Parable of the Yeast

Matthew 13:33 (Both the NRSV and Amy-Jill Levine’s Translation from the Greek)

He told them another parable: “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.” (NRSV)

And Amy-Jill Levine’s Translation from the Greek:

“Similar to the kingdom of heaven is leaven that a woman, taking, hid in three measures of flour until was leavened all.”



Yesterday, I spent the better part of the day at MIT with Nancy Moorehead and Sonja Amadae on “Reducing the Dangers of Nuclear War” at which Sonja was presenting. There were physicists and philosophers and political scientists and at least one Nobel laureate and a former Secretary of Defense. I kept thinking, “I’ve really got to leave after the next speaker. I need to…ahem…finish my sermon.” But the conference was too fascinating to leave.

We heard about what it would be like to die in a nuclear attack, should a megaton explosion take place over the city of Boston. We heard about the devastating effects to the climate should even a small exchange of nuclear weapons somewhere on the other side of the world precipitate nuclear winter when the smoke cloud blocks the sun for ten years or so. More practically, we learned ways of divesting our funds from companies that build nuclear weapons for the U.S. government and the Mayor of Cambridge even unveiled the City’s new commitment to divest its nearly one billion dollar retirement fund from investments in these corporations.

But one of the most interesting questions raised by the panelists was how to change the larger cultural consciousness concerning nuclear weapons. How do we challenge the widespread and taken-for-granted assumption that nuclear weapons make us safer and more secure as a country? How do we begin helping people to see a worldwide arsenal of over 15,000 weapons[1] as a suicide mechanism rather than a security blanket? How do we cultivate people’s imagination in such a way that they begin taking action to dismantle this stockpile?

            And amid the physicists and philosophers and political scientists and Nobel laureates and secretaries of defense in the room, my mind turned toward something too quaint to be spoken: parables.

            This is what parables do. It’s what they’re for. It’s the raison d'être of a parable: to cultivate imaginations to consider a reality beyond the status quo. Dale Allison put this poignantly, saying, “Jesus is above all an author of parables and a devotee of the imagination: he cannot report but only imagine.”[2] He continues,

“Persuaded that the true nature of things is not obvious, Jesus sets out, in word and deed, to fracture the hypnotic hold of life-as-it-has-always-been. He seeks to shift our attention, to alter our perception, to expand our awareness, to change our behavior…he dislikes the default setting of our ordinary consciousness, whose defect is precisely that it accepts the present world as the real world.”[3]

            And our problem with nuclear weapons isn’t a new hypnotic hold on our consciousness. Empires – whether Roman or British or U.S. – have nearly always measured their strength by their ability to destroy.

The Empire of Rome is like legions of armed fighters marching through a region – indestructible – removing any obstacle that stands in the way of domination.

The British Empire is like the fleets of the Royal Navy, sailing the world and colonizing all upon whose shores they land, the world over.

The U.S. empire is like an intercontinental ballistic missile sitting in its silo on hair-trigger alert, ready to vaporize any threat, no matter how far away – like a Trident submarine speeding through the world’s oceans, carrying onboard the nuclear makings of utter destruction wherever it goes.

The militaristic has had a hypnotic hold on our imaginations for a long, long time: our sense of identity bound up with the ability to fight and conquer and indiscriminately destroy.

But as a devotee of the imagination, Jesus is not willing to let the ordinary life-as-it-has-always-been story have the final word in our consciousness. He cannot report the numbers but only help us imagine in metaphor profound enough fracture the hypnotic hold of the default settings of our ordinary consciousness, so Jesus tells a story like this:

“Similar to the kingdom of heaven is leaven that a woman, taking, hid in three measures of flour until was leavened all.”

The lectionary pairs this parable with the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the treasure and the parable of the pearl. But if you have to subsume the message of this parable with the message of similar (but also very different!) stories, some interesting nuances and unusual details of the way Jesus told this story risk getting lost.

For example: a woman. Read through the parables of Jesus and note how many times he compares the Kingdom of God to something taking place in the activity of a woman. It’s not that no one was telling stories of women in First Century Israel – much of the Hebrew Bible contains stories of women who were often far more faithful and virtuous than the men in the stories. But he didn’t have to tell the parables in ways that featured women. After all, he was speaking in the language of a Kingdom.

Now, presumably, like any storyteller, Jesus told his stories over and over again in various contexts to different audiences and, undoubtedly, he told them in a little differently each time. In Matthew’s rendition of this story from the lips of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is like the leaven that a woman took.

But in the Gospel of Thomas – one of those books that didn’t make it into our New Testament canon – the writer remembered the parable a little differently. It isn’t the leaven that resembles the kingdom for Thomas’ Jesus, but the kingdom is like the woman who took the leaven. The writer of the Gospel of Thomas says, "What the kingdom of the father resembles is [a] woman who took a small amount of leaven, [hid] it in some dough, and produced huge loaves of bread” (Gospel of Thomas saying 96).

            The Kingdom resembles a woman…

And then there are some things we would otherwise miss if not for those who study the original Greek text and are able to challenge less-than-stellar translations of the Gospel.

For example, the translators of the New Revised Standard Version translated the text to say that the kingdom is like “yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour.”

