~ Matthew 13:31-33 ~
Today, two short and pithy parables. They are two in a string of parables Jesus has been telling the people to try to help them understand the nature of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ proclamation is that the kingdom of God has broken into human history and that it has something for everyone. So bend your ear and listen, he says, because this is exciting.
I’ve preached on the parable of the mustard seed before, so today I’ll focus on the second parable: the parable of the Yeast or Leaven. I’ll not even try to restrain my natural enthusiasm for this parable. The nature of yeast speaks deeply to one of my favorite avocations – baking bread. You all know this already. I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of bread baking for many years. I find it very therapeutic and seeing a lump of dough rise to the top of the bowl is quite satisfying. But I’m particularly enthusiastic about this parable because in one sentence it speaks a profound truth about God’s presence in the world.
Note right up front that the surrogate for God in this parable is a woman. Quite extraordinary in its own right, given the prevailing paternalistic ideas of the day. But this is no ordinary woman just breaking a couple of loaves for her husband’s pleasure. This is a baker! Jesus says she mixed the yeast into three measures of flour.
“Three measures” is not like just three cups! According to the history of measuring stuff, three measures is a little over a bushel of flour (1.125 bushels, to be precise). That’s a ridiculously large amount of flour. Translating into modern kitchen measures 1.125 bushels is 144 cups of flour. Presuming we use a common recipe for basic white bread that uses 5½ cups of flour, 144 cups is enough to make 26 batches of bread of two loaves each, giving us a total of 52 loaves, each weighing about a pound and a half. If we’re frugal but not stingy, we can get 16 slices out of a loaf, yielding 832 slices, enough for 416 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (we’d need 33 jars of jelly, and 64 jars of peanut butter). You get the picture?
So we have this large amount of flour. Add about, in this case, more than 6 gallons of water and you have a big lump of dough. Which is part of Jesus’ point. The lump of dough stands for the whole world. And by itself it’s just that, a lump of dough, indigestible in its present form, incapable of going anywhere, let alone to heaven. By itself the dough would just sit there.
But it isn’t by itself. The baker woman mixed in the yeast. This introduces the mystery of the kingdom. The yeast is hidden in the dough. It can’t be seen once it’s mixed in. But it is there and it is everywhere. The yeast is all pervasive. There is no part of the lump of dough that is not affected by the yeast. Indeed, the pervasiveness of the yeast is the whole point of the parable.
The yeast is dissolved in the very liquid that makes the flour become dough. The yeast was there from the very beginning even when it first became dough. I’d like to think that the yeast fomenting in the water is akin to what we will rehearse a bit later when we talk about baptism. From the earliest days of creation scripture says the Spirit was moving over the waters. So you could say that while Jesus is just now proclaiming the presence of the kingdom of God, in a very real sense the kingdom of God has always been in the world. Just as the yeast pervaded the dough right from the very beginning so has God pervaded the world right from the very beginning. Jesus’ announcement of this Good News is just that – Good News. Redemption has already taken place. The world is already in God’s hands.
And just as the yeast, once it is in the dough, is so intimate a part of the lump as to be indistinguishable from it, so is the kingdom in the world. Indeed, the yeast and the dough are so indistinguishable that you can’t say what is the world and what is the kingdom of God. They are so intertwined that you might as well say they are one and the same.
But there is even more! It is all too tempting when talking about the kingdom of God in the world to envision a time when the world was a world without the kingdom in it. But this parable doesn’t give that option. For every second of the time that the dough is dough, the yeast is inseparable from it. Therefore, for every second of time the world has been a world, it has also been the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God has always been in the world. Jesus’ role is merely to proclaim that what once was hidden and mysterious is now made manifest. What this says to me is that the kingdom of God is all pervasive in the world. It might be a mystery but it is very actual and universal.
It seems to me that Jesus is pulling out all the stops in declaring the universal effectiveness, the intertwining pervasiveness, the it-doesn’t-matter-how-you-respond-it-still-works work of God in the world and in our lives. Jesus’ declaration calls for us to enjoy the presence of God already present in us. We have been accepted in the Beloved. The only real thing left for us to experience is the final accolade to be spoken over us by the Divine Baker Women: “Now that’s what I call a real loaf of bread!” Amen.