The Parables - 1. the Leaven.
THE PARABLE OF THE LEAVEN.
"The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened."
ST. MATTHEW XIII .33.
THE Kingdom of Heaven is sometimes used in Scripture as equivalent to the kingdom of God, but it has not here the wide meaning of that expression. There are kingdoms, our own for instance, which embrace so many different and such distant countries, that, as is said and boasted of, the sun never sets on them - before he has set on one province he has risen on another. But how much greater the kingdom of God? The sun never sets on it! The sun never rose and shone but on a corner of it. Its provinces are not countries, nor even continents, but worlds. It stretches not from shore to shore, but from sun to sun, and from star to star. Its extent was never surveyed ; its inhabitants never numbered; its beginning never calculated.It had no beginning, and it has no bounds. Its beginning is in eternity, and its bounds are lost in illimitable space. Over this kingdom, which includes heaven and hell, the angels that kept and those that lost their first estate, all things visible and invisible, Jehovah reigns - glorious in counsel, fearful in praises, continually doing wonders. Sole monarch of this empire, he has made all things for himself, yea, "he hath made the wicked for the day of evil."
It is not of this, but of the gospel kingdom, or the kingdom of grace, that the parable speaks; and before showing how it is like leaven, we may turn our attention on some of its peculiar characteristics. Different and distinct from that kingdom of Jehovah's power and providence, which embraces all created beings from angels down to insects, this has men alone for its subjects. It does not concern itself, unless indirectly, with matter but only with mind; controlling not the waves of the sea or the winds of heaven, but what are more incontrollable than either, the passions and wills of men. Again, this kingdom is felt, but not seen; "the kingdom of God cometh not with observation ;" it is in the world, but not of it; "My kingdom is not of this world," said Jesus; "if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight:" a spiritual kingdom, its foundations have been laid in the death of its King, and, with a far higher object than any for which mortal men are raised to tottering thrones, its purpose is the salvation of lost, but precious and immortal, souls.
See how many and important differences there are between it and any earthly kingdom! There never was a man born in it; but many have been born for it. Its subjects are all twice born; for "except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven." Never in a sense did an old man enter its gates; for who would enter here must retrace his steps along the path of life; return the way he came, and, born again, become a little child. Calling a little child to him, Jesus set him in the midst of them, and said, "Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." There gold, for which so many here slave, and drudge, and scheme, and sin, is reckoned of no more value than common dust. They buy and sell, indeed; buy the most precious wares, bread of life, immortal beauty, sinless purity, pearls of great price, and crowns of eternal glory; but then it is without money - what is priceless is got without price, got for the asking: "Whatsoever ye ask in my name, believing, ye shall receive." And so far from gold being of any advantage here, it is rather an encumbrance than otherwise: "It is easier," said the King, "for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." Nor is that which secures man great advantages here, industry, sobriety, honour, honesty, or virtue any passport into this kingdom; the worst are as welcome as the best: "Whosoever cometh unto me," says the King, "I will in no wise cast out." Beggars whom armed sentinels would challenge, and servants turn from the gates of earthly palaces are here admitted as freely as the highest nobles.
See there, outside the gate, the Pharisee! while the poor despised, detested publican who stood afar off, heating his breast in conscious guilt, is invited in, and, going down to his house justified rather than the other, sings with Hannah, "The Lord bringeth low and lifteth up; he raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes." Yes, this is the - kingdom for the poor! In its palace there are more peasants to be met than peers; many subjects and few kings. In your earthly kingdoms the rich and noble carry off the lion's share. It is high-born men and women that fill high places, and stand near our Queen's throne; but this kingdom bestows its noblest honours on the humble, the poor, the obscure, the meek, the lowly; for "to the poor the gospel is preached," and "not many mighty, not many noble are called."
More extraordinary than any of these things, all the ordinary rules of other kingdoms are reversed in this. Here, the way to grow rich is to become poor - the path to honour lies through shame - to enjoy rest we must plunge into a sea of troubles - peace is only to be enjoyed in a state of war - who would live must die - and who would gain must part with all that men hold most dear: "Verily, verily," says the King, "there is no man that leaveth father or mother, or wife, or children, or houses, or lands, for the kingdom of God's sake, who shall not receive manifold more in this life, and in the world to come life everlasting." Blessed are they who have been brought into this kingdom! Robed in the white linen of Christ's righteousness, they shall be priests, and, crowned with glory, they shall be kings to God.
