The Kingdom of Heaven: It’s a phrase we’ve all heard. And I would be willing to bet that while this phrase conjures images unique to each of us, there are, nonetheless, many commonalities.
I would be willing to bet that among those commonalities is an image of a distant place. In other words, I would be willing to bet that the Kingdom of Heaven conjures an image of an out-there destination – it usually floats somewhere above the clouds.
And I would be willing to bet that among those commonalities is an image of a future time. In other words, I would be willing to bet that the Kingdom of Heaven conjures an image of an era after you’ve relinquished that fleshy bag of carbon and atoms you’re toting through this grand adventure on this green spaceship.
So, in this paradigm, not only do you have to endure the discomforts of getting to a distant place and a future time, but you finally stumble over those last exhausting steps of a cloud ladder only to find yourself standing before a massive gate. Now, this massive gate might have jewels or pearls, but it’s still a gate. It’s a lukewarm welcome at best, made even less warm by the presence of a man with a leather binder, a man whose role it is to confirm that you have, indeed, fulfilled the requirements of entrance.
So again, not only do you have to endure the discomforts of getting to a distant place and a future time only to find yourself standing before a massive gate monitored by a celestial bouncer, and in this paradigm you might have done all of it only to realize that it was for nothing! Entrance, after all, isn’t guaranteed.
So, I hope it comes as some relief to consider my suggestion that Judaism’s most famous rabbi and Christianity’s most noted avatar wouldn’t have related to such a paradigm. Jesus’ “kingdom of heaven” had nothing to do with a there and then description of death, and everything to do with a here and now vision for life.
Again, Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven is best considered by this audience as something of an alternate reality that he would have us realize. On earth, as it is in heaven, is how he’s recorded as expressing this idea.
Today’s Parable of the Yeast (also called the Parable of the Leaven; names were assigned later, you understand. It’s not inappropriate for you to create your own title based upon the meaning you discover) the Parable of the Yeast is one of the shortest of Jesus’ “the Kingdom of Heaven is like” parables. Most scholars agree that it’s likely an authentic, Jesus teaching, and it offers, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who took yeast and mixed it with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
Now, if we can accept that the parabolic teachings of Jesus were meant to provoke us, to press us beyond ourselves; to challenge our easy answers, to upset our arbitrary conclusions, to confront our habitual perceptions, to unsettle our accepted values, to arrive at easy interpretations such as, “Small beginnings can yield big results,” or, “Good things can come from sour stuff,” or the less palatable, “We are to go out and convert the other spore people until we achieve something of a bulging loaf of glutenous religiosity,” is probably to miss something.
Today’s parable begins, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman...”
Let’s start by grasping that a parable with a female character isn’t surprising at all. The widow, the woman with the coin, the five wise and the five not-so-wise virgins – women have been the subjects of such tales since, well, since Eve, really.
And given their long history as positive characters in Judaism, Jesus’ comparing the kingdom to a woman who bakes should raise no more eyebrows than Jesus’ comparing the kingdom to a man who plants or to a shepherd who tends. In other words, gender isn’t important to our story.
So, what we know is that we have a person – probably a decent person who just happens to be a female.
The parable continues, “The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who took yeast...”
Now, yeast refers to what we would likely call sourdough starter. Not those little yellow and red packets lodged in your refrigerator door between an old battery and a jar of relish (yes, it’s like I’m a psychic, I know). Yeast refers to a sourdough starter which leavens flour through a process of decomposition or decay.
And it makes sense that Jesus would use yeast as a teaching metaphor. It would have been familiar to his students – hearkening back to the only bible they knew and to their primal narrative of Moses’ leading the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt. In one tradition, the unleavened bread of Passover is a nod to those who fled so quickly that there was no time to allow their breads to rise, you see.
Now, this term has been used metaphorically in both Jewish and Christian scriptures (about 13 times in the Gospels alone, in fact) to reference something whose taste is just a bit off. Paul leverages this metaphor, he says, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch?” In today’s language, he might have said, “Do you not know that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch?” Or he might have said, “Do you not know that one fabricated rumor sours the entire church?” In a different letter, Paul uses yeast as a metaphor for false teachings.
Now, it’s important to be reminded that Christian tradition is unique in the sense that it’s the only tradition I know whose dominant voice is drawn from responsive letters. Meaning, we have Paul’s answers, but we don’t have the questions.
Rev. Nina and I were chatting this past week and I likened reading of Paul’s letters to listening to one end of a telephone conversation. Let’s imagine that Paul said, “Turn right,” and without any way of knowing whether he was giving directions to Canada or Mexico, humanity just decided that we should turn right. Some would go so far as to say that God commands us to turn right. And humanity started turning right and has been going in circles ever since.
