Jesus comes out in front of the crowds, to start his morning teaching. With no messing about he serves up five parables in rapid succession. His timing is masterful, and these word pictures burst forth with precision, so that you can't help but see what he is trying to get across.
Five short parables in a row. All of them are gems. Parables about a mustard seed, treasure buried in a field, a pricey pearl, and a fishing net. Then there is the one I'd like us to focus on this morning: the parable about the baker woman.
You might have missed it if you sneezed when the Gospel was read. Maybe I can't tell it like Jesus did, but here we go: "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." Jesus tosses out this parable, this one-liner, and he does so for a purpose, he wants us to see, ~ to see what? ~ a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus probably took this parable of the Kingdom from something that he had often seen his mother, Mary, do. Picture the kitchen: the woman takes three measures of flour! Do you know how much that is? A measure was enough flour for a large loaf to feed a family of five or six – and this woman took three measures! That is a lot of flour. Then the leaven ~ leaven is not yeast, but a little piece of dough kept over from the previous baking; it just keeps on fermenting. She empties this into a huge mixing bowl and then adds loads of water. This woman is a serious baker, not Delia whipping up a couple of delicate little biscuits than weigh less than a canary. So ~ why so much dough in this story? Jesus never says anything without purpose.
"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."
One of the Jewish ceremonies is the preparation for the Passover Feast when every scrap of leaven had to be sought out from the house and burned. So this parable would have sent shock waves through the crowd, it might have only been a brief picture, but it certainly would have grabbed their attention. The whole point of this parable lies in one thing – the transforming power of leaven. Add leaven or yeast and the whole dough is changed. Unleavened bread is like a water biscuit, hard, dry, unappetising and uninteresting; bread baked with leaven is soft, spongy, tasty and very good to eat.
The introduction of the leaven causes a transformation in the dough; and the coming of the Kingdom causes a transformation in life.
That is the answer to the first question, what does Jesus want us to see? Transformation.
Leaven is a small piece of that dough would be saved – it becomes leaven for the next batch, and is passed from generation to generation. Just as the good news of the kingdom of God should be passed around! This is why there were three measures of flour in the parable, because it is so huge it is a picture of the whole world.
Take another look at that huge mass of dough. It's not just flour and water any more. The leaven is in, invisible, but permeating the mass, and having its effect. A mystery is bubbling away inside, with much more happening than meets the eye. As this process continues, the hidden will become manifest. There's no way to stop it!
Leaven or Yeast takes a while to work, and its working is mysterious. So we have to be patient as the dough rises and comes to life. This dough is not a dead lump, a hopeless, shapeless pile, but instead a universe where opportunities become real. And it is not only the world represented here. Jesus talks to each individual person, just as he is talking to each one of us here this morning. Just as we are in the world, we are in the dough, an individual roll if you like, and here we see the baker woman at work with our life, kneading, pounding, pushing, shaping and moulding our circumstances, as well the people around us. Nothing is outside this piece of dough. Just as yeast permeates the entire lump, so the kingdom of God is present everywhere.
If we look around us and within us, we can recognize the presence of the kingdom. But it does not come with brass bands. It's not the subject of headline news and public relations efforts. As Jesus said, it is like leaven working invisibly in the dough, a hidden yet potent activity. It will not let it lie still, it is a disturbing element that makes it rise, it makes it active. There are times when the Holy Spirit calls us to be active, to make a disturbance for the kingdom, not to lie low and hope it will all pass away quietly.
We are called to be yeast, when so often we act like the flour.
Just as it takes faith to believe that bread will rise, it takes faith to see the kingdom of God in the everyday stuff of life, the ordinary. But when we look for it then we find it present, abundantly present. And when we do, then we have more reasons to give thanks than we ever expected.
What is this kingdom of God? How will I see it? How will I recognise it? It is where there is peace and goodwill, justice and freedom, truth and generosity, healing and wholeness, and where we see the love of God operating in people’s lives and in our own.
Such a small parable, just once sentence – yet so much for us to digest:
•Leaven ~ that small piece of dough kept back every time to pass on from generation to generation, just as we pass around the kingdom of God.
• The baker woman at work in our lives and in the world, if we have eyes to see.
This is spoken to you in the name of that God who will offer abundant bread at the heavenly banquet to come, of Jesus the bread of life, broken for each one of us and who gives us a foretaste now at our Eucharist, and the Holy Spirit who is the ever present leaven silently working in our lives and in our church.
When we pray that familiar prayer, may it have ever deeper significance for each one of us:
Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth (in your mind insert the words "in me") as it is in Heaven. Amen
Matthew 13: 31 - 52