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First Century Cryptography

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Apr 07

Texts: Gospel of Thomas 96 and Matthew 13:33-35


When I was growing up, my mom was a wonderful baker of bread. She baked rye, wheat, sourdough, and delicious white bread—all kinds of bread. I don’t recall having a single loaf of store-bought bread in our house—ever! But I do remember her baking. Rolling up her sleeves, measuring cups of flour, and testing warm water on her wrist, till it was just the right temperature for adding yeast. The smell of yeast, the risen dough, and the warm, brown loaves. These things I remember.

This Lent we have been studying the parables—those enigmatic short stories of Jesus. When I knew we had a communion Sunday coming up, I put dibs on the parable of the leaven. Perfect for a communion Sunday, I thought! The kingdom of God is like leaven.

 We all know that leaven is what makes bread rise. Mix together flour, water, yeast and voila! The bread rises—it increases in size. Leaven is the catalyst that produces growth, and it only takes a little to transform the whole. Can the meaning of Matthew’s parable be that simple? Is it that a little bit of God in our midst helps us grow? It only takes a pinch of spirit to bring about astonishing transformation? It’s a parable, so, no. It really can’t be that simple! Parables, by their very nature, are meant to puzzle and make us wonder.

Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine has been our companion and guide through the parables at our 10 a.m. study hours this Lent. Levine has a lot to say about this parable which is packed into a single verse. To begin, she explains that the leaven in this story is zume—which is nothing like the little dry packets of yeast we keep in our refrigerators. Zume is sourdough starter. It is damp, fermented, sour.

 This sourdough starter is from my friend Laura at Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain. Laura got it from Ping, one of her friends from church. Ping got it from his sister, Yee-Fan. And Yee-fan got it from one of her friends in the U.K. If any of you would like to take home some sourdough starter, please let me know!

 If the kingdom of God is like sourdough starter, is that because it is passed from mother to daughter, sister to brother, and friend to friend, the whole world ‘round? Yes. And still, there’s more.

 The translation of the parable most familiar to us is probably the one we read this morning. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Simple. But here’s another—more accurate—translation. “Similar to the kingdom of heaven is leaven that a woman hid in three measures of flour.”

 Hid, not mixed. Clearly, we must look at the Greek word root—not for want of esoteric pleasure, or mere love of the lexicon. In this case, the Greek word may be the key to unlocking the parable. A woman mixed in some yeast. A woman hid a little bit of leaven. The Greek word is enkrupto. Sound familiar? It should. It’s the Greek root of our English word, encryption.

 The realm of God is like something encrypted, a secret code, something hidden from view. Does anyone sense some Davinci Code action, here? This precise word, enkrupto, appears only twice in the New Testament—here in Matthew’s parable of the leaven, and again in Luke’s nearly identical version of the parable.

 However, Amy-Jill Levine notes, the cognate of the verb is krupto – to hide, conceal, be hidden, escape notice, to conceal that it may not become known. And this word is quite common in the New Testament. She notes, “In many cases, it refers not only to something that is hidden, but something that should or must be uncovered.” (1)

 Check this out, for example. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid…No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house…Let your light shine.” (Mt 5:14-15)

 And this, which Carlyle read this morning, tacked on at the end of the parable of the leaven. “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables…This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’ (Mt 13:35) 

 When we hear the parable of the leaven, we hear themes of abundance, nourishment and growth—and we should! But there is a deeper, subterranean theme of something mysterious that is hidden from view. Over these past few weeks one of our Lenten study groups focused on Marcus Borg’s book, Days of Awe and Wonder. Borg speaks of the sacred world—all around us and within us—as a spiritual reality which often remains hidden. Rudolf Otto calls it numinous, or mysterium tremendum. Abraham Joshua Heschel describes it in terms of radical amazement. It is the world of the Spirit, in which we live and move and have our being, but which we do not immediately perceive.

 It is this very hiddenness that seems to be the point of the parable of the leaven.

 If you will, please turn with me for a moment to the Gospel of Thomas. It is not often in Sunday worship that we read from apocryphal texts, but this one is really worth a look! It adds rich texture to our reading of Matthew.

 In Thomas’s narrative, the focus is not on the leaven itself, but rather, on the woman who hides the leaven. Here, again are Thomas’s words: 

Jesus [said], "The Kingdom of the Father is like a certain woman. She took a little leaven, [concealed] it in some dough, and made it into large loaves.

 When we read Thomas and Matthew side-by-side we learn that perhaps it is in the fact of being hidden, or not readily seen, that leaven is like God’s realm. And despite being hidden, it is most assuredly at work all around us. We learn from Matthew that God’s kingdom is like leaven, and from Thomas that perhaps God is also like a baker-woman.

 In this season of listening for God’s voice, listen to the voice within. Look all around you, and wonder. What is it that is hidden within you that makes abundant life possible? What is it that is concealed among us—not yet realized—that will make God’s kingdom manifest?

 Look, friends! What is it that is hidden just out of view? Is it some small kindness? Or perhaps the offering or receiving of forgiveness? What is it that catalyzes growth for you? Is it a yearning for connection, the impulse toward hospitality? Willingness to set an extra place at the table? Is it perhaps a fierce passion for justice that opens your heart to hear other peoples’ stories? Is it your willingness to let go, to take a risk, to try something new?

 Where do you see the hidden realm of God?

In a few moments, when we share holy communion, we will remember that Jesus is the bread of life. We will see that this table is set for us, and God’s feast is abundant. Let us also remember that God is like a baker-woman, rolling up her sleeves with her strong brown arms to knead the dough. Sometimes we are the dough.

Let us remember those who share their lives and their faith with us—who give us leaven for our bread. When I come to the table, I bring my mother, my friend Laura, and Ping, and Yee-fan, their congregations, and a whole company of saints through the ages.

 1)  Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, (New York: HarperCollins, 2014) p. 131.


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