Slow but Steady

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

Marie Sklodowska was the ultimate workaholic.

She had to be.  As a young, eager student from an impoverished Polish family in the late 1800s, the deck was stacked against her. 

Women were not expected to study.  Or think.  Or succeed brilliantly in a science lab. 

But Marie did all three.  She was the first woman to earn a Masters degree in physics from the famed Sorbonne in Paris.  She followed that with a degree in mathematics, and ultimately a doctorate.  She worked tirelessly in a makeshift “lab” that was squeezed into her cramped student quarters.  She lived for years on nothing but bread, butter, and tea. 

When it became clear she needed considerably more space to conduct experiments, friends pointed Marie toward a fellow scientist who might be able to help.  Pierre Curie wasn’t just impressed with her work.  He fell hopelessly in love with her.  After their 1895 marriage, they became – hands down – the most successful husband-wife scientific team in history. 

The Curies devoted themselves to the study of a fascinating new source of energy.  Powerful, invisible rays seemed to emerge from exotic substances.  Marie coined the term “radioactivity.” 

Within a few years they had discovered two new elements – Polonium, which they named after her Polish homeland, and radium.  In 1903 they shared the Nobel Prize for physics.  She was the first woman to be so honored.  Eight years later she became the first person of either gender to win a second Nobel Prize, this time for chemistry. 

Just when it appeared their accomplishments had no ceiling, the sorrows began.

Pierre was tragically struck and killed by a carriage in a Paris street.  He had already begun to show signs of a mysterious fatigue.  The same chronic weariness slowly overtook Marie.  Her hands were red and chafed.  She became anemic and lost weight.  What was happening?

The Curies were not only the first scientists to work chiefly with radioactive substances, but were among the first to suffer the effects of prolonged exposure to radioactivity.   

At the time, no one knew the dangers.  Pierre and Marie routinely walked around with test tubes of radioactive materials in their pockets.  They carried radium in their bare hands.  Everything they touched became contaminated. 

Marie died in 1934 of chronic radiation poisoning.  In 1995, the nation of France bestowed the highest honor on the famous couple.  Their remains were disinterred and transferred to the Pantheon in Paris, where they now lie alongside French heroes like Voltaire and Rousseau.  But this was no ordinary reburial.  Pierre and Marie’s bodies are still so radioactive that they have to be contained by special inch-thick lead coffins. 

Their papers and lab equipment are stored in lead boxes in a Parisian library.  It’s estimated that they will be dangerously radioactive for at least the next 1,500 years.  Members of the public are permitted to examine their personal effects, such as Marie’s cookbooks – but only if they’re willing to wear protective gear and sign a waiver. 

Imagine a substance of such great power that it finds its way into everything, and whose effects linger for years to come.

That’s an apt description of one of the Bible’s most compelling metaphors: leaven. 

Leaven (or yeast) is a biological entity that produces an almost miraculous effect when added to a lump of dough.  Yeast causes the dough to ferment.  The resulting gas causes the bread the rise.  Because it takes a while for this to happen, and because the people of Israel were commanded by God to pack their bags and get out of Egypt as quickly as possible, they baked their bread without yeast.  That’s why “unleavened bread” has always been a central feature of the celebration of Passover. 

In Jewish tradition, leaven became a representation of evil.  Just as a pinch of yeast slowly but surely works its way through a huge lump, a bad attitude or corrupt character, if unchecked, will end up infecting a family, a team, or an entire community. 

Jesus warns his disciples to watch out for “the leaven of the Pharisees.”  Their distorted perspectives seep into everything.  Likewise, in Galatians 5:9, Paul quotes a familiar saying – “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” – as a way of reminding his readers to push back against even the first hint of bad teaching. 

Leaven is universally regarded as awful stuff in Scripture.  It’s spiritually radioactive. 

Except in one place. That’s why Jesus’ parable of the yeast in Matthew 13:33 is so stunning:    

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”  Sixty pounds of flour?  It sounds as if she’s opening a bakery.  But Jesus’ point is that God’s reign is so transforming that if it is given the smallest foothold in our lives, the results will be spectacular.

If you think evil is relentless, Jesus says, wait until you see what the love of God can accomplish. 

A changed heart is contagious.  It rubs off on those nearby.  A forgiven spirit – someone who has felt the weight of the world lifted from their shoulders – stands out so dramatically in our glum culture that it impacts everyone in the neighborhood. 

Acts of kindness are like pinches of yeast.  So are smiles.  And expressions of gratitude.  A single candle can banish a room full of darkness. 

Choices that seem small and humble can trigger ripples that will one day become crashing waves in eternity.

We may not get to be pioneers like Marie Curie, opening the world’s eyes to a powerful new form of energy.

But we can model something even more powerfully contagious – the amazing ways that God is able to transform a human life.

If only he’s given the smallest start.