During the first of these 10 sermons on the parables I introduced the idea that we can look at parables usually from one of two directions. From one direction, a parable may be inspired to teach the listener what the Kingdom of God is like, from the other direction, a parable might be a teaching or even a warning about the Kingdom of Earth. This later direction is the one I take to reach the lesson in today’s parable. Because it is twinned with the parable of the mustard seed, this parable is sometimes considered to point to the idea that the Kingdom of God starts small like a mustard seed or a cell of yeast, and before you know it you have three huge loaves a bread …or a giant tree! Last week, I was reminded to look for the part that doesn’t make sense in the story – that is this piece that points the way. Last week God’s Kingdom was an undesirable weed, and this week it is compared to something that is used as a metaphor for moral corruption every where else in the Bible.
Yeast as a metaphor for moral corruption doesn’t really make sense to our modern, western ear at first– after all, who doesn’t love delicious, fluffy, doughy bread? Unless you suffer from celiac disease or follow a special diet, chances are that leavened bread is a staple in your diet or at least a wonderful treat… mmm… French croissants, Montreal bagels, Jewish Challah, sweet rolls…. my mom’s white bread… these are all wonderful things in my mind as I think about yeast and baking… and this was likely in the minds of so many people who have interpreted this parable. As a result, this parable is often interpreted that the leaven, the yeast, is good, the baker kneads it into the dough – and before long it turns the plain flour into nutritious bread. The lesson then is the Kingdom of God is like a tiny bit of goodness that multiplies and spreads until it transforms people and communities into something better than what it was at the beginning. In this context, this makes sense and it is a lovely idea for sure.
But, here’s the thing: yeast today is not like biblical leaven. Biblical leaven was putrid. According to Bernard Brandon Scott, one of my favorite parable scholars, leaven was made by taking a piece of bread and putting it in a damp, dark place until a thick, ooey, gooey mould formed – the lump of bread literally rots and decays. Modern yeast is so much cleaner and comes to us in those neat, little premeasured packets… we forget its disgusting origins. This disgusting origin is why leaven was used as a metaphor for malice and evil. Unleavened bread was considered pure and holy and some say even sweet. So, why would Jesus say, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” It sound like he says, “the Kingdom of God is like yeast”… but let’s listen a little more carefully… because he doesn’t say that exactly, and words matter.
There is a reason that I chose to also shared the passage from Luke 17 this morning. In answer to the Pharisees question about when Kingdom was coming, Jesus said, “‘the kingdom of God is among you.’” The Kingdom of God is among you… not that it will be among you… but it is already among you. Some translations even say that the Kingdom of God is in you! With this in mind, some scholars suggest that the parable of the leaven is a warning that the Kingdom of God that is in their midst already is like the environment created when the woman hid –and the verb used is “hid” not “kneads” or “works in” – remember words matter. If we think of the leaven as rotten – then the Kingdom in their midst is at risk of being spoiled. Like a rotten apple in the apple barrel that spoils the whole batch. Thinking about it using this comparison means that the Kingdom of God is not like a rotten apple – instead, the Kingdom of God is like the barrel of perfectly nutritious apples at risk because someone had placed a rotten apple somewhere in the barrel. The potential for spoilage has happened!
What does this mean for us? Within our own heart this kind of leaven ferments into attitudes and behaviours like jealousy, insecurity, and self-doubt. There is a little piece of us that can quickly succumb to fear and anger even in the face of goodness, especially if the world has taught us that goodness in can’t be trusted.
In the world we need only look to any workplace where there is an office gossip or a disgruntled employee who creates a toxic environment for everyone else. It is incredible how quickly that kind of poison spreads until the whole place is stirring with unhappiness. This happens in our churches too – it takes just one person to start a rumour or to spread their negative attitude about changes in the church for the whole church to be at odds with one another. The next thing you know the minister is leaving or the church is empty because folks expect church to be less like their workplaces and more like the Kingdom of God! I think this is not an unreasonable expectation, but it is hard to achieve when the church is made up of the same folks that are in the workplaces…
So, what can we do to keep the Kingdom of God in our midst at church, at work, in our relationships, and in our hearts protected from the malice and evil that is all around us? Consider this story from a man named Coach Muller who has this terrific blog called https://goodtimestories.wordpress.com/author/richmullercoach/ where he shares stories he has collected and written about moral issues.
