The following meditation was written by Doug Hood’s son, Nathanael Hood,
a seminary student at Princeton Theological Seminary
And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?
It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” Luke 13:20, 21 (English Standard Version)
For the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I lived in a part of Brooklyn near one of the worst viral hotspots in the entire country. Not too far from my apartment were hospitals that had to bring refrigerated trucks in to store the bodies of pandemic victims because they were literally running out of space to put them. The entire city shut down and was ordered to shelter in place. These were some of the hardest months of my life, not only because I knew I was risking it every time I went out for essentials like groceries and medicine, but because I found myself unemployed after barely a week of quarantine. With no job and nowhere to go other than my phone for distraction, time began to lose its meaning. Every day and every week was just like the one before. With no end in sight, my emotions began spinning out of control.
But then my roommate made a suggestion: let’s make a sourdough starter. To make one, all you need is flour and water. You soak some flour, let it sit somewhere stuffy overnight, add more flour and water the next day, and repeat the process until you have a richly sour and runny paste you can use as leaven to make bread with. It sounds easy, but it isn’t. Any number of things can wreck a starter: using the wrong amount of water or flour, exposing it to too much oxygen, exposing it to too little oxygen, letting it get too hot or too cold, not “feeding” it with fresh flour on schedule, and many more. The point is, making a starter required a level of attention and discipline that cut through the fog of my boredom and despair. It gave me a purpose to set my alarm every morning.
One of the most controversial of Jesus’ parables is when he compares the Kingdom of God to yeast—or more accurately sourdough starter in the text’s original cultural context. In addition to being one of Jesus’ shortest parables, it’s also one of his most obscure. Scholars have spent millennia trying to parse out what exactly he meant. Some argue it means that a little faith can transform an individual life or whole community. Others suggest that we Christians are the yeast and we’re called to “leaven” the world around us. And still others point out that in typical fashion Jesus inverts something perceived as negative in ancient Israel—while crucial to baking, leaven was frequently viewed back then as something potentially putrid and rotten—into something positive that inherits the Kingdom.
But as someone who has now dabbled in amateur baking, I see this parable differently. Note that “three measures” of flour in ancient Israel would be roughly equivalent to forty to sixty pounds. Whoever this woman is, she’s preparing a feast. But before she can feed the masses, she must first make enough leaven, a process that must’ve taken literal weeks, if not months, of patient, diligent work. Our walk with God is no different. It too takes tireless commitment and effort for it to properly ferment into something we can use. Regular worship, Bible study, personal reflection…these are all tools we can use to work the flour of our faith into the living water of God (John 4:10). Only then, after the work has been done, can we find a faith we can use to leaven both ourselves and others. And the results, like my first sourdough loaf in Brooklyn, will be delicious.