Friday, July 22, 2011

Staying alive - a lesson from yeast

Last Sunday's Gospel reading from Matthew 13 contained the parable of the Wheat and the Tares (to use the older reference) as well as the brief metaphors of the Kingdom being like the mustard seed and the yeast mixed into the flour. (Matt 13:24-43) I've always been able to grasp the Wheat and Tares parable, and the mustard seed comparison (somewhat), but the one about yeast always befuddled me a bit - until I started baking a lot of bread.

I'm a renowned bread baker - at least in the circles I travel. I don't do much, but what I do, I do well. My basic white bread has been called by some the Best Bread in the World. (Credit for that has to go to the late James Beard - it's his recipe.) The ingredients are simple: flour, water, a little salt, yeast, and some sugar to feed the yeast. Yet for all its simplicity, I've had many people ask me for help, because they "can't make bread".

Turns out the most common problem is dead yeast. Three tablespoons isn't a very big portion of nine pounds of dough, but it makes all the difference. If the yeast is fresh and vigorous, the dough rises swiftly and evenly, transforming all that wet flour into high, light loaves. But if the yeast is dead (as most grocery store yeast is), the dough just sits there - a flat, heavy, unappetizing lump. Without good yeast to leaven it, bread is just flour that's been saturated and then dried in the oven.

My experience with yeast dough has helped me understand a little of Jesus' brief metaphor. For one thing, I read somewhere recently that the "three measures" of flour was quite a bit - the same measure stipulated by Abraham in Genesis 18:6, which would have been about three bushels in today's measures. Three bushels! Also, the "yeast" (or "leaven", depending on your translation) would not have been the dry powdery material we typically use today, but a living culture more like a sourdough starter. So even if the woman mixed in three cups of starter, that would have been a lot of dough to rise.

Yet yeast, being the stubborn little beasties that they are, would've done the job given enough time (especially in the warm Mediterranean climate.) I think part of Jesus' point was that it doesn't take much to have a dramatic effect. Just as a few tablespoons of yeast can turn nine pounds of wet flour into bread people will drive miles to get (especially fresh from the oven), so just a few children of the Kingdom can make a big difference in a culture. However - and I think this was another point that Jesus' audience would not have missed - the yeast has to be alive. Yeast isn't like baking soda or vinegar. It's a microbe that is only effective when it's living. Dead yeast is worse than useless - it just smells, and you have to throw it away. But if it's living, it's very effective.

Something for us to keep in mind: if we're to have the "leavening" effect that Jesus desires, we have to be alive in Him. If we are, then we can have a dramatic effect on the world around us, transforming it dramatically. If we don't stay alive, the "dough" of our culture will not be leavened, but remain a soggy, heavy, useless lump. It'll be good for nothing but to be thrown out - and us with it.

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