Radical hospitality

In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a pair of parables describing the Kingdom of heaven. One is about a man who plants a mustard seed that grows into a large plant in which birds can perch. The other is about a woman who mixes yeast into a batch of flour until it’s all worked through the dough. Bible studies and sermons on this text usually focus on how God’s Kingdom is expanding even if it doesn’t seem to start out looking like much. And this is true. God routinely turns our expectations upside down. We think God is interested only in big and strong things when often it seems like he prefers to show his power through what appears small and weak. These parables assure us of how, often in surprising ways, the Kingdom is coming and growing whether it seems like it or not.

I recently watched the simulcast of a workshop hosted by Love INC and led by Ray Vander Laan titled “We Are the Church: Putting God on Display in a Broken Culture.” He showed that there’s even more going on in these parables.

Watch the woman for a moment. She is mixing yeast into 60 pounds (27 kilograms) of flour. Just how many loaves of bread is she baking?! My wife and son often bake bread and they use about 2½ pounds of flour to make 3 loaves of bread. They would end up with 72 loaves if they used 60 pounds of flour! The woman in Jesus’ parable must be working on a feast! So maybe this detail about the extravagant amount of dough is also meant to associate the Kingdom with words like abundance and feasting.

It was the NIV translation that told me the woman used 60 pounds of flour. The translators chose to convert the original expression into figures people can understand today. What was the original expression? The NRSV and other translations say the woman mixed the yeast into “three measures” of flour. Most readers in the western world are probably thankful for translations or footnotes that convert unfamiliar quantities into units with which we’re familiar. However, Jesus’ original Jewish listeners were probably less busy calculating the amount of dough than they were with realizing Jesus was hinting at an Old Testament story that uses the exact same expression.

In Genesis 18, Abraham and Sarah have unexpected guests who turn out to be angels – even God himself. Abraham & Sarah hurry to welcome their guests, part of which includes Sarah getting “three seahs of the finest flour” to bake some bread. I’m not sure why here the NIV translation does not convert three seahs into units more familiar to modern readers as it does in Matthew 13. The NRSV and other translations avoid specific units and get closer to the original expression: Sarah got “three measures” of flour.

So when Jesus speaks about a woman working with three measures of flour, his original Jewish listeners are not doing math in their head. They’re hearing Jesus inviting them to think about Sarah and Abraham and the extravagant feast they prepared for strangers. And I suspect this was not an uncommon thing for Abraham and Sarah to do. A little later in Genesis, Abraham’s neighbors refer to him as “a mighty prince among us” and they seek to deal generously with him. They would not have spoken and acted like this if Abraham and his family were unkind and miserly.

I therefore propose together with Ray Vander Laan that baked into Jesus’ parable of the woman with the fantastic amount of dough is the theme of hospitality. The woman is mixing dough just like Sarah mixed dough millennia ago, preparing a feast for people she didn’t even know. So, yes, Jesus affirms the Kingdom of heaven is growing, often in surprising ways. But he’s also pointing out that this growing Kingdom he has begun ushering in is a Kingdom characterized by the radical hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, a hospitality that puts aside what we were doing to offer the best help we can give when it’s needed.

It turns out that the theme of hospitality is also ingrained into the preceding parable. The man plants a mustard seed that eventually grows into a plant that, in a sense, offers hospitality for the birds, giving them a place to perch in its branches. God desires for his entire creation to be blessed by hospitality.

A sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church – in you and me – is that he is nurturing within us the gift of hospitality, whether it’s with friends or strangers. And, in another hint Jesus provides, all God’s people are called to grow in offering hospitality. In one parable Jesus refers to a man, in the other a woman. Both are used equally to illustrate this Kingdom principle. The Spirit equips men and women of all ages to practice radical hospitality. And as we do so, we might be surprised to discover how the Kingdom is indeed coming and growing even among ordinary people like you and me as God works through us.

(Here are more posts on the theme of hospitality if you’re interested.)

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