Yesterday I was reading from the lectionary for this Sunday. The suggested gospel passage comes from Matthew 13. I was supposed to stop at verse 30, but my eyes continued down the page, finishing on this nugget in verse 33: He told them still another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough."
As is my habit, I closed my Bible and meditated for a few minutes on a particular phrase from the 17-verse passage I had read. I found myself gravitating toward "...until it worked all through the dough."
I have only made bread a few times in my life, so it's hard for me to completely appreciate this parable; this metaphor of bread dough and yeast. But I started to think about other baked items I have made and the importance to the finished product of "working" all the ingredients together. In fact, I was making waffles this morning and just like clock work, when I got to the bottom of the batter, there was some "lumps" of waffle mix that somehow had not gotten mixed into the batter. With waffles, it's not so bad, but with cakes or even pie filling, the chunks of flour or egg or shortening that somehow escape the blending process can reak havoc on the taste and/or texture of the finished product.
What's the big deal about not working yeast through bread dough? I googled it of course, and here's what I found out. I expected to read that the dough simply will not rise as much if your kneading efforts are lacking, but apparently, according to this web site, it lackluster kneading results in bread with a "coarser" texture. (Not terribly appetizing, but not the end of the world either.)
Clearly, Jesus is applying this yeast/dough metaphor to the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven (Kingdom of God) among us. In the book Living our Beliefs, author Kenneth Carder presents the Methodist understanding of the Kingdom of God as follows (slightly paraphrased):
• The Kingdom of God, announced and inaugurated by Jesus Christ, has tangible social consequences in society.
• The Kingdom is both inward in the heart and outward in the world.
• The Kingdom is both a present reality – wherever God’s will is done – and a future hope.
I cannot with 100% confidence declare to you that Jesus was speaking exclusively of the "inward" or "outward" kingdom of God, but I can tell you that I chose for my meditation to focus on the inward Kingdom ... the Kingdom being formed in me.
So, many paragraphs later, I return to my original line of thinking. What does it mean in the "inward Kingdom" sense to "work it all through the dough?" A few weeks ago, the message I preached in church included the statement, "God will have first place in your heart, or God will have nothing at all." "First place" hints a little at what it may mean to work it all through the dough, but I think there is more.
You hear people talking about being a 7-day-a-week Christian versus a Sunday-morning Christian. Certainly, the Christian faith proclaims the notion that our faith should "show up" in our daily lives. The Methodist church in particular was built on the concept that the life of faith includes being personally transformed into the image of Christ and being an agent of transformation in the world.
I like that word ... transform. I think it translates nicely to the yeast/dough concept of our inward kingdom. If a young child were to ask you, "What does yeast do when you add it to bread?" it would be accurate to answer, "It makes the dough rise, honey." But a more precise reply would be that the yeast transforms the dough.
Usually, yeast is used to denote sin, not the Kingdom of God, so this metaphor of Jesus' is particularly interesting. Yet for a culture that spent a great deal of time making bread (and if you think about it, considering it was women who carried out this chore an undeniable 100% of the time, I suppose we can surmise that Jesus took particular care to address women in his teaching), the idea of inward transformation was confusing enough that a powerful, clear metaphor was necessary. The legalists in Jesus' day insisted that it was outward action that mattered most ... fasting, tithing, giving alms, sacrificing, observing purification and cleanliness rituals, praying; that is the way to salvation and transformation. But Jesus challenged this thinking, telling the religious leaders point blank, it is what comes out of a man that defiles him, not what goes in, pointing the way to the concept and importance of inward transformation.
It would be trite and simplistic for me to conclude, "So ... I asked myself, how can I incorporate my faith into every area of my life? That's the message here ... working the yeast into all of the dough." I don't think that is it, because that sounds like outward concentration, not inward transformation.
I guess I don't have the answer per se. I know that God is doing a work in me, in each of us, every day. I know that I cannot compartmentalize my soul, sectioning off pieces that can and cannot be worked through. I have to give God access to every nook and cranny of my inner being and I confess, I'm not sure how to "do" that. Maybe it is more a matter of "intention" than "action." Thomas a Kempis writes, "You must purify the eye of the intention, then, that it may be steadfast and right, and you must keep it fixed upon Me, far above all objects that might come between us." Whether I succeed outwardly or not, then, my intention should always be to focus my gaze upon God, upon the image of Christ.
I have a yoga DVD that I use from time to time. The yogi often speaks of "gazing with soft eyes" when describing where your eyes should be pointed in one particular movement or another. Perhaps the legalist gaze with hard eyes; determined, self-willed stares that puff up their egos but do little to profit their souls. Perhaps this "soft eyes" gazes keeps one's intentions pointed in the right direction, but suggests that softness and gentleness are better agents of transformation in the Kingdom of God.
Working it all through. Kneading the dough. It does not connote a gentle process to me. Yet I imagine an experienced bread maker is very gentle in the treatment of the dough, concerned for the quality and taste and texture of the finished product. I think we can assume that God's actions toward us in this kneading process are likewise.