Episode 9 Transcript

Episode 9: The Yeast of These


When you read the gospel of Matthew with open eyes, one of the surprises is seeing who Jesus invites into the kingdom of heaven, and who is left out. Those closest to Jesus are continually astonished — often scandalized —  by his choices. And we should be, too. If we’re not, it means we’re reading the text with blinders on. 

Take the story of the wealthy young man in Matthew 19. Here we have a man who has lived his life being good, and doing good. He is the archetype of what every good church person aspires to be; a paragon of purity, compliance, and law-keeping. This man is the real deal. There’s not an ounce of hypocrisy in him. And, based on his wealth, he clearly enjoys the favor of God. Or at least the god good church people worship— the one who works by the retribution principle.

Jesus sees the authenticity of this man’s commitment—the gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus loves him. And so we can hear the earnestness of the man’s question, when he says to Jesus, “I have kept all of these commands since I was a small child. What do I still lack?”

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect [there’s that word again], go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Matthew tells us that man went away grieving, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus drops this bomb: “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom.” 

If you grew up in church, I can almost guarantee that you’ve heard some bad teaching on this story. No, there was no city gate called the “needle’s eye” where a camel could enter only by dropping to its knees. And no, Jesus didn’t demand this of the young man because he knew it was the one thing he wasn’t willing to give up, but would not have demanded it if the man had been less attached. Both of these profoundly miss the point, and alter what Jesus was teaching.

When Jesus said it was hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom, he was not saying that they’re shut out, excluded, disqualified—that they’re somehow bad people and not welcome. Rather, he’s saying that when the wealthy see what the kingdom is really about, they choose not to enter.

Simeon: Matthew, it’s late. We’ve been talking for a long time.

Matthew: We can stop for the night, my friend, and pick this up again when you’re rested, if you prefer.

Simeon: No, please stay. I should be tired, but my mind is racing. It’s like I’m seeing the world through new eyes, and I don’t want to lose this moment. But at the same time I don’t know if I can trust it. 

Matthew: Believe me, I’m very familiar with what you’re experiencing. I’ve seen it time after time after time. If you choose to walk through the door that’s opening before you, your life will never be the same.

Simeon: Yes, I can sense that. My only hesitation is that it seems like the cost of walking through that door is very high. It means turning my back on everything I’ve lived my life for up to now. 

Matthew: Simeon, you remind me so much of Paul—and I mean that in the best way. Help me remember to show you a copy of his letter to the Philippians. He wrote a beautiful passage about what he had to lose in order to walk through that door, but then how much more he gained after he did.

This is what Jesus meant when he said that it’s only in losing your life that you will really find it. 

The problem for the righteous isn’t what you lack, it’s what you have. And you’re going to have to let it go.

Opening Titles:

This is—

Jesus for Sex Workers, Church People, and Me

A podcast hosted by Todd Austin

Episode Nine: The Yeast of These

The Teaching

In the previous episode we talked about the theme of authority that shows up repeatedly in chapters 8–11 of Matthew. Looking for repeating ideas is one of the tools that allows us to see scripture with open eyes. These themes are the threads that connect the stories of the gospels together. Stories that were not given to us to be studied independently of one another, as if Matthew were sitting in a rocking chair reminiscing about Jesus. Matthew wrote his book with a purpose. And he strings these stories together for a purpose. 

In the chapters we’re looking at in this episode, the stories are threaded together around one of Matthew’s essential ideas. 

Let’s do a quick fly-over, so you can see it for yourself.

We start in chapter 13 with a story about seeds that are sown in various places. Some yield nothing, but others grow to yield thirty, sixty, or a hundred times their number.

This is followed by another story about seeds. In this one weeds are sown among the wheat kernels, and both grow together until harvest.

We hear about a mustard seed, and how such a tiny seed can surprise you by how it grows into something quite substantial.

Then, in what seems like a departure but isn’t, we hear about how a tiny amount of yeast can dominate a sixty pound batch of dough.

From there it seems like we’re finished with the idea of little things that become big things, except that we’re not. Because in chapter 14 we come across a story where there is far too little food to feed 5,000 people, but it turns out that what we have is more than enough.

In chapter 15 we meet a gentile woman, for whom the tiny crumbs falling from the table are more than enough to feed her and her daughter. 

Then we find another big crowd, this time 4,000 strong, where we only have seven loaves of bread and a tiny amount of fish. But, it turns out that once again we actually have more than enough to feed everyone.

In chapter 16 Jesus warns us about the yeast of the Pharisees, the good church people. 

In chapter 18 the disciples ask Jesus about greatness in the kingdom, and he tells them greatness is tied to those who become the smallest, the least significant.

We hear about the importance of even one wandering sheep out of 100, and how the Father is not willing for even one of these little ones to be lost.

It’s in chapter 19 that we find our wealthy young man. We’ll come back to this chapter in a minute.