In regard to the leaven to which our Lord likens the kingdom, it may surprise some to find that which is usually employed in a bad sense, otherwise employed here. I am aware that leaven is often, and indeed usually, in the Sacred Scriptures, an emblem of sin; and a very suitable one it is, seeing, as is known to all who are familiar with its action in household or other arts, that it changes the natural properties of those substances on which it acts, breeds in liquids a poisonous gas, and applied to meal, for instance, swells it up and sours it. But to infer from this that leaven stands here for unsound doctrine and ungodly practice, and that the parable itself is a prophetic description of the corruptions which early crept into the Church of Christ, and had leavened and corrupted the whole mass of Christendom in the dark ages of Popery, were inconsistent with the plain meaning of the parable; and is not required by the rules which should guide us in studying the Word of God.
There are other instances in which the sacred writers employ a figure, sometimes in a good sense, sometimes in a bad one. For example, Satan is compared to a lion; and what emblem could be more appropriate, if you take into account its cruel nature, its stealthy approach, its frightful roar, its terrible aspect, its bloody jaws, its ravenous appetite, and the death that follows a blow of its paw? Yet if the destroyer of souls is a lion, so is their Saviour; he is "the Lion of the tribe of Judah." The other most common scriptural emblem of the devil is a serpent. It was in the form of that reptile he stole into Eden; and, with malice gleaming in its fiery eye, poison concealed in its crooked fangs, fascination in its gaze, death in its spring, and this peculiar habit, that while other creatures usually content themselves with a portion of their prey, the serpent, crushing the bones and covering the body with slime, swallows it entire - the animal world furnishes no creature that represents so well the deceiver and destroyer of souls as this hateful, horrid reptile.
But who, on the other hand, does not know that a serpent was employed as a type of the Redeemer? Referring to that scene in the desert, where, raised high upon a pole, the brazen serpent gleamed over the dying camp, and whosoever caught sight of it revived and lived, our Lord says, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." Having removed a difficulty which has staggered some and set others on a wrong track, we are now ready to see in what respects the kingdom of heaven is like unto the leaven which this woman takes and hides in meal till the whole is leavened. We may understand our Lord as describing either the influence of the gospel on the world, and its final universal manifestation, or the influence and operation of divine grace on those in whose hearts the Spirit of God has lodged it. The parable may be applied either way; but we prefer the latter.
The woman takes the leaven to lay it not on, but in the meal, where,
working from within outwards, it changes the whole substance from the centre to
the surface. It is through a corresponding change that the man goes to whom the
Spirit of God communicates his grace. It is hidden in the heart. The change
begins there; the outward reformation not preparing the way for regeneration,
but springing from it; growing out of it as a tree grows out of its seed, or a
stream flows out of its spring. Observe that this view is in perfect harmony
with God's requirement, "Give me not thy habits, or thy service, or thy
obedience, but thy heart, my son; "in perfect harmony, also, with his
promise, "I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will
give you a heart of flesh, and I will put my Spirit within you " - then, as
following such a change, "1 will cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye
shall keep my judgments and do them ;" and in perfect harmony also with the
remarkable saying of our Lord, "The kingdom of God is within you ;" in
other words, religion does not lie in the denomination we belong to, in
attendance on churches whose stony fingers point to heaven, in having a pew in
the house of God, or even an altar in our own, in professions of piety, or even
in works of benevolence. It lies in the heart. If it is not there, it is
nowhere; these other things being but the dress which may drape a statue, and
give to a corpse the guise, or rather the mockery, of life. In consequence of
its being lodged in their hearts, true Christians, so far from being
hypocrites, have more of the reality of religion than of its appearance. They
are better than they seem to be; and less resemble those fruits which, under a
painted skin, and soft, luscious pulp, conceal a rough, hard stone, than those
within whose shell and husky covering there are both milk and meat With more
religion in his heart than you would infer from outward appearances, or than he
is able to carry out in his daily life and conversation but after a long
struggle with old habits, a converted man may be like Lazarus, when, standing
before his tomb still bound in grave-clothes, he looked as much like a dead man
as a living. Even Paul himself said, "The good that I would, I do not; but
the evil that I would not, that I do." His heart, burning with love to
Christ, set on fire not of hell but heaven, was better than his habits; his
desires were purer than his deeds; his aims were loftier than his loftiest
attainments. I And those who, though it is a confession of shortcoming, can say
so of themselves, have good reason to hope that the leaven has been hid in the
meal. Their hearts have received that grace, which works in holy desires toward
holy efforts ; and which shall never cease to work till, extending its
influence over all their nature, the whole is leavened, and I they, however
impcrfect now, become perfect men in Jesus Christ.
