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Jesus's Yeast Parable

A look at the parable of the woman and the yeast.

Matthew 13:33: He told them another parable: "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."

Again, I go back to that question, "What makes you think the world is as you see it?"

The parable of the yeast, or better said, the leaven, is just such a parable that I hope will shake up our thinking a bit so that we can see the world a bit differently.

Do you remember last week when Curt taught Jesus' parable of the talents. The rich owner left his servants with five, two and one talent. I did a little pout and said, "I don't like this parable." It hit a little too close to home for me. I saw myself as the one who was given one talent and was too fearful to take a risk with it.

As I studied this parable of the leaven, I again, got a little peek at the world Jesus is hoping to nudge me into. I was allowed to see me and I didn't really like what I saw.

But we haven't even begun to unpack just this one little sentence. I think I could spend weeks on what Jesus is saying here in the parable of the leaven.

Let's take it apart. What are the nouns in this sentence?

  • kingdom of heaven
  • yeast
  • woman
  • flour

And what are the verbs?

  • took
  • mixed

Yeast The King James Version of the Bible began by using the word leaven instead of yeast. But as the translators wanted to make it understandable for us who do not really know the word leaven they gave us yeast instead.

But this leaven is not yeast. We need to take ourselves back to the time when Jesus gave this parable. What do you think about when you think of yeast? Any of you bakers make bread? We had a bread making machine in Montana and I used the yeast that came in a little brown jar. Or you can get yeast in little yellow packets. They are all neat and tidy.

But back then leaven was made by placing a piece of bread in a dark, damp place until it rotted and stank. That is the yeast of the Bible. Not a pretty picture. To get the bread to rise they had to use some type of fermentation. Think of road kill along the highway that is bloated. That is fermentation at work. And what the women used to make bread was bread that had been put in a dark place, left to rot, to die, until it stank. That is what they took and mixed in the flour.

Let's look back to Exodus for a minute, Exodus 12:15. Remember God instituted the Passover. He commanded that all the leaven be removed from the homes and that they were to keep it out of their homes for a week. In my innocence I thought, no big deal. Just take your little brown jar of yeast and keep it out of the house for a week. Just toss it. But it was not like that.

Those women in the time of the first Passover had to be vigilant, they had to sweep every corner of their house or tent to know that there was no bit of bread that had hidden in a dark corner somewhere and was becoming that rotten leaven. It could happen while they were not looking. So ridding their homes of leaven wasn't as simple as being rid of a little jar.

So we are back there with the people listening to Jesus' words. When he uses the word leaven we get the picture, rotted and stinking bread. But they also know the word leaven as having a meaning of corruption, of being unholy. It is in all three of the synoptic gospels. In Matthew's gospel, chapter 16, verses 5-12, verse 12 says, "Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Again in Mark 8, verses 14-21 and then in Luke, chapter 12, verse one, Jesus says, "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy."

So, what are the people to think? The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that is anything but holy?

What makes you think not the world, but that the kingdom of heaven is as you see it?

Give me your ideas on this leaven and why Jesus might use it to describe the kingdom of heaven.

The woman. Let's stay back there with the people who were listening to Jesus' words. Of all the many parables of Jesus I could only think of two others which contained women, the woman who looked for the coin she had lost and the woman who kept going to the judge with her petition. She was relentless. Nagging really. And we have this woman who took the leaven and mixed it in all the flour.

Here was another red flag. Women were considered anything but holy in Jesus time. Well, they weren't considered at all. They were insignificant. They didn't even count, literally. When they counted the 5,000 who were fed with the loaves and fishes they didn't count the women and children. They weren't worth counting. I am reading a book about the parables titled, "Re-Imagine the World," (don't you love that title?) by the New Testament scholar, Bernard Brandon Scott. In it he says that this woman in the parable is a peasant woman. He knows this because she is baking her own bread. He said that in urban areas bread was bought at a bakery. They have found ruins of large ovens in the large populated areas.

So we have an insignificant peasant woman who is doing the mixing of stinking corrupt leaven.

What do you think about Jesus giving a woman a part to play in this parable of the kingdom of heaven?

The flour until all was leavened Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like leaven that a woman takes and mixes in three measures of flour until all was leavened.