Chapter 20 gives us a story about laborers in a vineyard, some of whom work only a little, and some who work all day, but who all receive the same pay. A full day’s wages.

We hear about a mother who wants her sons to have important roles in the kingdom, to be men of greatness. But to whom Jesus says those who want greatness have to choose to become slaves, in the same way he gave up greatness to serve.

All through these chapters Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” And then he illustrates this kingdom with these stories of little things and big things, insignificant people and important people, not enough and plenty, the last and the first, the least and the greatest.

The Kingdom of Heaven Belongs to…

Let’s go back to chapter 19, where we left our wealthy young man grieving, unwilling to enter the kingdom of heaven. Chapter 19 is a microcosm of the people we meet all through Matthew’s book. It’s a picture of the greatest, and the least. Of those who have a seat at the table, and those who don’t.

The chapter starts with the Pharisees, the good church people. They belong in the category of the greatest. They are at the pinnacle of law-keeping, compliance, and purity. If anyone is in, and safe, it would be this group. Everyone expects them to have a seat at God’s table. 

They bring Jesus a hypothetical. They ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

Notice they didn’t say, “Is it lawful for a woman to divorce her husband for any and every reason.” As we touched on in episode four, this would have been an absurd question, because a woman couldn’t divorce her husband under the law. 

So, as you can see, one of the people in this hypothetical—the husband— would be listed with the great, the ones with power. While the other—the wife—would be listed with the least.

You can see this dynamic at work in the nature of the Pharisees’ concern. Their question is about what the man should do in order to remain in good standing with God. Their fundamental understanding of God is that He cares about compliance. What happens to the woman doesn’t factor into their thinking, so long as the man upholds God’s commands. 

Jesus turns their question upside down. In the hardness of their hearts, they’ve completely missed God’s concern. His concern has always been for the woman. The powerless one. No, her husband can’t toss her aside for any reason. Only for the most extreme betrayal can he divorce her. God sides with the “least,” and demands those in the “greatest” category do the same.

The disciples don’t know what to do with this. It’s so unexpected, so unlike the map they have been following all their lives. They wonder aloud if it might be better for people never to marry. Jesus responds with a rather mysterious sounding reference to eunuchs. He says:

For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom. Let anyone accept this who can.

Now, I will confess that I’m not sure I understand Jesus’s point here. None of the various explanations that I’ve come across seem to ring true. If you have insight that you think would be helpful, please share it with me.

What I do know is that eunuchs would definitely have been in the company of “the least” in a Jewish society ruled by Romans. The Romans mocked eunuchs as effeminate half-men. And, under the Jewish legal code, eunuchs were emphatically excluded from the community of the Lord.

But here Jesus is saying that eunuchs have a place in the kingdom of heaven. I think the disciples would have been even more shocked by this than they were by Jesus’s earlier statement on divorce. He’s talking about people they would have viewed with disgust, people who would have been entirely outside any understanding they had of God’s plan and will. Is he really saying the kingdom is for these sexual misfits, too?

Like Jesus said: Let anyone accept this who can.

Moving on to verses 13–15, we come to the heart of the teaching in this chapter, and possibly the heart of this entire section.

Then little children were being brought to [Jesus] in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

If, in these verses, you hear Jesus saying that we need to return to a state of childlike innocence and purity, then you’re completely missing the point. He’s talking about their insignificance, powerlessness, and low societal worth. That’s the way children were seen in every age up until the Advertising Age. We need to think of the world of Oliver Twist, not Shirley Temple.

In the categories of greatest and least, these children would have been the least of the leasts. This is why the disciples are trying to keep them away. These children are a waste of the rabbi’s time. 

Except Jesus doesn’t see them that way. He says it is to these, the least of the least, that the kingdom belongs.

And so, when we meet the wealthy young man in the next verse, we now can see the contrast Matthew is setting up. After showing us a discarded woman, a sexual outcast, and a pack of stray, worthless children, we meet a one-percenter. Here we have the greatest of the greats. And it’s not just that he’s rich. He’s righteous. He’s faithful. He tithes. He does good works—for the right reasons. If anyone should be expected to have a seat at the table, it’s this man—in their world, and in ours. 

But this man takes a long hard look into the kingdom of heaven, and decides it’s not for him. Because it’s almost impossible for a prince to choose to become a pauper. For the greatest to become the least.

The Wedding Banquet

In chapter 22 Matthew gives us this parable.

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 

The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

This is a story about two groups, the least and the greatest. The first group is the one everyone expects to be at the banquet. The wealthy. The powerful. The righteous. The pure. The good church people. And yes, they’re invited. But, just like the wealthy young man, they choose not to come.

In fact, some of them are so offended by the nature of the invitation, that they persecute the messengers. This should be ringing bells for you from our episode on the beatitudes. It’s always the good church people who end up doing most of the persecution of those who follow Jesus’s way.

