Over the next three weeks, as the Christian liturgical year winds down to Christ the King Sunday, these commentaries will be considering three of Luke’s settings of sayings or parables that are never read if the Revised Commonn Lectionary is followed. The reason the RCL skips these verses is probably because two of them are covered in Year A (Matthew).
The first reading in this series is Luke13:20-21. In a rare burst of authenticity, Luke quotes a saying that in all likelihood goes back to the historical Jesus. “What does God’s imperial rule remind me of? It is like leaven which a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened.” Proper 12, Year A, affords a thorough discussion of this passage as it appears in Matthew’s sequence, and as part of the RCL’s cluster of scripture readings.
Luke couples the saying about the leaven with a variation on the parable of the mustard seed in 13:18-19 (also skipped by the RCL). Luke’s Jesus muses outloud, “What is God’s imperial rule like? What does it remind me of?” . . . hmmmm. . . “It is like a mustard seed which a man took and tossed into his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the sky roosted in its branches.” So much for the extended metaphor on the sower and the seeds provided by Mark’s Gospel (Mark 4). Luke just dumps these two sayings into his narrative with no explanation. Speculation about why will get us nowhere, of course, but we might make an extrapolation or two. After all, interpreters of the Gospels have been doing it for centuries.
The JS Scholars remind us that “Leaven was customarily regarded as a symbol for corruption and evil . . .To compare God’s imperial rule to leaven is to compare it to something corrupt and unholy, just the opposite of what God’s rule is supposed to be.” The Five Gospels, p. 347. Interestingly, back in 12:1, Luke’s Jesus warns his disciples to “Guard against the leaven of the Pharisees, which is to say, their hypocrisy . . . And so [instead] whatever you’ve said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you’ve whispered behind closed doors will be announced from the rooftops.”
The other Gospel writers also refer to the “leaven of the Pharisees,” but only Luke gives the metaphor a negative or subversive meaning. The others place the saying in the context of the aftermath of the feeding of the 5,000, when the disciples have forgotten to bring any bread with them as they move to the other side of the lake. Could it be that Luke’s secret anti-imperial bias has reappeared, like a brief signal in a dark night? Certainly in 13:20, the leaven the woman puts in the flour is an act of subversion. All it takes is a little bit hidden in 50 pounds of flour to make all of it ready for mixing into bread. The idea of the kingdom of God as a subversive, corruptive influence on the Roman occupiers and their collaborators in the local community, would have felt like a great joke – one that Jesus would have told.
In today’s world, few people make their own bread. Yeast, or Leaven, is not a metaphor that speaks to us. What does speak to us, and has the same corruptive or subversive influence, is a computer virus. Based on the concept of viral disease, a computer virus is insidious, uncurable, and unexpected. The metaphor has expanded to include ideas – usually negative – “gone viral” through YouTube, Facebook, the 24/7 “blogosphere,” and bazillions of forwarded emails.
Applying the concept of virus to Christian evangelism is at once exciting and horrifying. Our minds immediately jump to the real question: Which side will win? Interestingly, Luke follows these musings on what the realm of God is like with the same conundrum (included in t he RCL). “And someone asked him, ‘Sir, is it true that only a few are going to be saved?’” Luke maintains that “there will be weeping and grinding teeth out there when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in God’s domain and yourselves thrown out . . .”
But that’s not what Jesus said at all. Jesus said, “[God’s rule] is like leaven which a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened.” There’s no separating out parts of the flour that were not transformed by the leavening power of God’s rule. Here’s where the viral metaphor is perhaps not strong enough. Viruses can be quarantined; messages can be countered and overwhelmed with conflicting information, as was graphically demonstrated in the recent U.S. election cycle. What is needed is not a virus, but a Disc Operating System.
But isn’t “virus” the descripion of the struggle? We can choose to live in Covenant, or we can choose to live in Empire. Both pathways are equally capable of subverting one another. That is the genius of Jesus’ original saying. Luke makes a fair attempt at clarifying which side the followers of Jesus must be on. In 13:29-30, Luke says, “And people will come from east and west, from north and south, and dine in God’s domain. And remember, those who will be first are last, and those will be last are first” (emphasis mine).
In a post-modern, 21st Century world, corporations and the rule of markets have replaced governments and the rule of law. Perhaps this means that individual persons have more personal responsibility for counter-cultural decisions about how we live our lives because the traditional oppressive “empires” no longer really exist. Still, whether we live in a 1st Century world occupied by Roman legions, or a 21st Century world controlled by corporate profits, the guiding principle is the same. Once the leaven is in the flour, there is no stopping the transformation. Once the virus is activated, it can infect the entire system. The decision to live in Covenant is like the yeast hidden in the flour, or like the worm deposited in the computer registry. Eventually, distributive justice-compassion can hold sway. All it takes is a willingness to radically abandon our own self-interest.