If you were looking for the kingdom of heaven this past week, you’d have found it on a Washington interstate highway. Why? Because “the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said, “is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened”….and spilled over the sides of a truck bed and onto the interstate highway. Okay, maybe I added that last little bit, but that’s what happened last Monday. Apparently, the truck was shipping a lot of leftover bread dough from a bread factory to be recycled for animal feed. The midday temperatures were warm enough to cause the dough to rise, all the way out of the truck and over the sides of the bed.
You’ve got to laugh a little bit at both this turn of events and at this string of parables we get today from Jesus. The best part is when Jesus asks his disciples if they understand what’s meant with all of these parables and they answer “yes.” Really, disciples? You understand how this truck overflowing with bread dough is like the kingdom of God?? More power to you, I suppose.
On one hand, we’re given parables to encourage us to find the holy in what seems rather mundane. Yes, the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that causes bread dough to spill over the edges of a truck bed. It gets lost–in a good way–in the mix, helps us rise, makes us grow, adds function, maybe. Parables help us see and look for the kingdom of God in our midst.
What parables also do, however, is present us with something that’s meant to be picked apart a little bit, explored, pondered. It’s not just a truck bed overflowing with bread dough on an interstate; it’s also a woman who hid leaven in flour until it had all risen. Those are important details in the story, mostly because they represent the exact opposite of what was, at the time, considered “right” or “proper” or “holy.”
For one, a woman is the subject of this parable. A woman is the one who is mixing the yeast. You could attribute this to the fact that it was a woman’s job to do to the cooking or the baking, but this does not get us around the comparison of the woman’s work to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is making a bold statement with this comparison. Men were the priests in charge of the holy things of their time and religion. If anyone was to be compared to the kingdom of heaven, it was men. Women were considered religiously impure. And yet, according to Jesus, they are so much like the kingdom of heaven.
If that weren’t enough to pique your interest in what Jesus were trying to say here, consider this other detail: the woman hid the yeast. The word here is not really “mixed” as the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has translated it; nor is it “kneaded,” the word naturally associated with baking bread. The word is “hidden”–the leaven was hidden in the flour. It’s a strange word to use for the kingdom of heaven; you hide things you want to cover up or to leave unexposed. Why would the kingdom of heaven be hidden? Well, it could be that the woman was hiding the yeast in the same way you hide a Christmas gift before Christmas; you want it to be a surprise. But it appears it has more to do with what she was hiding–yeast.
Again, it’s mistranslated. It’s leaven, not yeast, and leaven is not like modern yeast. Modern yeast is made using a very detailed process of fermentation. It’s made in laboratories, where temperatures can be carefully controlled to assure quality and cleanliness. As you might guess, there were no such processes in the first century. Leaven, by contrast, was basically created from moldy bread. And because of that, It was considered dirty, corrupted. Since it wasn’t “pure,” you couldn’t use it in anything you offered to God. It also stands in stark contrast to the Passover meal, also called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The woman was hiding the leaven, because, even if she had understood its benefits, it wasn’t always considered “good.”
The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who hid leaven. That’s a sentence intended to make us question where we look for the kingdom of heaven and also to question who claims to have control over it, for the kingdom as Jesus describes it is exactly the opposite of what the religious authorities would have dictated.
Though the so-called religious authorities weren’t behind it, there were several items in the news this week that attempted to put people in their places, not unlike the way religious authorities in the first century tried to keep women and leaven from being “holy.” For one, transgendered people were banned from serving in the military. For another, a civil rights law was said not to apply to LGBT individuals, meaning it does not protect against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. These decisions are not unlike those of the ancient religious authorities who claimed that holiness was only for men and for unleavened bread. But if the kingdom of heaven is like a woman who hid leaven then certainly the good news is that the kingdom of heaven can’t be squashed by unjust laws or rules or regulations, but is instead always working as this subversive undercurrent, carrying a certain hope for justice all the time and always moving us forward, even in the face of injustice.
In addition, if the kingdom of heaven is like a woman who hid leaven, then this parable also gives us grounds for a certain amount of resistance to the way the world or society or government would have you believe who is worthy or not worthy; valuable or not valuable. In the kingdom of heaven, all children of God are holy and of tremendous worth and value. All.
And, in case you’re wondering, it works for some of the other parables in today’s string of parables, too. The mustard seed (which really turns into a shrub and not a tree) was more of a weed and would never have been planted in a garden. And yet, the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that doesn’t belong in the garden, at least according to those who plant gardens. Pearls form when some form of irritant works its way into the oyster. And yet, the kingdom of heaven is like this irritant.
So here’s what I think Jesus is trying to tell us with parables in general and with this particular parable of a truck overflowing with bread dough during this particular week of disheartening news: Do not listen to the voices of those who would tell you that you’re not worthy for any reason. It know it’s easier said than done, especially for those of us who internalize things. But the voice of Jesus is, in the end, the only voice that matters. And it’s Jesus who says you are so worthy, you are so loved, and you are an important, vital even,piece of the kingdom of heaven. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Amen.