Freshly baked bread. The smell and the taste of it are difficult to beat, especially when it’s warm, just out of the oven. My mother made it when I was growing up and still occasionally does. It’s a comforting memory associated with good and pleasant feelings. Even now, as I seek to eat healthier, I often choose to ignore the amount of carbs I’m taking in as I slather butter on the second and third pieces. What is it that gives freshly baked bread its reassuring flavor and fluffy texture?
The mystery of leaven was first introduced to me as I watched Mother bake. She would allow me and my brother to take turns “punching” the rising dough down as it expanded. As little boys, we were in awe of how it grew, spilling out of the large bowl. And then of course, there was the final product. Yum! I learned to appreciate yeast even more after tasting a type of bread that had no kind of leaven in it. In the opinion of my young still-developing palate, nothing compared to the light and airy texture of what could be produced from a few teaspoons of the ivory-colored grains mixed with flour and water.
Leaven in the Bible
But a bit of confusion settled in when I began to read the Old Testament for myself. Yeast, or leaven, appeared to be something bad. As the Jews celebrated Passover each year, they were instructed to cleanse their homes of any form of the substance. What? Get rid of this wondrously magical stuff? I learned that on one hand it was meant to remind Israel of their rescue from slavery in Egypt, when they did not have time to use yeast and let their bread rise before baking. But on the other hand, the prohibition on all forms of leaven for the Passover celebration seemed to indicate the idea that yeast represented something negative.
And then I read some of the words of Jesus, and I was even more confused. One day after performing the great miracle of provision — multiplying bread and fish for thousands — He told his disciples to be alert to the dangers of leaven. The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees was mentioned specifically (Matthew 16:6). Being that these two religious and political groups were not known for their baking skills, what was Jesus talking about?
My mental bewilderment was eased a bit when my parents explained to me what physical yeast does. It’s not passive. It often has the word “active” stamped on its packaging. It expands throughout the flour mixture that it’s mixed into. And it changes everything, puffing it up to a new form.
Teachings and Trends that Expand and Take Over
Jesus went on to connect the idea of yeast to the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees. And that was what He seems to be warning His followers of. These two groups represented two diverging paths of how the Jews were exercising their faith. The Pharisees were the extreme religious right of their day, narrowing correct religion down to a list of external litmus tests that had very little to do with the attitudes and condition of people’s hearts. The Zealots were the extreme version, focused on ridding their people of the external corruption of foreign control and purifying them through political action. In one of His teachings, Jesus appears to actually support the overall theology of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-4), but it was the way they added human traditions to the scriptures along with their self-righteous attitudes that He condemned.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, were a type of religious left. They were the Jews that had the political power of their day. Of utmost concern for them was the appeasing of the Romans and getting along with the prevailing culture. They were the secularized religious folk. Their theology had been cleansed of supernatural beliefs (no angels, demons, resurrection, or afterlife) so that it was intellectually comfortable and practical for getting along in this present world. The Herodians went a couple steps farther, completely secularized and Jewish in name only. They were the logical final expression of the Sadducees’ way of thinking. On several occasions, Jesus rebuked their theology (Matthew 22:23-33).
Jesus thus announced to His followers that they must be on guard and resist the teachings of either of these two extremes. His use of yeast as a metaphor surely would have brought up thoughts of the Passover prohibition of leaven, representing corruption and sin. But He brashly associated it with the teachings of the two most influential groups of Judaism in that day (no wonder neither one liked Him).
Like yeast, ideas and systems of thought do not remain passive ponderings. As they get worked into hearts and minds, they have a tendency to expand and take on lives of their own. They grow and create “food” with which people nourish themselves. Often, it is not until the bread of such teachings has been eaten by a large enough group over time that the effects of spiritual malnourishment can be seen. But then for some it is too late, and they have no appetite for the real bread of God’s word.
The polarizing faith views of today among Christian believers seem to me to be very similar to the leavened thinking of the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day. We all need to be asking ourselves, “Which form of yeast am I consuming?”
The leaven of the Pharisees will always expand to offer an identity built on religious externals:
The yeast of the Sadducees will swell in a different way:
Another Kind of Leaven
Fortunately for those of us Jesus followers who still enjoy yeast in our bread, He gave a third option.
The Kingdom of God is like leaven that has been worked into a lump of dough (Matthew 13:33). The teachings of Jesus and faithfulness to holy scripture have the same power to expand in and influence people’s hearts and even the culture at large. Both the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees are representing human effort to control faith and make it more manageable. The leaven of the Kingdom, which Jesus preached, is that which lets the word of God take control. We just have to trust it and trust the goodness of the One who has given us this source of spiritual food.
Yeast is not bad. But it, representing prevailing religious and cultural trends, is a powerful change agent that may expand into something we really don’t want in the end. We have to examine and know the yeast we are consuming.
To which way of thinking have you submitted yourself? That of the Kingdom of God is different than a lot of what we hear today from mainstream religious pronouncers. The leaven that leads to eternal life will always require greater trust in God, His grace, His goodness, and His ultimate plan to join heaven with earth and dwell among us.
Choose to consume the yeast that will continue to expand forever.
And while you’re pondering this, slice yourself a warm piece of bread and enjoy.