Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46
My mom was a fabulous cook but NOT much of a baker, except for pies.. She made mouthwatering pies, especially fruit pies- apple, blackberry, rubarb. And for my birthday always a cherry pie made with sour cherries. And I’ve never had better pie crust. One of my big regrets is that I never learned to make her pie dough. I made it as a child and teenager with her by my side but not by myself and I’ve never been able to get it to come out right. I end up with a mess of dough, sometimes too sticky, sometimes dry and cracked and unwilling to hold together as it should.
Does your life ever feel like a big lumpy doughy mess, a big lumpy mess of dough that you can hardly handle. It’s either too sticky or too dry and it just won’t hold together the way it should? These days there are lots of things that just don’t hold together the way they should. 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.”
In the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is teaching about God, he never gives an outline of set points. He doesn’t lay out clear, unquestionable doctrines. He says, the kingdom of heaven is like- well according to Jesus, it’s like, Many different things. There’s not just one set way to talk about it, to explain it, to define it. Instead, we hear Jesus talking about holy mysteries using very simple, ordinary things, things even a child knew about: seeds, weeds, buried treasure, a beautiful pearl, a fishing net. And the one I want to reflect on today is–yeast.
We can imagine that you put a little bit of yeast in the bread dough and it rises and becomes something bigger and better. Yeast working through the bread dough is an image of how God’s kingdom or kindom spreads and rises through the world.
But that’s not exactly what Jesus wanted to say. Yeast or leaven, another word for yeast, is mentioned 39 times in the Bible, 22 times in the OT and 17 times in the NT and almost every single time, yeast represents evil or corruption. It starts out in Exodus when during the Passover, the Hebrew people were forbidden to eat leavened bread as a reminder of the flight from slavery and God’s liberating, saving power that freed them: Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. It goes on from there. I won’t share all 39 references but here’s a few from Jesus himself. He compares false teaching with leaven or yeast:
Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the these religious leaders.”… they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of false teaching. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of these teachers and the yeast of Herod. The yeast of Herod who slaughtered the Holy Innocents, who beheaded Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Yeast doesn’t sound very positive at all.
St. Paul speaks of some people stirring up trouble in the church Galatia and says that they must be taken aside and disciplined because A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. Just like our saying that one bad apple spoils the bunch.
So today’s example by Jesus is the strange exception as Jesus uses yeast as a sign of God’s presence at work when elsewhere he uses it to mean something corrupt and evil. Jesus is flipping things around to shock his listeners, but then, that’s what Jesus often does. This is the same Jesus who said that : The first shall be last. And the last shall be first. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who mourn.
That’s the nature of kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven language that Jesus uses so often. The greek word translated here as kingdom is Basilea. In the first century when Jesus told parables, the word Basileia was used to describe the reign of the Roman emperor Cesar. Jesus flipped this around and spoke of contrasting reign, a reign and power of a very different sort, the Basilea of God. The Roman Bailia controlled those who fell to Roman conquest, they then lived under the iron grip Roman baiiia or kingdom. But Jesus’kingdom welcomed people into a new kind of relationship where Power is reimagined. You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. This is the difference between the Roman kingdom and the kingdom of God. This is the difference between making America Great and making American Good This is why some people, including myself, sometimes like to use the phrase kindom to translate basilea. A place of welcome and equality. A place where all can find equal footing regardless of race, gender or other aspects of our diversity.
So the kindom of heaven defies the kingdom of empire for whom the kindom of heaven an evil, a small salty group that posed a threat to the status quo, a yeast that could leaven society with justice and love. It was a dangerous, threatening power, working in secret to corrupt the order of the world- and that’s how liberating movements are often seen, the Suffragettes, the Black Panthers, Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta and the farm workers movement, and today Black Lives Matter or even a Wall of Moms or dads with leafblowers in Portland.
These people are being viewed and labeled as corrupting, evil influences, as they work their covert fermentation like yeast turning a mess of dough into a feast for those who hunger and thirst for justice. According to Jesus, yeast has a revolutionary character. And the kindom of heaven is like yeast.
Finally, there’s another pearl of wisdom, another treasure hidden in Jesus parable. One thing I do know about baking is that measurements matter a lot. You cannot just throw things together with no thought for the measurements. And the measurements are off here. Jesus says this woman is working with 3 measures of flour. The word for measure is actually Eiphah. 3 eiphahs is about 60 lbs. of flour—easily enough to make bread for 150 people. This is way too much for one woman to mix in by herself. Three measures seems crazy here. It was a measure of abundance meant to jolt a community who felt itself to be small and possessing scarce resources.
There’s only one other story in the Bible that mentions this exact, same recipe, bread with three measures of flour. A story that would be well known to Matthews community. Its back in the book of Genesis when Abraham and Sarah are in the desert in the heat of the day resting in the shade under some trees by their tent and three visitors appear and tell them that Sarah, who is in her 90s and barren, will become pregnant. Naturally sarah thinks this is a big joke and laughs. But despite how odd this whole visit is, despite how hot it is…Abraham and Sarah spring into action to be hospitalbel to their guests: Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make some bread.” and While Sarah is baking bread, Abraham is preparing a barbecue to go with it.
And so the three guests are served a feast in the desert. It’s a story of exaggerated hospitality. A story of impossible abundance to go with the impossible promise of a child and In the end we understand that the three guests were messengers from God and that hidden in deep in Sarah’s womb there was indeed a child, the beginning of many generations of descendents that include all Jewish people and through our baptisms all of us as well. And the bread that Sarah prepared came from three measures of flour. Way, way too much for just 3 visitors, but the whole story is about barren, scarcity transformed into more than you expect or imagine overflowing life.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
There was nothing about Sarah hiding the yeast in her three measures of flour. That’s because hiding yeast is not a cooking term. You mix it in or stir it in, you don’t hide it. In fact, our translation of the story, the one we read today, says that the woman mixed in the flour, but the greek word translated as mixed is ENEKRYPSEN which means hidden. Our word encrypted comes from that greek word. Ever hear of an encrypted message? It’s a message hidden in code. Jesus says that the yeast is encrypted, hidden in the flour. This thing that will change the dough and make the bread rise and grow, is invisible to the eyes. The kindom of God like yeast, is hidden. We don’t always notice it at work. In something very ordinary, very common, like bread. Like daily life. The kingdom of God is present, at work, in unlikely places, hard to see, places. When Jesus says it’s hidden, Jesus is describing our reality.
And so… when your life, your day, your week, feels like a big lumpy doughy mess, a big lumpy mess of bread dough that you can hardly handle. because It’s too sticky or too dry and it won’t hold together the way it should…And when an entire country feels like that? Unable to hold together. As the poet Yeats wrote: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Remember Jesus words: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
The yeast of heaven is here, at work, for your sake, for the worlds sake. even when we can’t see it. In that big lumpy doughy mess. It WILL come together. Even if we can’t see it now. Yeast takes time to complete it’s rising work, but rise it will. We have the word of one who knows what it is to be hidden out of sight, like yeast. Like buried treasure. Like a buried grain that dies and rises and lives among us, for us, with us and yes, through us. Amen.