Jesus’ image of the yeast and the kingdom of God


Again he said, “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God?
It is like yeast that a woman took
and mixed in with three measures of wheat flour
until the whole batch of dough was leavened.” (Lk 13:20-21)

“The kingdom of God is near.” Jesus often uses this phrase to describe the idea that God is close at hand, not only awaiting us in some kind of afterlife, but already near to us, in our everyday lives, and in our very being. In this passage in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus uses a simple, ordinary practice of baking bread to show how near God is. Imagine a woman who takes yeast, sprinkles it into warm water, and gives the yeast time to grow before adding the flour. Then she mixes the flour in and kneads the dough, putting together disparate elements that become one. Then there is a period of waiting and letting the dough rest until it rises to where it needs to be before finally it is baked.

God is active in the world, and yet we also exercise freedom in whether and how we choose to cooperate with God. On the one hand, God’s nearness to us can be known in God’s slow action in all the events of our lives. God is not just a spectator, but an actor in the world along with us, perhaps guiding us and our actions by word or by the promptings of conscience, or sometimes acting in more direct ways. On the other hand, we need to cooperate with that divine action, and not merely stand back and let God do all the work. Just as the woman must mix the bread in order for the yeast to do its job, we have a part to play in addressing the world’s challenges, such as poverty, climate change, immigration, or more immediate personal care and concern for those whom we meet every day in the course of work, school, and family life. It is a cooperative venture, and a cooperative adventure.

In all this, God is extremely patient with us. It takes time for bread to rise, and it takes time for God’s kingdom to come into being within each one of us, and within our communities.

We know from other gospel passages (such as the multiplication of loaves) that bread is also meant to be broken and shared. The mixing and the baking are not the end of the process. Rather, that which God gives to us individually, to our families and communities, is  meant to be shared. We need to make sure that others do not go hungry physically, and also that they do not go hungry spiritually or in their need for community and love.

The kingdom of God comes into being through God’s action, and our cooperation, patience, and generosity.