~ Matthew 13:31-33 ~
The 13th chapter of Matthew is the parables-of-the-kingdom chapter. Seven parables with which Jesus introduces to his disciples what God’s kingdom in the world looks like. The word ‘like’ is key here. If you remember your school grammar lessons, when you compare two things with the word ‘like’ you are using a simile. All of these parables are similes; the kingdom of heaven is ‘like’…. In past weeks we looked at how the kingdom is like a sower scattering seeds and how it is like wheat and weeds growing together. Today, two very short similes – the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leaven. Reading from Matthew 13:31-33:
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 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.”
The Word of God according to the Gospel of Matthew.
I’ve spoken to the parable of the mustard seed in the past, so today I’m going to focus on the second parable, the Parable of the Leaven. I’ll not even attempt to restrain my enthusiasm for this parable. The nature of leaven speaks deeply to one of my favorite avocations – baking bread. I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of bread baking for many a year. I find bread baking very therapeutic and seeing a lump of dough rise to the top of the bowl is quite satisfying. But also, I’m enthusiastic about this parable because in one sentence it speaks a profound truth about God’s presence in the world. So, today a bread making demonstration that might help us understand God’s kingdom work.
But first, 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 baking a couple of loaves for her husband’s pleasure. She is a baker! Jesus said she mixed the leaven into three measures of flour. That’s a bushel of flour! After you’ve added 42 or so cups of water you’ve got a little over 100 pounds of dough on your hands.
So, let’s make some bread. The ingredients for bread making are quite simple: flour, water, a small amount of salt, and leaven or yeast. I tend not to use the word ‘yeast’ because what usually comes to mind are those small packets of yellow granules. This is a sourdough leaven (show bowl). It is simply flour and water that has been sitting out for several days. Called a starter it comes from a batch that is several years old. Sitting out on the counter it has been fermenting. What causes it to bubble up, to ferment? Why, it’s critters, microscopic critters, thousands, billions of them, floating in the air, falling off my arms and hands that settle into the mixture and start eating the flour. This causes the dough to bubble and expand. I don’t know what the spiritual lesson is from all that but it is what makes bread rise except that maybe it is good to remember that God’s creation includes all these innumerable critters.
But where the spiritual lesson does enter in is when I put the leaven into the water. If the leaven is truly ready it will float. I mix the water and leaven together and it would seem that I’ve ruined the whole thing; the mixture that I’ve spent days getting ready just dissolves in the water.
But it is this mixture of leaven and water that is the starting point for making the dough. The leaven is there from the very beginning even before anything else. Remember, in Jesus’ telling it is the leaven that is the kingdom.
Without the leaven the flour and water would be just a lump of dough. The lump of dough, in this parable, 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 just sits there.
But it isn’t by itself. The baker woman (i.e. God) mixed in the leaven. And this introduces the mystery of the kingdom. The leaven is hidden in the dough. It can’t be seen once it’s mixed in. But it is there and it is everywhere. The leaven is all pervasive. There is no part of the lump of dough that is not affected by the leaven. Indeed, the pervasiveness of the leaven is the major emphasis of this parable.
So it is, that over the course of several hours (one must be patient) the leaven will work its magic causing the dough to rise to make a beautiful loaf of bread.
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 leaven 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 leaven, 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 leaven 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. What this says to me is that the kingdom of God is all pervasive in the world. It is, indeed, a mystery but it is also very actual and universal.
Thus endeth the bread baking lesson for today. As you enjoy the finished product may you know that the kingdom of God is everywhere. Enjoy it! Amen.