Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
I’m going to file the following story under “perfect sermon illustrations that happen just in time for writing this Sunday’s sermon.” According to The Washington Post, a truck driver in Tacoma, WA, was pulled over because of an ooey-gooey substance that was overflowing his truck and spilling over onto Interstate 5. It turns out that he had picked up bags of yeasty dough that were leftover waste from a bakery, like he always did, and was delivering them to a processing plant where the dough would be repurposed for livestock feed. Unfortunately, his truck wasn’t refrigerated and it was a hot day for the Pacific Northwest—with temperatures in the mid-80s. And the dough, since it had yeast in it, started rising and seeping out of the cracks in the truck and spilling over onto the highway. People driving by didn’t know what it was and called it in to the police, who, when they came out and found out what it was, said the truck driver was more embarrassed than anything else. Thankfully the dough didn’t cause any crashes or injuries on the road. Seriously, folks, you can’t make this stuff up.
The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was driving a truck full of yeasty dough down the highway, and it was a warm day, and the dough started spilling over onto the highway and causing people to slow down and call the police. Well, maybe that’s what Jesus would have said if there were big bakeries in 1st century Palestine and trucks that delivered the waste to be repurposed. But instead he said this, “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.” This parable is part of a series of parables that we get from Jesus in our Gospel lesson today. With the parables that we’ve had the last two weeks, Jesus gave us an explanation, so we had a starting point with which to grasp them. But with this series of parables, we have no explanation, so we’re left to turn them this way and that, trying to figure out what Jesus meant, and what, exactly, the kingdom of heaven is really all about.
So, let’s look at the woman mixing—or, more accurately to the Greek, hiding—yeast into flour and see if we can figure out what Jesus might be talking about. I’ve made bread from scratch before. It’s a long and laborious process, which is why I don’t do it unless I really, truly have nothing else going on for most of the day. I remember getting out those little packets of yeast and mixing it into the dough, then kneading and punching the dough, and then letting it rise for a while before doing it again. Those of us who have baked bread before can identify with this. But actually, surprise, surprise, they didn’t have those little packets of yeast in 1st century Palestine. Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University, says that the Greek term that is translated yeast actually refers to what is known as sourdough starter. She says that “water mixes with the naturally occurring yeast spores that end up in flour when it is ground, and then the yeast’s enzymes break down the starch in the flour and convert it into glucose. . . . The starter is ready when what the recipe books call a ‘pleasant sour smell’ develops and the mixture has bubbles” (p. 111). So, is Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to something that develops as a result of a decomposition process? That’s odd, and a little gross.
So then, what about the woman? Maybe the kingdom of heaven is supposed to be like what the woman is doing, as she is hiding the sourdough starter in the dough that she is kneading. Something very important is hidden in the dough, and with it, the dough will be transformed into something new: bread. Bread that will feed a lot of people. Does anyone know how much, in today’s measurements, three measures of flour is? Any guesses? Well, if you said somewhere between forty and sixty pounds, you would be right. Let’s think about that for a minute. This woman, by herself, is hiding enough sourdough starter in forty to sixty pounds of dough, so that it will transform into that amount of bread, able to feed lots of people. So perhaps the kingdom of heaven is like this woman, who continually works at the dough, working the yeast all through it, so that when it rises and is baked, it can feed many, many people. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is hidden to our eyes, like this yeast, until one day it is revealed and there is an abundance of food for everyone.
Let’s now put this parable of the kingdom of heaven alongside one of the other ones that Jesus gives us today, that of the merchant finding the pearl that he sells everything for. This is a parable that has had many interpretations over the centuries, and somewhere along the way, we have lost the context that Jesus spoke this parable into. The first thing that we should note is that merchants were not well regarded in 1st century Jewish culture. That may be hard for us to hear in American society, built as it is on capitalism, on buying and selling of goods and services, so let me say it again: merchants were not well thought of in 1st century Jewish culture. We have evidence for this in various places in the New Testament, but one that is most obvious is 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” And just two weeks ago, in the parable of the sower, we had the image of the seed that fell among thorns: it grew up, but the cares of this world and the lure of wealth choked it, so that the seed, or the word, died.
So here we have this merchant in search of fine pearls. The merchant finds a pearl of great value and sells all that he has so that he might possess it. Something that never struck me before is this: once the merchant sells all he has and possesses the pearl, he is no longer a merchant. He is just a guy that owns a pretty pearl. The pearl is so important to him that he loses everything he has and all status that he may have had as a merchant—with the ill regard of the community because he was a merchant—and he becomes someone new. When we think of the kingdom of heaven, therefore, perhaps Jesus is saying that it is necessary for us to lose our former identity and our former possessions and become someone new.
What ties the parable of the woman hiding yeast and the merchant finding a pearl of great value together, I think, along with the other parables that Jesus speaks today, is the idea of transformation. The mustard seed starts as a small seed and grows into a mighty plant. The yeast transforms the dough into bread that can feed multitudes. The man who finds treasure in the field sells all he has in order to possess the field, losing his identity and gaining a new one. The merchant who finds the pearl sells all he has and is no longer a merchant, but just some guy who owns a pretty pearl—free now to become someone new. The kingdom of heaven is something that is hidden but will be revealed. And the kingdom of heaven is something that will cause people to transform themselves, losing their former identity and gaining a new one.
So, what does this look like? Well, one thing that I think the kingdom of heaven looks like is people fulfilling their God-given vocations in complete freedom. So maybe we need to ask ourselves what our pearl of great value is. What is that one thing that we would transform ourselves for? What is that one thing that would cause us to give up any status we have and to redefine ourselves? Several years ago, I wrote down my story of personal transformation, describing how I went from a deaconess in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod to a pastor in the ELCA, for a group who was advocating for the ordination of women in the LCMS. This week I discovered that people are still finding that story and being touched by it. As I reflect on this in light of the story of the merchant finding the beautiful pearl, I see that I did indeed give up my former status and identity, and under God’s call and God’s guidance, I transformed who I was in order to possess that pearl of great value, which is God’s call upon my life to be an ordained pastor. Like the woman hiding yeast in flour and working it into the bread, this transformation did not happen all at once. Instead, it has taken years to come to fruition, and I believe that the work that God is doing in me–just as the work God is doing in all of us–has not yet come to its completion. And it probably won’t be completed in our lifetimes here on Earth, but it will be in the life yet to come.
What is that pearl of great value in your life? How is God working to bring the kingdom of heaven to fulfillment through you as an individual, and through us as a congregation? Where do you see God at work in your life? What is God’s call upon us as a congregation? How is God working through us to bring the kingdom of heaven to fulfillment? These are all questions that I want us to be thinking about in the coming weeks, because I believe that God is calling us as the church to transform ourselves, so people may catch glimpses of the kingdom of heaven around us. The old models of church that have been handed down to us no longer work. People are looking for something different; they are looking for glimpses of the kingdom of heaven at work in and around us. Are we willing to transform ourselves so that we can see the kingdom of heaven at work and allow others around us to see it? Let’s keep our eyes open and our ears listening so we might discern what God is calling us to be. Amen.