Suppose that the woman, taking, instead of leaven, a stone - a piece of
granite, a common pebble, or even a precious jewel, any metal such as gold or
silver, or any like inert and inactive substance - had placed that in the heart
of the meal, the meal had remained the same; changing neither to stone nor
metal. But so soon as leaven is imbedded in its substance, a change immediately
ensues; a process of fermentation is set a-going, and extending from within
outwards, goes on till by a law of nature the whole lump is leavened. Neither
art nor nature could supply a better simile of the grace of God than this. An
active element, so, soon as it is lodged in the heart, it begins to work; nor
ceases to extend its holy influence over the affections and habits, the inward
and outward character, till it has moved and changed the whole man, and that
consummation is reached which is to be devoutly wished for, and which the
Apostle prays for, in the words, "May the very God of peace sanctify you
There are influences which may powerfully affect without permanently changing us. There may be motion, and even violent emotion, without change. In the valley where Ezekiel stood with the mouldering dead around him, there was motion - the bones were shaken. He saw bone approach bone, till, each nicely fitted to the other, they formed perfect skeletons; and, clothed with flesh and covered over with skin, each seemed a warrior taking his rest, and sleeping on under a wizard's spell till his sword had rusted beside him. Still, in all that was essential they were unchanged; as breathless, lifeless, dead, as when the bones lay scattered, withered, and dry on that old field of battle. To borrow an illustration from familiar objects - the sea, which reflects like a liquid mirror ship and boat that lie sleeping on its placid bosom, is thrown by the storms of heaven into the most violent commotion. Its calm depths are stirred, and foaming breakers beat its shore; but it is still the salt, salt sea. And when the wind falls and the storm blows past, and waves sink to rest, it presents the same characters as before - the tempest came and the tempest went, nor has it left one trace behind. So it is, alas, too often and too much with the impressions of sermons, and sacraments, and revival seasons.
All changes truly are not from bad to good, or good to better. They may be from good to bad, or from bad to worse. Moisture dims the polished blade, and turns its bright steel into dull, red rust; fire changes the sparkling diamond into a black coal and grey ashes; disease makes loveliness loathsome, and death converts the living form into a mass of foul corruption. But the peculiarity of grace is this, that like leaven it changes whatever it is applied to into its own nature. For as leaven turns meal into leaven, so divine grace imparts a gracious character to the heart; and this is what I call its assimilating element. Yet let there be no mistake. While the grace of God changes all who are brought in conversion under its influence, it does not impart any new power or passion, but works by giving to those we already have a holy bent; by impressing on them a heavenly character. For example, grace did not make David a poet, or Paul an orator, or John a man of warm affections, or Peter a man of strong impulses and ardent zeal. They were born such. The grace of God changes no more the natural features of the mind than it does those of the body - as the negro said, it gave him a wkite heart, but it left him still, to use the language of another, the image of God carved in ebony. Be the meal into which that woman hides the leaven, meal of wheat or meal of barley, it will come from her hands, from the process of leavening, from, the fiery oven, cakes of the same grain.
For it is not the substance but the character of the meal that is changed. Even so with the effect of grace. It did not give John his warm affections; but it fixed them on his beloved Master - sanctifying his love. It did not inspire Nehemiah with the love of country; but it made him a holy patriot. It did not give Dorcas a woman's heart, her tender sympathy with suffering; but it associated charity with piety, and made her a holy philanthropist. It did not give Paul his genius, his resistless logic, and noble oratory; but it consecrated them to the cause of Christ - touching his lips as with a live coal from the altar, it made him such a master of holy eloquence that he swayed the multitude at his will, humbled the pride of kings, and compelled his very judges to tremble. It did not give David a poet's fire and a poet's lyre; but it strung his harp with chords from heaven, and tuned all its strings to the service of religion and the high praises of God. So grace ever works! It assimilates a man to the character of God. It does not change the metal, but stamps it with the divine image; and so assimilates all who have received Christ to the nature of Christ, that unless we have the same mind, more or less developed, in us that was in him, the Bible declares that we are none of his.
