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Parables of Hunger: The Parable of Leaven

July 16, 2017

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church, July 16, 2017. This is the first of three sermon of the Parables of Hunger

 Matthew 13:1-2; 33-35

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such a great crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables… He told them: “the kingdom of God is to be compared to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till all the flour was leavened.” Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; and without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken to the prophet: I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.

One of the most distinctive things about the way Jesus spoke with people was his use of parables. The word parable literally means “things thrown together.” And Jesus could throw the oddest things together. He would often begin by saying something like “the kingdom of heaven is like…” or “the kingdom of heaven can be compared to…” and then speak about buried treasure, a beautiful fish, and a precious pearl, or he would weave stories around the character of unjust judges, murderous party hosts, or day laborers working in a field. Often when Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven could be compared to something” it’s not clear whether the comparison is intended to show similarity or difference. For example is the kingdom of heaven like a king who refuses to forgive an unmerciful servant? Or is the kingdom of heaven to be contrasted with that unmerciful king, a person who is all-too-familiar in the ancient world and our own?

Additionally, it is not necessarily the case that the most powerful character in a parable should be compared to God. That would often make God unjust, quick to anger, and murderous in response to the wickedness, dishonesty, or even simple cautiousness of ‘his’ servants. It is already too easy for too many people to think about God that way. More often, Jesus’ parables of kings and emperors and wealthy landowners are mockeries of the way powerful people act in the world; in Jesus world and our own. The parables prod us to imagine what our world would be like if power were arranged differently. Can we imagine a world without empires, plantations, and wealthy elite rule?[i]

For when we get past the surface meaning of a parable, we are usually left with more questions and an invitation to imagine. What does it mean when Jesus says that a pearl merchant discovers a pearl of great price and so sells all the rest of his merchandise in order to acquire the pearl? He finds something precious, yes, but he is also now out of business! And he is obviously not intending to sell the pearl of great price. After all, he could’ve taken the profit from selling everything he had if profit was what he was after. Yet, if he is after possession, rather than profit, I wonder, ‘how will he eat?’

You see, if the point of the parable is that we should forsake all else to acquire that which is truly valuable, then Jesus could have just said that. And he would certainly not have told a story that raises more questions about the reason and intentions of the merchant. I ask again, ‘how will he eat?’

And this is not an idle question, because most of the people Jesus was speaking to when he told these parables were hungry. Biblical scholar Louise Schottroff says this is the world described in Matthew’s gospel:

Jesus’ parable of the leaven, in a single sentence, describes life in the first century. A woman is preparing bread dough. Bread is, and was, the basic stuff of life. The word bread could represent all the food on the table or all the nourishment people need, as when Jesus and his disciples pray “give us this day our daily bread.” When the Creator, who has given bread, is blessed at the eating of bread, human life is experienced as part of creation. The miracle of human life and its dependence on creation is brought to awareness. The sounds of kneading dough have deeper meaning than other sounds; they assure those listening that life will go on – even and especially in situations in which life is endangered.[ii]

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Bread assures us that life will go on, even and especially in situations in which life is endangered. This brings to mind a story I learned years ago. During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”[iii]

We might think today of refugees from Syria, or internally displaced indigenous communities in Columbia, or closer to home, those who have recently been released from county jail but with nowhere to live and no job to provide income.

To cite biblical scholar Louise Shottroff again, this is how the Gospel of Matthew describes the people to whom Jesus is speaking.

They are so impoverished that their relationship to God is breaking (Matt 5:3) and hunger is suppressing the Sabbath (Matt. 12). The illnesses spoken of in the Gospel of Matthew are connected to the state of hunger.

To these starving people Jesus, in Matthew 13, speaks four parables about the fruit of the earth, two about grain and one about mustard, then, at the end, the parable about leaven. The first two parables report the failure and success of farm work. The two at the end speak only of success, the miracle of the earth and its products. People, both men and women, must work for their food. They have to sow; they have to knead bread.