But Amy-Jill Levine, whose book on the parables a group of us studied over the course of Lent, says, “We need to correct the translations that have the woman ‘mixing’ the yeast into the dough, because that is not what the Greek says.”[4] Levine says what the woman is doing here in the Greek is hiding the leaven: the kingdom is like “leaven that a woman, taking, hid” in the flour. She continues: “This woman is doing something cryptically rather than in an up-front manner that can be controlled.”[5]

The kingdom is like something being done in secret, something cryptic, hiding something somewhere where it may or may not belong with the motivation for such a surreptitious activity left in totally question. What the bread supposed to be leavened or was it meant to be flatbread?

And then there are some details we wouldn’t necessarily notice unless we knew something about ancient measurements, like: three measures of flour. In my mind, every time I’ve ever heard this parable, I’ve imagined the woman using the kind of measuring cup my grandmother would use when baking in her kitchen, mixing the yeast into three cups of flour. But that’s not quite the case.

“Three measures” of flour actually amounts to “somewhere between forty and sixty pounds” of flour.[6] The image, Levine notes, is one of extravagance or hyperbole – far, far too much bread for one person to eat. “She might even be in the position to determine who gets the bread.”[7]

The kingdom of God resembles a batch of a staple food like bread that is so hyperbolically huge, so egregiously enormous that one person couldn’t possibly consume it all: extravagance – enough to feed a whole village. 

And then there are some things we could easily miss about this little story of Jesus if we happen not to know much about the art of ancient bread baking. For example, when we read this parable, we shouldn’t imagine little packets of yeast you might use for baking. We should, instead, picture something more akin to sourdough starter. If you, like me, have never made a loaf of bread, there is a great documentary on bread you can find on Netflix.[8] (See me after for the details.) Levine says, sourdough starter “is created when 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 serves as the leavening agent when it is subsequently mixed in with more dough.”[9]

I don’t have any books on the science of bread baking in my library, so I apologize for quoting Wikipedia here – it isn’t usually my go-to source for information. But in this case, what I read in Wikipedia was in agreement with the Netflix documentary and there were actual scientists and bakers on there, so listen to this description: “Without an understanding of microbiology, early bakers would have had little ability to directly control yeast cultures, but still kept locally interesting cultures by reusing doughs and starters to leaven later batches.”[10] These leaven cultures would be “transferred from batch to batch by means of previously mixed (‘old’) dough.”

 The kingdom of God is like a little batch of microbes – living things too small to see – that operate through a process of decay to bring to life a lump of dead dough, invisibly transforming it into something both tasty and nourishing. Some of the leaven is so interesting and delightful that the baker saves some of the dough from each batch and uses it over and over again to make loaf after loaf of delicious bread – this is like the kingdom of God.

            Food historians don’t really know when yeast or leaven came into the mix. For much of ancient human history, all that was known in the world were flatbreads. You made the dough and add some salt and water and put it in the oven and bake it and you’ve got a tasty tortilla or some pita or something of that sort. The best we can do is speculate that, at some point in ancient history, a woman set out to the communal oven to help bake her village’s batch of bread for the week and accidentally left her mixture of flour and water sitting out on a warm day a little longer than it should have been left out and the natural bacteria in the flour started to ferment.[11]

She may notice that the mixture looks a little strange when she uncovers it to roll out the dough. Perhaps she notices that it’s a little smelly and looks a little funny – not quite like the other three hundred times she’s baked her village’s bread. But what can she do? They need to eat, so she puts her dough into the oven with all of the other women’s dough and waits for it to bake.

            Can you even imagine when they pulled that bread out of that old communal oven? The baker stands around with all of the other women baking bread alongside her that day. They pull their huge batch of bread from the fiery mouth and, to all of their great surprise, one loaf isn’t flat and heavy like it should be – like it always is. Today, there is one loaf of bread that is lighter and fluffier. All of the communal bakers gather around to look, wondering what went wrong with this batch?

They wait just long enough for it to cool a bit and they begin breaking off pieces of her bread, admiring the porous texture and the ways you can squeeze it between your fingers and watch it spring back again, like it’s alive. And then, one brave baker decides to taste the mystery bread and the flavor is unlike anything she’s ever experienced in her life! Then they all begin to taste it. It’s the best bread they’ve ever had and no one can figure out why this loaf of bread is any different from all of the others. They only have one recipe for bread, after all. They always make it the same exact way for as long as anyone, living or dead, could possibly remember.

Only the one baker knows the secret of this fluffy and delicious bread that she stumbled onto it completely by accident and hid her batch of strange, smelly dough in the communal oven among all of the others that would feed the village that week and she smiles wryly to herself, not saying a word.

And they all stand around the community oven in awe of this special bread, the smell filling their nostrils, the sound of the crust’s crunch making their mouths water each time another one breaks off chunk. It completely changes their imagination for what bread can be.

“Just one more piece,” they each say as they stand around the hot oven picking every last morsel off of this odd and delicious loaf of bread, their laughter and moans of amazed satisfaction filling the warm air as they savor every last mouthwatering crumb.

            And that’s what the kingdom of God is like.



[1] For the stats, see: http://www.ploughshares.org/world-nuclear-stockpile-report



[2] Dale Allison, “Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52,” Working Preacher, online at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=107



[3] Dale Allison, “Commentary.”



[4] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 121.



[5] Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 137



[6] Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 133.



[7] Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 137



[8] The Netflix documentary is in four parts titled, “Cooked,” featuring Michael Pollen. The segment on bread is titled, “Air.”



[9] Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 121



[10] “Baker’s Yeast,” Wikipedia, online at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baker%27s_yeast.



[11] “Baker’s Yeast,” Wikipedia.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • April 30, 2016