It is said of the meal in which the woman hid the leaven, that "the
whole," not a portion of it, large or small, "was leavened." The
apostle brings out the same diffusive character of this element where he says,
"A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump." Even so, teaching us not to
despise the day of small things, a little grace lodged in the heart spreads
till it sanctifies the whole man. Some things diffuse themselves rapidly. There
are deadly poisons so rapid and indeed sudden in their action that the cup
falls from the suicide's hand; he is a dead man before he has time to set it
down. To these grace stands out in striking contrast, not only because it is
saving, but because it is ordinarily slow in bringing its work to a holy and
blessed close; and in that respect grace and sin correspond well to their
figures of life and death. Five hundred summers must shine on an oak ere it
attain its full maturity; and not less than twenty or thirty years spent in
growth and progress must elapse ere an infant arrives at perfect manhood - our
mind has acquired its full power, our bones and muscles their utmost strength.
And besides the lapse of so many years, how much care and watching, how much
meat and medicine, are needed to preserve our life, and guard it from the
accidents and diseases which are ever threatening its destruction ! Yet this
work of years it needs but an instant of time, a wrong step, a drop of poison,
a point of steel, a pellet of lead, to undo. Death is perfected in a moment;
the shriek, the prayer may die unuttered on the lips. Look at Adam! Sin, a
sudden as well as subtle poison, shoots like lightning through his soul; and he
falls in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, from the state of a pure and
happy, into that of a sinful, and wretched, and lost, and ruined being. Unless
in such rare and extraordinary cases as that of the dying thief what a contrast
to this the progress of the best in grace? Years have come and gone, perhaps,
since we were converted, and how many Sabbaths have we enjoyed, how many
sermons have we heard, how many prayers have we offered, how many communions
have we attended, how many providences have we met to help us on in the divine
life - goodnesses that should have led us to repentance, and waves of trouble
that should have lifted us higher on the Rock of Ages, and yet, alas! how
little progress have we made, how far are we from being perfect as our Father
in heaven is perfect! Have we not learned, by sad experience, that there is
nothing so easy as to commit sin, and nothing so difficult as to keep out of it
- even for one hour to keep the heart holy, and the garment unspotted of the
world? It seems as natural for man to fall into sin as it is for water to sink
to the lowest level, or for a stone to fall to the earth. Bnt to rise! ah, that
requires such sustained and continuous efforts as those by which the lark soars
to the skies, through constant beating of its wings. The devil can make man a
sinner; nor is there a poor, miserable, mean, wretched creature but may tempt
us into sin. But it needs the Almighty God to make a man a saint. The vase,
statue, beautiful machine which it required the highest skill and long hours of
thought and labour to make, may be shattered by the hands of a madman or of a
Still, let God's people thank him, and take courage. Though grace, unlike sin, and like leaven, is slow in its progress, it shall change the whole man betimes; and the motto which flashed in gold on the High Priest's forehead shall be engraven on our reason, heart, and fancy; on our thoughts, desires, and affections; on our lips, and hands, and feet; on our wealth, and power, and time; on our body and soul - the whole man shall be "Holiness to the Lord."
These three characters of grace form three excellent tests of character, of the genuineness of our religion. It is internal: have we felt its power within us, on our hearts? It is assimilating: is it renewing us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, into the image of God? It is diffusive: is there a work begun in us,. and on us, which shall at length "sanctify us wholly"? If not so, we need to begin at the beginning by the Holy Spirit of God to be born again. But if so, though in many respects defective, and having often to confess with Paul, "The good which I would I do not, and the evil which I would not, that I do," happy are we! Happy are the people that are in such a case, for the Lord will perfect that which concerneth us - the whole shall be leavened.
Be it our business, by earnest prayer and diligence, to hasten on such a blessed consummation; and also to bring the grace that is within us to act - as well without as within! No candle is lighted for itself: no man lights a candle to lock the door, and leave it burning in an empty room. We are not lighted for ourselves; nay, nor leavened for ourselves. No man liveth for himself Let us be as leaven in our families; among our friends and fellows; in the neighbourhoods around us. Nor let us rest till there is not one within the sphere of our influence whom we have not, through God's blessing, leavened, or attempted to leaven, by our grace. Freely we have received; freely give! At the fires of our piety let others be warmed; at the light of our grace let other lights be kindled. Let us act like leaven on the inert, dead mass around us - every living Christian a centre from which living influence shall emanate toward all around him. Were we so, how soon would the dull mass begin to work, ferment, move, and change! Then would it be seen, to the glory of God, and the wellbeing of society, and the happiness of many a family, and the saving of many souls, that through the influence of those who had little influence, and seemed to have none, as in the case of a humble domestic or little child, " a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump."
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