Yeast is an incredible thing. Set out a jar of water mixed with some flour, wait a couple days, and if the environment is not too hot or too drafty, you’ll catch some wild yeast, the evidence of which will be thousands of tiny bubbles breaking the surface of the gluey mass, and an aroma of fermentation, beery and sweet, tingly and tickling. Tantalizing. Something entirely new.
Throughout most of the Bible, yeast usually symbolizes something that is evil, or unclean, as in “Be on guard against the yeast of the Pharisees.” This makes sense in a culture that saw threats of ceremonial uncleanness in the very air surrounding them. Contamination from non-Jews, women, the diseased and the infirm lurked around every corner.
But Jesus turned this metaphor completely on its head; Jesus– the One Who is willing to get His hands dirty in the sticky mess of the human experience, Who affirms the sick, the women, and the children that touch Him– this God compares His Kingdom to a tiny microorganism whose life and work no one of that time would have been able to observe except by its effect: “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.” (Matthew 13:33)
Jesus knew exactly what He was doing in using this parable; not only did He choose one of the most quotidian of examples to illustrate how His Kingdom works, but more importantly, He chose one that would have applied almost exclusively to the women of that time and would have been intimate to their daily experience: the task of preparing food.
The process of slow, steady growth and transformation, though mysterious, would have been immediately understood by the women listening to him. As the yeast does its work, it completely transforms the surrounding landscape, leaving something entirely new in its wake. I can almost hear their stomachs rumbling at the mention of bread, see the astonishment on their faces as this Rabbi speaks their language–the language of preparing meals– without irony, without deprecation. With honor and dignity. Something entirely new.
Jesus’s attention and respect for women in using this parable is not what you would expect. Is it some kind of anomaly of his ministry, not to be repeated or followed upon? On the contrary, Jesus, is seen again and again showing women and other devalued people of the day loving respect and radical mercy.
God’s Kingdom, like yeast. Bubbling, overflowing. Rising up, much like the Living Water Jesus described to a Samaritan woman He met at a well.
I remember the sense of revelation I felt when I came to the account of Jesus’ encounter with this particular woman while reading the gospel of John during my sophomore year. As the professor of my Introduction to Theology class had pointed out, Jesus is constantly telling everyone to keep things quiet during His ministry, practically running from the crowds, avoiding being heralded, definitely not calling attention to Who He was. But here, in the middle of this conversation at a dusty well in Samaria, He revealed to this woman– someone of the wrong gender, wrong ethnicity, and wrong history according to the cultural norms of the time, someone whose testimony wasn’t even valid in a court of law– that He was the Messiah.
It stopped me in my tracks. Was this– a woman– the person to whom Jesus first reveals Himself?
I shuffled the pages of my Bible and started examining the other Gospels to see if what I had noticed was really true: that Jesus first reveals Who He is to a woman, not only a Samaritan, but a woman who, most likely despised for her personal history, people went out of their way to avoid.
But Jesus doesn’t avoid her. At a time when Jews often crossed a river to avoid stepping foot in Samaria, and men, especially rabbis, avoided even talking to women, He meets her there and asks her for a drink. He not only dares to do what no other self-respecting Jewish man of that time would, but he chooses her– a woman– to be the first person entrusted with the truth of Who He is: the long-awaited Messiah. It’s not what you would expect.
I wasn’t confident in my own research, so I timidly asked my professor in the journal we were each required to keep for the class if this were true.
Yes! You are right!
With my professor’s words scrawled in blue ink across the top of my notebook, Jesus’ love and His Kingdom grew a little more wonderful to me.
This seemingly small action on Jesus’ part was truly revolutionary, not unlike a small bit of yeast working its way through an entire batch of dough, making everything different and new. Understanding started rising in my heart: Jesus chose a woman to be the first to bring His good news. And like a small amount of yeast, this woman’s encounter with Jesus spread to those around her, until many others in her region believed because of her testimony. My experience of Who Jesus is and His great love and the way His Kingdom works, began to be transformed. Something entirely new.
Not what I expected.
This post is part of a synchroblog coinciding with the release of Sarah Bessey’s new book Jesus Feminist.