Bitter Herbs

It is the time of year to plant seeds for my salad and herb gardens. It is the time of year to remember the bitter herbs. Each spring at our celebration of Easter, we also remember the festival of Passover, when God rescued the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. The Israelites were to eat bitter salad greens with the Passover meal to remind them of the bitterness of their slavery. Such a reminder would help them give thanks for their new-found freedom. Here are the instructions for the Passover meal:

“Take special care of this chosen animal until the evening of the fourteenth day of this first month. Then the whole assembly of the community of Israel must slaughter their lamb or young goat at twilight. They are to take some of the blood and smear it on the sides and top of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the animal. That same night they must roast the meat over a fire and eat it along with bitter salad greens and bread made without yeast. Do not eat any of the meat raw or boiled in water. The whole animal—including the head, legs, and internal organs—must be roasted over a fire. Do not leave any of it until the next morning. Burn whatever is not eaten before morning.” (Exodus 12:6-10; see also Numbers 9:11-12)

The Hebrew word here for the “bitter herbs” is clearly related to the verb marar, meaning “to be bitter” or “to be distraught.” It has many related terms, all bound together in some way by bitterness. The Israelites had suffered bitterly for generations under harsh slavery, helping to build the monuments of Egypt’s pharaohs. Most of us have some bitterness in our past, and some of our suffering also has the weight of generations behind it. And like the Israelites, most of us have been rescued from at least parts of our pain. Some of us have even received dramatic rescues not unlike Israel’s escape through the Red Sea. But in time, memory of even the most miraculous rescues can become dim and distant. As a result, our thankfulness grows cold. A few bitter salad greens on the tongue might do something to revive your memory—and your gratitude.

Each year as you plant your salad greens, remember the bitterness of your past and how you have been rescued from it. Then give thanks. As you harvest your salad greens, remember the bitterness of your past and how you have been rescued from it. And again, give thanks. And as you eat your bitter greens, remember the bitterness of your past and how you have been rescued from it. And once again, give thanks.

The people of the ancient near east ate many of the same salad greens that we enjoy today. Here is a list of greens that the people of the ancient Israelite community almost certainly used to remind them of their rescue from slavery in Egypt: Lettuce, dandelion, mustard, kale, endive, chicory, parsley, marjoram, green coriander (cilantro). These and others were all certainly in the picture.

Garden Tip: Many gardeners skip planting greens because they find it too hard to produce large heads like those at the vegetable market. Some look at the long list of plants and think it will take far too much garden space. One way to solve the space problem is to use a mix of seeds, like a mesclun mix, that includes many of the plants mentioned above. Plant them fairly thickly in a small bed. And don’t worry about trying to grow large, mature plants. Clip the young leaves as they grow. At first this may not be enough for all your salad needs, but you can add the spicy greens to liven up your mundane lettuce salads. For awhile at the peak of the season, you may even be able to clip enough for the entire salad. If you don’t have any garden space for this, add a large container at your back doorstep. Let the pungent flavors of these fresh greens and herbs remind you to give thanks for your deliverance from bitter things. And enjoy the nutritional benefits along the way.

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Yeast

There are few aromas more inviting than a yeasty loaf of bread right out of the oven. As a child, I loved the smell of fresh bread, and even more, the taste of  the dough, drawing me to the art of bread baking at a young age. Since then, I’ve made many different sorts of bread, but I’ve come to enjoy the simplest recipes the best. And it can be very simple: flour, water, salt—and the magic of yeast and time. Many recipes add other ingredients to enrich, sweeten, or flavor the bread, but the additional ingredients are unnecessary for joy.

Yeast is really a plant—a fast reproducing fungus—that feeds on sugars (or starch), producing gas that causes the flour and water mixture to rise. In the process, it also gives the bread a hearty flavor. (When mixed with fruit juice or grain mash, in time yeast produces the complex sugar, alcohol, thus also being the source of wine and beer.) This fungus and its spores blow on the wind and can be captured in a flour and water paste if set out in the open air—at least, if it’s in the right place, at the right time. In ancient times yeast was shared among the people in families and communities, with a little yeasty dough or paste set aside for the next batch or to help a neighbor. (Today it is easy to purchase yeast in a commercial form at any food store.) Just a little yeast added to a large bowl of flour and water will quickly reproduce until it permeates every part of the dough.

Yeast is mentioned often in the Bible and appears prominently in the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:17-20 and elsewhere). The people were to make bread without yeast to remind them of their hurry as they left Egypt. (They couldn’t take the time to let their bread rise during their escape.) In subsequent Passover celebrations, the people were required to remove all yeast from their homes for the entire holiday season, upon pain of excommunication from the community. So in time, the presence of yeast became a symbol of the presence of sin, which needed to be entirely removed from a household. And surely, just as a little yeast quickly reproduces to permeate an entire batch of dough, just one small sin can quickly multiply in a life, overwhelming it completely in the end.

