zeus and the yeast in the dough
Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose. [i]
I’ve preached about this before, this notion that our ideas about God and religion tend to match the stage of our own maturity and the level of our own consciousness. We most of us begin with a magic view of the universe and so we have a magical view of God and religion. And then we tend to move into a more mythical way of thinking, followed by what developmental psychology calls rational, pluralistic and integral views of reality and, of course, then rational, pluralistic and integral views of God and religion.
The reason I bring that up is because I’ve been reading through a wonderful children’s book on Greek myths lately. (D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths; I loved it when I was a boy, and a friend of mine bought me a copy for my birthday a few years ago.) And it occurred to me while I was reading it this time, especially the section on Zeus, that so many people are still caught up in magical-mythical mentality about God, and they talk about God not as Jesus introduces God to us, but more as if he were Zeus! Sittin’ on top of a mountain all irritated, jealous, angry and capricious, shootin’ down lightening bolts and causing earthquakes just so we remember how awesome He is.
This is certainly not the portrait of his Abba that Jesus paints for us. We might be tempted to blame this magical-mythical view of God on the so-called “Old Testament,” the Jewish scriptures, and the image of God we catch there. Yet here in the Book of Wisdom already we see a pretty evolved idea of who and how God is: Although God is sovereign in strength, God judges with mildness, and governs with forbearance, because God has power to act whenever God chooses. That calls to mind to me one of the best pieces of advice I ever got about leadership. It was, “When you have real authority you don’t need to grab for power.” That’s God. God has real authority and so doesn’t need to jealously grab for power nor make sure that we always feel like little powerless peons––like Zeus and the other gods are always doing to mortals.
Jesus shows us instead that the very nature of God is unconditional compassion towards the human world; the very nature of God, as Nathan Mitchell says, is “love without an opposite,” unimpeachable love for creatures and creation. God is that One who cherishes people and makes them free. God’s will is always and only a willing of good. God’s power is always and only a power exercised on behalf of those who need it––the poor, the outcast, the despised, the marginalized, the wretched and lonely, the abandoned. We have to view everything else from the optic of the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus, who shows us that God is neither angry nor vengeful––precisely because God has no “ego” to defend like the gods on Mount Olympus do.[ii] That’s what comes to my mind when I read these words: Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose. Or as our psalm (86) says, The Lord is good and forgiving, full of love for all who call on you. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that that does not mean that there are no ramifications for evil. I think what we find out along the way, though, is that unrighteousness, like dysfunction, carries its own punishment. There are consequences to our actions, for us and for our environment. We can either be weeds or we can be wheat. If we’re wheat we’ll be gathered into the barn; if we turn out to be weeds––well, you know the rest…[iii]
But let’s go back a step: What is the field where these seeds get sown? The field is the world, Jesus tells us. And what is the seed? The good seed are the children of God––we’re the seed! We are the seed that gets sown in the field of the world. And the wheat or weeds, which come up from the seed that is sown, are who we are and how we are in the world.
‘The field is the world,’ Jesus explains to his disciples. We are used to using terminology that considers “the world” bad. But I want to say in this case “the world” itself is neutral, in this parable––it’s neither good nor bad; it’s just the field where the seed gets sown. It’s the seeds that are good or bad! But actually––and I think this is important––if you look at scripture, the story of creation from Genesis, for instance, the world isn’t even neutral; it’s actually good. That again is one of those distinctive marks of the prophetic traditions, and especially of Judaism and Christianity. Whereas other religions (and Gnosticism and other heresies) see the world as fallen or an illusion, our own canon of scripture starts out with the story of a perfect being––God––creating a world, on purpose, and then saying, “That’s good. That’s good! And that’s really good!” Jesus tells us too about God, not that he is jealous and angry in the way that we get jealous or angry––or that Zeus does! As a matter of fact God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It is we who make the world––our world, God’s world––good or bad by the seeds we sow.
At a very practical level, it’s because we have been created in the image and likeness of God, that we are the only creature who has the ability to change God’s perfect plan for creation, this good and beautiful world, as we have already done by changing the course of evolution, for instance––wiping out species, destroying entire ecosystems, and even changing the climate. So we might ask, are we, as a human race, good or bad seed? The jury’s still out but it’s looking pretty bleak.
Here’s another way it’s practical: who am I, how am I in the world? Who am I in my environment? Am I a good seed or a bad seed? Am I turning out to be wheat? Or a weed? Do I sow division, gossip, cynicism, despair, pessimism, jealousy, contention, judgmentalism or suspicion? Or do I sow the fruits of the Spirit (Oh, those darn things again!): do I sow charity, joy, and peace; do I sow patience, kindness, goodness and generosity; do I sow gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control? It’s then that I am a good seed yielding wheat. This is the question: who are we and how are we in the world? Who am I, how am I in my world?[iv] What kind of seeds are we sowing? No, better yet: what kind of seed are we in this cruel crazy beautiful world?
But this is my favorite image of all time (this is why I wanted to make sure that we read the long form of the Gospel today): the yeast in the dough. I got this idea many years ago from Hans Urs von Balthsar’s writings about the Church and it has stayed with me ever since. The Church, he says, “seeks its mission in the profane world that surrounds it: to be yeast that acts while disappearing.”[v] That acts while disappearing…! He’s speaking here of why the Church would go “beyond its confines” toward its separated Christian brothers and sisters, as well as to Hebrews and non-Christians,” that this is “the movement of a self-emptying of God and Christ,” to be what he calls a “disinterested church,” meaning a church that doesn’t seek its own glory, but the glory of its Lord and union as love. To be like yeast in the dough, that acts by dissolving: this is the Church.
Did you ever notice how many of the images Jesus uses for the reign of God are things that act by disappearing? The yeast, the salt, the seed… And we, we’re supposed to be like yeast, too, like salt, like a seed that dies, that acts by disappearing, dissolving. But in dissolving, in dying in a sense, the whole dough gets raised! The “profane world” that surrounds us, in which we are immersed, gets lifted up by our very presence, silent though it may be. The same goes for the salt for the earth and the seed that falls into the ground and dies and so, if it dies, becomes a great bush where all the birds gather. There’s another way of putting this, too, a phrase that meant so much to me when I was making my solemn vows, from Thérèse of Lisieux: “In the heart of the church, my mother, I will be love, and thus shall be everything,” like yeast in the dough.
One other use of this image of the seed or the yeast: we could think of our humanity, too, even our very bodies, as the field, or as the dough. And God has planted a seed in that field too; God has put yeast into the
dough of our being––the Holy Spirit, who, as Paul wrote in the Letter to the Romans which we heard today,[vi] prays in us in sighs too deep for words, and brings the whole of our being to its glory from the inside out. Rather than being like Zeus––jealous and angry, tossing lightening bolts down from the sky––I think God is more like yeast. Paul tells us about the kenosis of Christ, which is really the self-emptying of God, who in some way dissolves inside us as the Spirit so that we might live. And we carry in our bodies that same dying of the Lord, the dissolving of the yeast, so that our gift to the world will be his life.[vii]
23 july 17
[i] Wis 12:18.
[ii]I got most of this from Nathan Mitchell’s Real Presence, 47-48.
[iii] Mt 13:24-43.
[iv] I am reminded too of the Letter to James 3:18, while we’re on the agricultural images: A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
[v]H. U. von Balthasar, “Chi è il cristiano,” from Bose Letture, 121-123.
[vi] Rom 8:26-27.
[vii] 2 Cor 4:10.