The second group is the one no one expected to be at the table. It’s all the “leasts.” Matthew tells us it is composed of everyone else that could be found—both the good, and the bad. Have you ever noticed that before? 

This invitation is for Mary, and Joseph. But it’s also for Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. It’s for the leper. It’s for the gay man with HIV. It’s for the discarded woman. It’s for the eunuch. It’s for all those insignificant children. It’s for the poor, the meek, and the hungry. It’s for the sinners. These are the ones who end up with a seat at the table.

This parable is the bell ringing loudly from the tower, proclaiming the good news. The kingdom of heaven is here. The gates of Hell can’t stand up against it. Jesus has broken in and liberated the captives. He’s opened the kingdom to those who were locked out before. 

It’s a fantastic story. Except that not everyone chooses to enter. Unlike what you were taught, being bad isn’t what keeps people out. Being a sinner doesn’t disqualify you. The people who choose not to enter are the good church people. The older brother. The wealthy young man. The greatest.

As Jesus tells the Pharisees, the sex workers and sinners are rushing into the banquet, while the good church people are standing outside, holding up their hands, telling all those streaming in that they don’t belong. That they haven’t met the qualifications for entry.

If you’ve studied this parable in a class, this is probably not how it was taught. I bet the focus was on how the Jews had rejected Jesus, and so now God was moving on to us. Once again, that’s bad teaching. It limits this to an interesting historical footnote, with no power for today. And, it provides a subtle, or not so subtle, justification for Christian anti-semitism, which is unconscionable.

This parable has just as much power and relevance for us today as it did then. It is a warning that the yeast of the Pharisees is just as active and potent in our time as it was in theirs. It shows what happens when God’s people stray off the path, when we don’t follow the way of Christ. When we focus on law, instead of love. On purity, instead of mercy. The risk for us is the same as for the Pharisees in this story. The proof is in the part of the story we didn’t read.

Just when we think this parable is finished, Jesus tells us about a man at the banquet who hasn’t put on the wedding garments provided by the king. The man is expelled, told to take his place among those who are outside. Those who also insist on wearing garments of their own making. This, after all, is the great trap of wealth, of law keeping, of purity, of greatness. It’s the trap of feeling secure in the clothes we’ve made for ourselves. Of preferring the salvation of our own making.

This man is a warning to us. We, too, can find ourselves on the outside looking in, standing next to those who were the first to refuse the invitation to the banquet. After all, we were grafted into their vine. If some of the original branches can be pruned, so can the grafted-in branches a couple of thousand years later.

We have to take off the clothes we’ve made for ourselves, the clothes we’re so proud of, the clothes that make us feel safe and secure, pure and clean. Instead we have to clothe ourselves with Christ. Only then will we see that the clothes we placed so much confidence in were no more than filthy rags. 

The greatest has to become the least. 

Only those who lose their life will find it.

Let anyone accept this who can.

The Church vs. The Kingdom

How about a quiz? Don’t worry, this is a self-scoring quiz. I want you to think about the kingdom of heaven that Jesus describes in the gospel of Matthew, and compare it to the churches in your area.

If, on any given Sunday, we were to walk through the door of one of these churches, who would we find there? Would it be a collection of the “leasts,” like at the great banquet? Would we meet sex workers, lepers, the problem people? Would we find the poor? Would we see people from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks?

I bet not. I bet we would find a lot of people like the wealthy young man. A lot of good church people. They would be clean and well dressed—both physically and spiritually. Their lives would be orderly, their purity advanced. It would be a collection of the “greatest,” not the “least.”

How is it that the people Jesus said would have the hardest time entering the kingdom of heaven are the very ones who are most comfortable in our churches? Something is very wrong here.

Instead of the poor feeling welcome, we keep them at arm’s length through paid intermediaries. Our outreach to the so-called lost is also through paid intermediaries. We insulate ourselves from the messiness of “the leasts” by consigning them to experts, who we tell ourselves are better equipped to help. We use our wealth as a hazmat suit, to keep us from getting our hands dirty.

And, if one of these “little ones” happens to show up at our church, we have people who will gently direct them to someone or someplace more appropriate. After all, we wouldn’t want to upset the good, upstanding church people. Or make the rich young ruler uncomfortable. Else he may take his wealth and influence to the church down the street.

When we compare our churches today with the kingdom of heaven Jesus was describing in Matthew, it’s plain that the two don’t look much alike at all. 

This is a scathing indictment of what we have become. The yeast of the Pharisees is indeed strong and active. It’s worked its way through almost all of the dough. This is why God is moving on from us—why we find ourselves on the path to exile.

Before we wrap up, let’s look at one more passage. In chapter 25, Matthew gives us Jesus’s words about how, at judgment, he will divide the sheep from the goats. Unlike what you have been taught, the sorting process is not about separating the sinners from the saints. It’s not about purity, cleanliness or law keeping. 