Centuries later, Jesus took up this theme of comparing yeast to sin. And he didn’t compare the presence of yeast to the presence of obvious sins. He compared it to the presence of insidious, hidden sins—sins that often present themselves as righteousness—and that spread quickly and silently. He warned the people about the yeast of prominent religious groups of his day, whom He knew had leavened (or infected) all Israel with their false understandings of God and His law.

“Watch out!” Jesus warned them. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” . . . So again I say, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’” Then at last they understood that he wasn’t speaking about the yeast in bread, but about the deceptive teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:6, 11-12)

The Pharisees and Sadducees received the brunt of Jesus’ criticism, because they fell into two traps that so often snare the religious among us. For the Pharisees it was the trap of legalism and hypocrisy. They set up numerous laws, often sincerely at first, to make sure the laws of Moses were being upheld. But over time, religious life became an attempt to keep the letter of the law (forgetting the spirit) in order to look righteous in front of others. And this sort of legalism always falls prey to hypocrisy, as broken people try to maintain appearances even as they are constantly beset by sin (see Luke 11:39-52). Jesus summarized the problem with this warning to his disciples: “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees—their hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). How many religious communities are poisoned by the yeast of legalism and hypocrisy? In such communities, where is there room for love, mercy, or grace?

For the Sadducees it was the trap of embracing a rationalism that resulted in skepticism and unbelief. The Sadducees were a priestly party that had allowed Greek culture to permeate their thinking and practice. These Hellenized Jews questioned the miraculous, often refusing to believe in the afterlife and the resurrection of the body. They used the trappings of religion as a means to power, using the laws of Moses as the structure for a religion of reason. When Gospel writer Mark recorded Jesus’ warning against “yeast,” he included (in place of the warning about the Sadducees) a warning about the yeast of Herod (Mark 8:15). The yeast of Herod represents yet another trap for the religious, that of license (Romans 6:1-4). King Herod only made an appearance of following the laws of Moses in order to gain political power and the opportunity to live a life of pleasure. How often have we seen religious communities with leaders who use the trappings of religion to gain power and manipulate others for their benefit, without commitment to the supernatural elements of the faith? In such communities, where is there room for faith and truth?

In one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church, he warned them of the yeast of sin: “Don’t you realize that this sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old “yeast” by removing this wicked person from among you. Then you will be like a fresh batch of dough made without yeast, which is what you really are. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:6-7; see also Galatians 5:9). Blatant sins, along with the insidious sins of legalism, hypocrisy, and religious manipulation and abuse, all have the power to grow quickly and silently in any community, leading to destruction. We have been clearly warned about the dangers of the yeast of sin.

But there is another side to the illustration of yeast. Jesus also used it to illustrate something good—the secret and powerful growth of God’s Kingdom in our broken world: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough” (Matthew 13:33; see also Luke 13:20-21). This also is an illustration worthy of our reflection. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God spreads quietly, like yeast growing in a lump of dough. God’s transforming work doesn’t usually happen with a bang. It most often starts in the heart of an individual and then quietly multiplies from there—one word, one small act at a time—quietly, miraculously accounting for all the intricacies of any given community. It happens first in a person’s heart—in your heart, in my heart. How often do we skip that humble beginning by designing a loud, visible, expensive program for God’s Kingdom, only to realize in the end that we only achieved attention for ourselves—and no lasting change? It is a bit like trying to trying to add air to a lump of dough using an air compressor. It doesn’t really work and usually makes a very big mess.

How easy it is to forget that Jesus calls us to quiet acts of unselfish kindness—to love God and neighbor with whatever we have at hand—not to some new, earth-shaking program. It is the small acts of unselfish service, empowered by God’s Spirit, that touch off a thousand actions and words in the people around us, spreading God’s rule and goodness secretly through the dough of His Kingdom.

Kitchen Tip: Make it a discipline to bake bread on a regular basis. Everyone close to you will bless you for it, and it will provide you with plenty of opportunities for reflection. As you do your baking, ask how the yeast of sin has found a way into your life and look for ways to remove it with the help of God and your friends. Also ask how you might take part in infusing our broken world with the yeast of God’s Kingdom and all that entails.

You might want to start with this simple recipe, used for centuries for French bread and boule loaves. This wet-dough recipe doesn’t require much kneading—only time for the yeast to work. Mix in a bowl: 2 cups water, 1 T sea salt, 1 T dry yeast, 4 1/3 cups unbleached white flour. Dissolve the salt and yeast in the water; then add the flour. (This recipe can be multiplied proportionally for bigger batches. I often mix 6 cups water, 3 T sea salt, 3 T dry yeast, 13 cups flour to keep some dough at hand.)

You will find this dough fairly wet, and it should be. After mixing it, let it sit for four hours or so. At that point you can refrigerate it for up to two weeks before using it; the wet dough is actually much easier to handle when cold. If you plan to use it right away, knead in enough flour to make it easy to handle and form it into two ball shaped (c. 1 pound) loaves. Let those sit for several hours before baking. To bake, use either a pizza stone for 30 minutes at 400 degrees or a bread pan for 45 minutes at 350 degrees. (For more hints on baking this kind of dough, take a look here.)