Nonetheless, what we know is that we have person – probably a decent person who just happens to be a female - taking a leavening agent that gives a bitter taste.
So, moving on, “The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who took yeast and mixed it with three measures of flour...”
And while most modern translations have the woman “mixing” the yeast into the flour, the better translation from the Greek may be that the woman “hid” the yeast in the flour – three measures of flour, by the way, which, isn’t three cups of flour but somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-60 pounds of flour.
It’s a lot, you see. The implication isn’t a loaf or two of your grandmother Sheldon’s glutenous white bread, waiting for you after school. Steam rising. Something called Oleo melting in the middle. Cinnamon and sugar crystalizing in that puddle of sunshine. The implication is something big.
And the significance of this “hiding” is that Jesus is recorded as having taught, “Nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed.” So, it was understood that that which is hidden, is hidden that it might one day come forth in bigger ways.
So, what we know is that we have person – probably a decent person who just happens to be a female - taking a leavening agent that gives a bitter taste and hiding it in a vast, fertile medium, that the thing hidden might one day come forth in bigger ways to touch countless souls.
So there you have it. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
Now, two gospel writers placed this Parable of the Yeast adjacent to the Parable of the Mustard Seed. And this makes a lot of sense to me. After all, isn’t a woman hiding yeast in the flour very much like a man hiding seed in the ground? Both equipped with seemingly insignificant items which, when planted in vast, fertile mediums, come forth in bigger ways to touch countless souls?
And while it’s tempting to arrive at those easy, pleasant conclusions, for both parables, (“Small beginnings can yield big results,” or, “Good things can come from sour stuff,” true as those may be) I find myself wondering if Jesus’ choice of the yeast as something bitter and the mustard seed as something small aren’t cautionary teachings about the power of negativity. Some would translate the seed not as physically small but as the least of all seeds, you see. The yeast is bitter and the seed is small.
I find myself wondering if Jesus wasn’t effectively cautioning that if you plant something bitter, if you plant something small, whether in the vast fertile mediums of dough, dirt, consciousness or culture, it won’t stay hidden, but it will one day come forth in bigger ways which will touch countless souls.
So, maybe Jesus was telling us that the kingdom of heaven in an idea of limitless creativity in which real choices made by real humans have real consequences.
So maybe by extension, Jesus was asking each of us to consider, “What am I planting in my consciousness?”
Am I perpetuating the confining ideas of a cruel childhood? Am I accepting the limiting paradigms of a stale history? Am I enabling the mediocre habits of a status quo? Am I giving the majority of my imagination practices to bland versions of what’s possible for me? Am I giving the bulk of my expectation energies to disasters and catastrophes and upheavals?
“Where am I planting something bitter?” because it won’t stay hidden.
And maybe Jesus was asking each of us to consider, “What am I planting in my culture?”
Am I sowing discord? Am I furthering suspicion? Am I escalating division? Are my motives selfish? Is my heart divisive? Is my intention punitive?
“Where am I planting something small?” because it won’t stay hidden.
So, you see, I have to wonder if this parable is about creativity and accountability. I think this parable is about humanity’s unlimited potential to affect life — for good or for ill, both individually and collectively. I think Jesus was saying that a woman who bakes and a man who sows – neither mystical, winged beings from on high – but relatable human beings like you and me, wearing suits of skin, carry ideas, beliefs, dreams and desires, insignificant as they might seem, that when planted in the vast, fertile mediums of dough, dirt, consciousness or culture, will come forth in bigger ways which will touch countless souls.
You see, I think this parable reminds us that the yeast we mix in – that the seeds we plant – won’t yield their respective products for us alone, but for other souls seated in this room and for even more we’ll never meet.
Maybe Jesus is saying that our choices are not for us alone, that we really do belong to each other.
And why would Jesus teach this? For the same reasons he taught a lot of things — because it’s easier to do it another way. Particularly in these virtual days of hiding behind social media personas, block buttons, faceless emails and anonymous letters, it’s easier to plant that which is bitter and small. It’s easier to play the victim and to blame the other.
It strikes me a truth that the Jesus teachings aren’t so often about the right way or the wrong way, you see, as they’re about the right way or the easy way.
Maybe Jesus was saying that each of us is that woman, standing before that Galilean oven ready to fashion that dough; and that each of us is that farmer, standing in his Galilean field ready to sow that crop; and that in our temptation to choose that which is bitter, in our temptation to choose that which is small (in our temptation to choose that which is easy) let us have the courage to look into each other’s eyes and to accept that this is a choice we would make for each other. Let us have the generosity to ask if that’s really what we want to do. And let us have the strength to choose rightly.