Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 13:24-43 

In all this Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables; indeed, he would never speak to them except in parables. This was to fulfil the prophecy:

I will speak to you in parables
and expound things hidden since the foundation of the world.

Today the Gospel offers us three parables, three stories that are told to challenge and perhaps disturb us. But do they challenge us? They are so familiar. We think we know what they mean. I am indebted to the work of Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy J Levine, for shaking me out of a bit of biblical complacency. Her work immediately calls into question some of the ideas I have picked up through the years. Her treatment of the parable of the woman who takes some yeast has given me many insights.

‘The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour till it was leavened all through.’

The first insights come from translation. The yeast that the woman takes is more like a sourdough starter than the fresh or dried yeast that we buy. It has good and bad connotations. Elsewhere in the New Testament we read of ‘good leaven’ and ‘bad leaven’. What the women does with the yeast is another interesting point of translation. The Jerusalem Bible says;

the yeast a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour

Whereas other translations say ‘hid’. Amy J Levine comments: ‘This hiding, together with images of three measures of flour and of a woman baking should send readers to the scriptures of Israel.’ We are being led here to the story of Sarah in Genesis. When three guests arrive she is asked prepare three measures of flour. This is about forty to sixty pounds of flour.

For our woman in the parable this amount of flour is far too much for one woman to knead, and certainly far too much to eat. It’s a beautifully extravagant image. Levine says;

Perhaps the parable speaks of the importance of extravagance and generosity. Perhaps it suggests we adapt our lives in the light of the kingdom and do something that might seem foolish or wasteful to people on the outside. Imagine inviting three strangers to lunch. Imagine setting up a food pantry that stocks more than what one family could eat.

The idea that this parable invites us to adapt our lives in light of the Kingdom is something which speaks to me. It feels within my grasp. I can relate to the bread making too. As a novice, with some trepidation, I was taught to bake. I followed the instructions to the letter. But I was soon to learn that there are many variables: age of the yeast, outdoor/indoor temperatures and humidity. It always felt like a small miracle when I put my twenty four loaves to cool.

I love the implicit power that the woman in the parable holds:

‘This woman is doing something cryptically rather than in an upfront manner that can be controlled; she’s going to produce more bread than a single person can eat; she might even be in a position to determine you gets the bread.’

Levine’s final comment on the parable is worth quoting in full:

Perhaps the parable tells us that despite all our images of golden slippers, harps and halos, the kingdom is present at the communal oven of a Galilean village when everyone has enough to eat. It is present, inchoate, in everything, and it is available to all, from the sourdough starter to the rain and the sunshine. It is something that works its way through our lives, and we realise its import only when we don’t have it. To clean out the old leaven allows us to make room for the new, to start again, and again to feast.

How can you be extravagant and generous for the Kingdom this week?

(Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, Amy J Levine)