Do you remember the parable of the mustard seed? The mustard tree grew so big that the birds of the air could nest in it, find shelter in it. When the Hebrew people heard that their minds went immediately to the Hebrew scripture which talked about the Israel nation becoming like the great cedars of Lebanon that was shelter for every kind of bird. You can find that in the books of Ezekiel and Daniel.

Likewise when the Hebrew people heard Jesus speak of the three measures of flour their minds would tip toe off to the story found in their holy scriptures. It is found in the 18th chapter of Genesis in our Bible. It is the prophesy of the birth of Isaac. In this story three angels, one of whom is Yahweh, visit Abraham and among the things Sarah prepares for them are cakes made from three measures of flour.

When Jesus uses phrases like "so that the birds of the air make their nests there," and "three measures of flour" he is expanding their minds, showing them a larger picture. For the one who is listening with her heart the three measures of flour could bring them to thinking of the birth of Isaac and maybe this insignificant peasant woman was birthing something as well.

Do you have any ideas about the flour? I see it maybe as the church, the world, I don't know.

Let's look at the verb mixed.

Mixed. We have to go back to the original word here for mixed. It is another time that we need to see how it started out. In the King James version it reads, "It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till the whole was leavened."

This word hid is unexpected. So much so that the translators who came after the King James version wanted to make it a bit easier for us so they used the word "mixed." But if we want to make it even harder we can look back at the word which Jesus actually used here. It is krypto and means "concealed." It has a much more negative meaning for hiding than the more neutral word kalypto. It means to keep secret.

So Jesus is telling us that the kingdom is like corrupt stinky leaven that an insignificant woman takes and hides, keeps secret, in three promising measures of flour, until all is leavened. What could he possible be saying?

I think he is saying way too much for our little minds. But for me the flour is our lives, our church, the kingdom, and that fermenting leaven is all of us that is hidden into the full batch of flour.

Tell me what this one little sentence is saying to you.

So what does this little sentence of a parable tell you about the kingdom of heaven? It might say something about what the kingdom of heaven consists of. Maybe it is filled with broken, rotten, stinking people. I could easily say this to a group of 12 steppers, people who are part of an AA or Alanon group. They would get it. But sometimes it is more difficult for us to "get it." We clean up pretty well but on the inside we might have some darkness where leaven, sin, can grow. But God knows our hearts and he wants us to know them as well.

I recently read one of Barbara Brown Taylor's books, An Altar in the World. She gives suggestions for finding God in the everyday of our lives. One chapter is on prayer, not the prayer we say here at church or our prayers we say that are lists of our wants and needs, or even our thanksgivings. She says that if you want to experience a relationship with God you can stand in front of a full length mirror buck naked and speak your prayer out loud. I think she is asking us to stand before our God, warts and all, acknowledging our brokenness for that is where we truly meet with our God.

So here is how God's kingdom grows in my life. After that Zoom meeting I was completely over my head, literally in the fermenting, rising, dough of my mind. Not wanting to be there. Wanting to be anywhere else, in my wonderful escape novel. Anywhere. Do we ever want to run away from the sticky parts of your lives?

By the next morning I was still there in that liminal space, surely not in God's kingdom. I went to my Facebook account and started reading my memories. And there was something that I had posted five years ago when I still lived in Montana. It was something that I had read by Richard Rohr. He never fails to inspire me. This is what I will close with:

"In the fourth century, St. Augustine said that "the church consists in the state of communion of the whole world." Wherever we are connected, in right relationship—you might say "in love"—there is the Christ, the Body of God, and there is the church, the temple, and the mosque (and I will add, there is the kingdom of God).

But Christians sadly whittled that Great Mystery down into something small, exclusive, and manageable.

The church became a Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant private club, and not necessarily formed by people who were "in communion" with anything else, usually not with the natural world, with non-Christians, or even with other Christians outside their own denomination. It became a very tiny salvation, hardly worthy of the name. God was not magnanimous or victorious at all, despite our many songs repeating again and again "How great is our God" and "Our God reigns." The operative word in these songs is "our" and not really "God."

In a letter to a man who had lost his young son to polio, Albert Einstein writes, "A human being is part of the whole called by us 'the universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion (again, we can add of God's kingdom). Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind." (Not to live in the world as we think it is but in God's kingdom.)

We are called to hide ourselves in God's sticky dough. That dough that God hides us in is living, dynamic, growing even birthing us into God's kingdom. Our job is only to surrender to the process at work, to become living and breathing kingdom people. 

—Katie White