A One Sentence Parable which Opens up the World

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

I am working these days on a stewardship program for fall. “Bread” is mentioned countless times in the Bible and since I am a long time baker of bread, thoughts for such a series have been tugging at the edges of my imagination for some time. Coincidentally, this week I have been living in Jesus’ one sentence parable about yeast and the Kingdom of Heaven in preparation for that. Watch this space for the finished product in the weeks to come. As it is, my first thoughts on this parable are below…

Matthew 13:33

“Jesus 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.”

I have been baking with yeast for as long as I can remember. In fact, my sisters and I learned the art from our mother who frequently baked bread. From the time we were old enough we were allowed to help with the measuring and the mixing and the kneading. (Truth be told, though, when out of her eyesight, we would have fun tossing that lump of dough back and forth to one another. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I cannot recall ever accidentally dropping it on the floor, although I’m certain we came close!)

When we were children the repertoire of homemade bread on our table was limited. Normally it was plain white bread or rolls, although if it was a holiday we often enjoyed raisin nut bread.  I am told that our mother’s mother also baked as her mother did before her in a time and place where doing so was not an occasional practice or a hobby as it is with me, but was a necessary part of one’s weekly tasks for bread was an everyday staple and it was not yet sold in stores.

It is so that I am always grateful that Jesus uses such ordinary examples from everyday life to stretch the imaginations of his listeners, then and now. And yet, given the time and space which separates us, some of the important details would surely be lost on us today and so I offer some thoughts here.

So as I said, I have been baking with yeast for as long as I can remember. It is part of the legacy that has been passed on to me.  Among other things I have observed this: As is indicated in Jesus’ teaching here, it only takes little yeast to get the job done.

In recent years, though, I have begun working with another type of yeast in the form of a sour dough starter. The one that lives in my refrigerator  was purchased and traces its roots back to the 1700’s. For years now I have been trying to keep the discipline of discarding a portion of that starter once a week and adding four and water to feed or freshen it. It is possible to only use that starter as the  leaven in one’s baking, but it takes longer. Most of the time I use a recipe which is a combination of store bought yeast and my nurtured starter. It is worth noting, though, that in the time of Jesus, store bought yeast was unheard of. All of the leavened bread we hear about in the Bible, including that pointed to in this brief parable in Matthew’s Gospel, would have been leavened by a bit of ‘starter’ saved from a previous batch of bread. And, no doubt, depending on the conditions, the rising would have taken time.

For one, the woman described here would have been baking a lot of bread. In fact, three measures of flour would have been over a bushel’s worth of it. If you read Genesis 18:1-15, you will find a narrative example of Jesus’ parable now, for like the unnamed woman before us now, Sarah is told to “take three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.”

In both examples, this was a whole lot of bread! And this is so even given that in the case of Abraham and Sarah, they were only entertaining three guests.

  • And so we are led to wonder: Could it be that these passages are actually pointing beyond an every day meal to the yet-to-come “messianic banquet” — a great heavenly gathering where the Messiah comes in all fullness?

Whatever else may be so, we can be certain that the Genesis description of Sarah baking bread for the three holy guests would have come to mind for Jesus’ first listeners when he offered this brief description of the Kingdom of heaven. Perhaps the following promises described Isaiah 25:6-10 echoed as well. Indeed, take a look at the image portrayed in Isaiah.

  • How is the menu at this promised banquet described?
  • What else do we hear will happen there?

Finally, for another story of another remarkable meal, read Matthew 22:1-10.

  • How is this banquet described?
  • Who is invited? Who finally comes?
  • Who do you imagine will be at the banquet described in Isaiah which will be celebrated in an unknown future?

Now return with me to the parable in today’s Gospel. Perhaps this is obvious, but it is worth noting that unlike today, one did not simply drive to the grocery store and purchase five-pound bags of finely ground flour in that time. Indeed, it is altogether likely that she had first labored to grind the grain into that flour, most likely using some kind of hand cranked grinding mill.

And there is this as well.  The subject of Jesus’ parable would not have had a finely tuned gas or electric oven in which to bake her bread. It would likely have been done in a clay oven over hot coals.

Given the amount of baking there was to be done, one can imagine that this would have been an all day (or more) venture for this woman — one she, no doubt, began before daybreak. And while she certainly could have turned her attention to other things while the bread rose or the coals came to the right temperature, baking the bread would have required her to stay nearby all day long so as to be ready for the next step. For in fact, it is possible to let bread rise too long, making the final product less appealing. And coals need to be at a certain temperature to make the baking optimal.

