Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Good Leaven and Bad Leaven
So, today at our Wednesday Bible Study we were looking at the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Now, there are a couple of really great stories in this chapter of Luke, but there's an interesting moment after the feeding of the four thousand when Jesus fresh off of making enough bread for the crowd tells the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. Beware of leaven? Beware of yeast? Really? Yeast makes bread rise right? Why in the world would yeast be a bad thing? Doesn't it all make bread rise? This is one of those moments when our modern notions of food and Jesus's notion of metaphor don't connect. As was said by the guard in Cool Hand Luke, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."
Now I'm not an avid baker, but I am/was an avid homebrewer. Bread and beer share most of the same ingredients. So...while I'm not a 100% sure of what I'm about to write, let me say that I'm pretty sure that I have a good hold on Jesus' leaven metaphor. So here goes.
In the modern world laboratory science has made accessing yeast easy. Go to the store, head to the baking aisle, and pick up three sealed foil packets of dry yeast from teh good people of Fleischmann's for a relatively small amount of money. The same is true for homebrewing. BEer yeasts are produced in small sealed containers that hold millions of tiny critters waiting to turn sugar into alcohol and CO2. In bread the CO2 makes bubbles and the alcohol...well that makes us happy.
In the ancient world yeast was a random act of God. In fact before Louis Pasteur, the German government created the Reinheitsgebot (German beer purity law of 1516) that said beer is water, barley, and hops. There's no mention of yeast until the 19th Century! Pre-industrial peoples literally relied on wild airborn yeast to make the magic of fermentation possible. The Vikings used to pass down disgusting unwashed mead stirring sticks from generation to generation because those "magical" sticks contained colonies of good yeast that made mead magic possible. Yeast lives in the air. To get it to work, significant numbers of "good" yeast need to outnumber and out grow "bad" yeasts in order for humans to benefit from beer or bread.
So what does this have to do with Jesus and the leaven of the Pharisees? Well, (and again this is my conjecture) leaven bread in the ancient world was probably a bit of a proverbial crapshoot. Ancient leaven methods relied on the wild airborn yeast to make bread rise. In competition with these good airborn yeasts were also the bad wild yeasts that would make the dough rancid and useless for human consumption. And that I think is the point of the "bad" leaven. The leaven of the religious leaders was destroying the souls of the people in Jesus' mind. Their "bad" leaven might make the dough rise, but it also imparted nasty off flavors and potentially harmful critters. Bad leaven makes bad bread. And that's the point. Jesus is offering the people good bread made from good leaven; the leaven of God. What Jesus is offering is healthy and life giving, not to mention tasty. Just as good and bad yeasts are battling for supremacy in a lump of dough (or vessel of wort) so Jesus is in a battle for the souls of the people of God. He's offering us his vision of God, his knowledge of God's love, and God's hope for the world.
Lots of leavens are fighting for our attention...the leaven of "success," materialism and a myriad of other "isms" and distractions. If we're honest those leavens may already have a foothold in our souls. What Jesus hopes for is that we'll see those leavens for what they are, and take on the leaven of God. It's a leaven that looks to the work and love of Christ as the source and model for a new way of living. Empowered by the Holy Spirit this good leaven can make its way into every part of our life and make us into the "loaves" we are meant to be. Our lives can be the proverbial loaves that feed the world the Bread of Life that is Christ.