“Two men shared a hospital room. One man propped up every day for an hour to help with his breathing. His bed was next to the window. Due to his condition, the other man had to spend all his time flat on his back. The men talked for hours on end and quickly became friends. They spoke of their wives and families, their homes, their jobs, their involvement in the military service, where they had been on vacation. And every afternoon when the man in the bed by the window could sit up, he would pass the time by describing to his roommate all the things he could see outside the window.
The man on his back lived for those one-hour sessions when his world would be broadened and enlivened by all the activity and color of the world outside. The window overlooked a park with a lovely lake. Ducks and swans played on the water while children sailed their model boats. Young lovers walked arm in arm amidst flowers of every color of the rainbow. Grand old trees graced the landscape, and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen in the distance.
As the man by the window described all this in exquisite detail, the man on the other side of the room would close his eyes and imagine the picturesque scene. One warm afternoon the man by the window described a parade passing by. Although the other man couldn’t hear the band – he could see it in his mind’s eye as the gentleman by the window portrayed it with descriptive words.
Then unexpectedly, he thought, “Why should this guy experience all the pleasures of seeing everything while I never get to see anything?” At first the man was ashamed of this thought. But as the days passed and he missed seeing more sights, his envy eroded into resentment and soon turned him sour. He began to brood and he found himself unable to sleep. He couldn’t help thinking how unfair it was that he didn’t get to look out that window and that thought controlled his mind.
Late one night as he lay staring at the ceiling, his friend began to cough. He was choking on the fluid in his lungs. The other man watched in the dimly lit room as the struggling man by the window groped for the button to call for help. Listening from across the room he never moved, never pushed his own button that would have brought the nurse running in. In less than five minutes the coughing and choking stopped, along with that the sound of breathing. Now there was only deathly silence.
The following morning the day nurse found the lifeless body of the man by the window, she was saddened and called the hospital attendants to take him away. As soon as it seemed appropriate, the other man asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch, and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone. Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look at the world outside. Finally, he would have the joy of seeing it all himself! He strained to slowly turn to look out the window beside the bed. It faced the brick wall across a narrow alley.
The man asked the nurse what could have compelled his friend who had described such wonderful things outside this window. She said, “Perhaps he just wanted to bring you joy.”
Like the man in the story, we are susceptible to envy, resentment, greed and other attitudes of scarcity. We might not go to the same ends as he did to get what we want, but it is hard to resist negative feelings that come over us. I think that if we believe that the Kingdom exists within us and around us already, maybe not completely fulfilled, but still here, then, as followers of Jesus, we are compelled to live in a way that works to fulfill the prayer that “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. These are not just meaningless word- they matter.
Through his parables, Jesus teaches us what the Kingdom of God is like and what our part in it is. To realize the Kingdom we must choose the path that isn’t always easy. The leavening process can be stopped in a number of ways and we can dig the rotten apple out of the barrel, but it takes an awareness that we are at risk of spoiling to encourage us to respond in a way that aligns with the Kingdom where love reigns. This past week, we were reminded once again that love does not reign supreme in the world at large even if we think it should. Hate, fear, and injustice are everywhere.
Jesus calls us to uncover the leaven that is hidden in our midst and spread the goodness of the Kingdom of God instead. Where there is gossip we are called to spread the truth. Where there is fear we are called to spread joy. Where there is injustice, we are called to spread compassion. Where there is scarcity, we are called to spread abundance. Where there is hate, we are called to spread love.
This is not easy work, but it is possible, God being our helper. Because words matter – I invite you to please rise with me and repeat our affirmation of faith (The New Creed) as a reminder of our commitment to the Kingdom of God…..