and protection, the wise and personal ordering of all things that it may be made meet for the Master’s table. All these things are provided of that Master’s loving forethought. Who has committed those whom He has called out of the world to the guardianship of Her who is the Mistress of His House.