  • And so I wonder this. Might this one sentence be a reminder that “Kingdom Work” takes time, energy and attention? That sometimes it requires patience as we wait for the ‘yeast’ to rise? How have you known this to be so?
  • Or maybe this is so. Although the parable certainly does not say so, perhaps there was a whole gathering of women working together to transform a bushel basket full of flour into a mountain of bread. And maybe that was so for Sarah, too. Indeed, maybe this one sentence parable points us to something we are called to do together as we recognize the Kingdom of Heaven at work and alive in formerly hidden ways!

And finally there is this. I am told that after visiting San Francisco – a place especially famous for its sour dough bread — people purchase the starter, hoping to duplicate the taste at home. However, before long, the yeast in the starter combines with yeasts naturally occurring in the air, and the flavor changes. Pretty soon it tastes less like San Francisco and more like sour dough bread from wherever it has found its home!

  • And so I wonder this. Is it also possible that the Kingdom of Heaven takes on a slightly different flavor as it is experienced or received in different places and as it is lived out in different people who have claimed it and been claimed by it?

Over the next few weeks, I will be interviewing people to see whether and how this may be so. I will be wondering with them at how their faith  — how having received the Kingdom of Heaven as their own — is like ‘yeast’ in their lives and how it changes how they interact with the world in  and through their families, at work, in their neighborhoods and wherever else it is they spend their time. I expect it will be the same, but different too — taking on a somewhat unique flavor as it is lived out in different contexts. This may be an avenue for you to take as well as you seek to bring this parable alive in the life of your people in the days to come.

In the meantime, I will still be working on a stewardship program on “Bread.” If you have suggestions or have any interest in collaborating on this project with me, please let me know. In particular, do you have a favorite story about “Bread” in the Bible or from your own life. Would you be willing to share?

 

6 comments

  1. Rene says:

    I remember my husband trying his hand at making bread.
    The kitchen was closed off, interruptions were banned as he concentrated on what he was doing!
    The bread was so good we photographed it and he was pleased with his work.
    He never made it again though.
    Rene

  2. Jane McChesney says:

    I have a bread story from CPE experience
    I was called to the Medical ICU for a patient that was being transferred to University Hospitals in Iowa City for a radical amputation of his leg and hip. He was asking for communion and I was not ordained, but couldn’t find an ordained clergy at the time. As I arrived, I explained this, and he said “God wouldn’t have sent you if you couldn’t do this. They’re going to cut my leg off; are you going to cut me off from my Lord?” I responded that I would do what I could and went to the kitchen to look for something for this communion. There was 1 piece of bread left and 1 container of grape juice. I brought this to his room, and with my “green book”, I turned to the communion service, and we began. It was as if I moved to the side of the room and watched Christ be present to this faith-filled man. We prayed and then began the meal, eating together, and closing with prayer. He seemed less frantic and more prepared now for what was to come. He thanked me and said that now with Christ in him, he was ready for what was coming next. At that very moment those transporting him arrived and prepared him for the trip. He shared with me who his pastor was – Pastor Peter Marty (!) and I said I would call and let him know what was going on and where he was going. I later learned that he did have the surgery, but that an infection set in and he died after a few days. His daughter contacted our Spiritual Care Office though and told my CPE supervisor that she was grateful for the meal and the student who came. Her father said it was all that he needed and that he said he had been filled with Christ. In his dying, he requested that she provide a portion of his estate to the program so that other students could feed hungry patients with Christ, the Bread of Life.

  3. Judy Bergeson says:

    Pastor Janet, I LOVE your comparison of starter dough taste changing to suit its home, where ever that may be! It is such a good way to explain cultural differences. . . and how they enrich our lives! Thank you! After all, we all, like yeast, started from the same “pot”. . . and look how we have spread in grand diversity all over the globe! Again, we see God’s incredible designs and powers!!!

  4. Jackie Danalewich says:

    Considering body of Christ, everyone having different gifts, etc, include something about the different things we add to bread…different grains, fruits, nuts, spices, herbs, etc. I’m sure there’s a “gifts” message there…butter vs olive oil, cinnamon-raisin, whole grains vs processed.

  5. Pat Pickett says:

    When my children were young, I’d give them a little ball so they could help with the kneading but they really loved to “punch” the large ball of bread when it got to the point of a second kneading. We were focusing on Communion for the first time for my middle son and when he punched the dough and the dough gave out a sigh, he said, “Opps, we just let the Holy Spirit go…somebody catch it.”

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