Jesus says to those on his right, the sheep:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

The people listening are confused by this. They don’t remember helping anyone that reminded them of Jesus. 

He responds that every time they helped one of the “least of these,” they were helping him. 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Those listening are again confused. “Lord, when did we ever see you and not help you?”

He answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

It’s on this criteria—our behavior toward the least of these—that our place among either the sheep or the goats will be determined. Not on our purity, compliance, or law-keeping.

Let anyone accept this who can.


Simeon, there is a song we sing that you need to hear. It’s written down in that same letter of Paul’s I was telling you about earlier. I won’t bruise your ears by singing it to you, but listen to these words:

Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be [held onto];

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself [further]

by becoming obedient to death —

even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

This is the essence of the choice each of us has to make when we’re invited into the kingdom of heaven. Are we willing to follow Jesus in this? Will we make ourselves nothing? Will we walk in his way? 

Those who have nothing follow exuberantly, without hesitation. It’s the rest of us—those who have accumulated various treasures on earth—wealth, purity, a good name, power—who find it hard to follow. 

In fact, sadly, it’s mostly the righteous who choose not to.

Test This Teaching

Good church people may not say this out loud, but the sermon preached by their actions says the answer for sinners is to stop sinning. Make yourself pure, then you can enter the kingdom of heaven. The answer for the poor is to get a job. The only reason you’re poor in this country is because you’re not willing to work hard.

When you dare to speak these unspokens out loud, the good church people who are more aware of scriptural teaching flinch, but then they turn their attention to what happens after you enter the kingdom. Or, in their language, after you join the church. Surely then you have to clean up your act. To focus on purity. 

And again, we have to remember that the purity they mean is based on a checklist of standards—a checklist on which no two good church people can seem to agree.

The example walked out in Scripture is that when someone chooses to enter the kingdom of heaven, the immediate task is to follow the way of Christ. Not to fix themselves. The promise is that Jesus himself will fix anything that needs fixing, but in the meantime, the fundamental focus of a follower is to follow. 

Purity is a gift, not something we achieve. It is given to those who follow Jesus in the way of love. Love teaches us, compels us, to do no harm—either to ourselves, or to our neighbor. The spirit empowers us to walk in this way. The charge is to stop worrying about lists, rules, legal codes, and ticking God off. To stop worrying about our failures, our guilt, our shame, and our inability to fix ourselves. To stop asking, “what more do I lack?”

And just as importantly, to stop worrying about someone else’s issues. If we can’t even fix ourselves, then we are hopelessly powerless to fix others. And it’s not our job to fix them.

Jesus didn’t get angry with people for their failure to adhere to the legal code, for their lack of purity. He got angry with the good church people for their failure to love— for our failure to love. God-in-the-flesh demonstrated by his own behavior what truly matters. Sin is not the violation of the great cosmic rulebook. Sin is that which stands in the way of love. It’s that which causes harm.

Sin is standing at the gates of the kingdom of heaven, holding up our hands to prevent others from entering because they’re not worthy. 

The map we were given tells us that we have to secure our future in the present life through wealth, and in the life to come through purity. But it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for someone who has secured their own future to enter the kingdom of heaven. We need to repent of that map, and turn to a new map. 

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven belongs to the least of these. To those at the bottom. His map defies common sense. How can you build a kingdom around sex workers, lepers, traitors, and the poor? How can a kingdom of such people even expect to survive, much less have any meaningful impact?

That’s the lesson of the mustard seed. It’s the tiniest of seeds. No one should expect anything meaningful ever to come from it. And yet it grows into the largest plant in the field.

And it’s the lesson of the feeding of 5,000. It appears that there’s not nearly enough, but everyone eats their fill, and there is still more left over. 

This is the lesson of the least and greatest. But don’t take my word for it. You need to test this teaching. 

When you put the teachings in these ten chapters together, is it really all about the least and the greatest? Or am I creating a connecting thread that’s not there? 

When you look at the people Jesus encounters, am I correct in saying that the “least of these” means the discarded woman, the eunuch, and the stray children? Or did Jesus mean someone else?

If the greatest becoming the least does not mean what I’ve taught in this episode, what does it mean?

And, of course, you also need to think about the big test. If you applied this teaching to your life, would the outcome make you look more like Jesus? Or less? If this teaching leads away from the way of Christ, then it needs to be discarded.

But if, like Simeon, you find yourself standing at a door, contemplating stepping into a future that requires you to leave behind much of what you were taught, you need to spend a good amount of time on this test. I think you will see that the way of Christ leads through that door. If it does, you need to step through, regardless of the cost.

Ok, that’s more than enough for this episode. I hope you’ll join us for the next one. Thanks for listening.

Closing Credits

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