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The parable of the leaven focuses on the work of the woman baking bread. She “takes” leaven and “hides” it [or conceals it] in a large quantity of flour. She’s preparing the dough for many people, bread for several families. The parable draws our attention to a particular moment in the preparation of the dough: the mixture of leaven, flour, and water must stand in a warm place, covered, while it rises, “until the whole of the flour is leavened.” Then the dough will be kneaded again and shaped into bread. It is not only the work of the woman baking bread, it is also the miracle of creation that the dough is leavened and rises. The woman lets her hands fall and waits.[iv]

[Long Pause] Only to lift them again in prayer:

Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
sovereign of the universe,
who brings forth bread from the earth.

With this ancient prayer, spoken very Friday evening on the Jewish Sabbath, we are reminded that it is a gift from God when people hold steaming bread in their hands. The solemn breaking and sharing of bread at the beginning of the meal continually gives ritual expression to it. For people who struggle to get enough food to survive this gift is not a matter of course. It is a matter of life and death. In fact, when Jesus teaches us in our tradition to pray for daily bread the word he uses, epiousion has the connotation of ‘for tomorrow’. In other words, not only bread for today but for tomorrow as well. Remember the children ‘sleeping with bread?’[v]

But there are lots of questions about this parable that invite our imagination. Why does Jesus say the woman “hides” the leaven rather than mixes it or kneads it into the flour? How are we to understand the three measures of flour? Three measures is about fifty pounds of flour – or ten five pound bags – to be precise. One scholar has said that when you add the water and leaven you have nearly 100 pounds of dough, or as another scholar puts it, sixty dozen cakes. And while this certainly conveys a sense of abundance, it suggests less the image of a kitchen and more that of a bakery.[vi]

Or does it? Three measures of flour is an unmistakable reference to Genesis 18. You remember the story, of course. Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent beneath the Oaks of Mamre when three visitors arrive who will announce that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, will give birth to their first-born son Isaac. Abraham asks Sarah to go “make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Is our parable of leaven a celebration of good news or of new birth? Is the woman playing host to God or angels or unexpected guests? Is there difference?

Speaking of difference, the Gospel of Thomas (one of the gospels that wasn’t put into the bible as we have it today but was written and circulated at the same time as the other gospels) – contains all of the parables that appear in the synoptic gospels plus a few that were left out. In the Gospel of Thomas the parable of the leaven appears, but with this difference. Whereas in Matthew Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to the leaven that a woman ‘hid’ in three measures of flour, in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a woman who ‘hid’ leaven in three measures of flour.” Do you hear the difference? In Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is compared to leaven. In Thomas, the kingdom is compared to this woman. Assuming that Jesus did not speak his parables only once, or always in the same way, what would change in the parable if God’s realm were like this woman? Imagine if we had handed down to us the version in which Jesus compared the kingdom to a woman.

The word parable literally means “things thrown together.” The interpretation of parables is always and ever unfinished business with many loose ends, and often more questions than answers. Like poetry, parables invite us to make meaning by not nailing it down too precisely, but by following the emotional contours, exploring unexpected details, and imagining “what if?” They help us re-imagine our world. In parables, as in so much of faith, we discover God nestles within the questions that burn within us, luring us to pursue them today and tomorrow and tomorrow. Amen.[vii]


[i] See, for example, the treatment of Jesus’ parables by William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

[ii] This paragraph is lightly adapted from Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. (Fortress Press, 2006). I’ve removed her scripture references and shortened some sentences.

[iii] Dennis Linn, et. al. Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995.

[iv] Adapted and somewhat shortened from Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus.

[v] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. (HarperOne, 2014). If you’re looking for a single book to read on the parables, this is the one I would recommend.

[vi] The reference to 100 pounds of from Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. (Eerdmans, 2002). The reference to sixty dozen cakes is AJ Levine, cited above.

[vii] Bernard Brandon Scott, Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. (Polebridge, 2001).

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