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A 'Salesian' understanding of Mt 13:31-32

“Following on from the Strennas of the last three years, with their challenges and suggestions, here I am", the Rector Major has written," with another still more urgent, challenging and promising one. It is to do with our identity and mission. And effectively dependent on it are our more visible presence in the Church and society, and our more effective action in facing up to the huge challenges of today's world”. The theme of the strenna this year invites us to rediscover what Don Bosco wanted: to found a family at the service of the young. “Taking as a starting point the parable which Jesus used to explain the kingdom of heaven and its dynamics”, the Rector Major ventures to say “that the seed sown by Don Bosco has grown to become a leafy and strong tree, a true gift of God to the Church and the world. The Salesian Family has in fact experienced a true springtime. Under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, other groups, with specific vocations, have been added to the original groups, and have enriched communion and broadened the Salesian mission”. So then, identifying a Gospel image of the Salesian Family in the mustard seed is, I would say, rather brave, but very encouraging just the same: it was Jesus who noted the similarity between the mustard seed and the Kingdom of God, his great – his only – true passion, reason for his life and death. By glimpsing an image of the Salesian Family in the mustard seed, Fr Chávez has imagined the Salesian Family – and this is the basis, I would say, for his audaciousness – as an historical realisation of the Kingdom of God, that is, what Jesus had most at heart. It is of interest to us then to understand what Jesus wanted to say when he likened the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, so we can understand what it could mean for us today to have been a mustard seed which has grown into a strong tree. In the Strenna, the Rector Major has not offered an explanation of the gospel parable of the mustard seed nor has he given us the reason for this choice; he did nothing else but use it as a biblical icon – a visual image – of the Salesian Family. A lack of precise clues, sure hints, from the magisterium leave us, it is true, a little more free to research a Salesian understanding of the parable, but it makes our proposal also a little more hazardous. 1. “He told them many things in parables” (13:3) The parable of the mustard seed is part of a wider discourse of Jesus, the third of five which Matthew gives us in his Gospel. Mt 13 is a well-defined literary unity (13:1.53a): after the two chapters where he speaks of the conficts between Jesus and the Judaism of his time and before there is a complete break with this, evidenced by his taking refuge ‘in his home town’ (13:53b-58), the evangelist gathered different parables into a single discourse, seven (cf. Mk 4:1-34), which deal with the kingdom of heaven.  The one speaking: an evangeliser under trial Going through Galilee Jesus is presented as the Messiah, in words (5-7) and deeds (8-11). His work of evangelisation has had success amongst the people but has also given rise to a growing opposition amongst the leaders. Up till now he had spoken to them in similes and through images. For the first time he gives a discourse in parables (13,, which the evangelist has gathered at the halfway point of his larger story; this proves the importance that Matthew gives to the discourse for understanding Jesus, the mystery of his person and what sort of ministry he has. The narrator's intention is clear: proclaiming the kingdom of heaven which Jesus has been doing since, after leaving Nazareth, he came to live in Capharnaum, near the lake (4:13), and where he aroused faith but also brought incredulity out into the open. That is what Jesus has experienced up until now; he has done nothing but sow the Good News of the kingdom, which has been either completely rejected or accepted with varying results. Through the parables that he tells now, Jesus focuses on his personal experience as an evangeliser in Galilee – the first and basic level – and , in Matthew's intention – second level –, from consolation to a church which, about fifty years later, would run the risk of feeling disenchanted because of the outcome of the Gospel it was preaching. So we find emerging a picture of Jesus aware of his personal lack of success as evangeliser, a Jesus, that is, who is looking for the reasons to explain it, and explain why his work is not reaping the desired fruits; and the reason he gives his disciples makes the lack of success even more disconcerting: he speaks in parables “because they look without seeing and hear without hearing or understanding” (13:13). He asks a decision of those listening to him, always the same one (4:17: “convert”), which, when it happens, leads to understanding or, if it is lacking, hardening of heart (13:10-15).  What does he speak about: a kingdom of God which is close by The discourse of the parables is a discourse on the kingdom of heaven (13: All the parables – seven – have as a theme the unstoppable growth of the kingdom; two of them are explained by Jesus himself, a somewhat unusual fact in the Gospel tradition, but which also has good reason: Jesus, at least two times (13:10-17:34-35), justifies his reason for speaking in parables when he speaks of the nature of the kingdom of heaven. Already from the way the parables are set out a certain internal logic emerges, through which we glimpse the narrator's beliefs; from his experience as a preacher, Jesus, as “the householder who brings out from his storeroom things both new and old” (13:52), speaks of the essence of evangelisation, of its unstoppable growth and inevitable consequences. The first parable, the sower (13:3b-9), explains how the listeners to the Gospel's teaching react differently, and why: the seed does not always find good soil nor the best of acceptance (13:18-23). The seocnd, the darnel (weeds) (13:24-30), notes that the evangelist of the kingdom is not the only one to sow in good soil – the enemy was afoot while the good servants were asleep (13:25) – and the next harvest time is established as the moment for judgement and separation: good and evil must live together and the disciples should not despair. The third parable, the mustard seed (13:31-32), and the fourth, the yeast (13:33), are linked and discover a fundamental law of evangelisation, its wonderful, unstoppable growth. So we find we have passed from the act of evangelising to the nature of evangelisation. The fifith, the treasure (13:44) and the sixth, the pearl (13:45-46), are also linked, and highlight the joy that the discovery of the kingdom produces, such that whoever finds it can get rid of everything he has up till now in order to keep what he has discovered. The seventh, the net (13:47-50), concludes the discourse by recalling that the good must live with the bad till the end of the world, when there will be the inevitable rendering of account.  Who is being spoken to: a public which is categorised according to its capacity to understand The group of Jesus' listeners has doubled, like the sermon on the mount, a large crowd near the lakeside (13: and the disciples, at home (13:36.51). He speaks to the crowd in the open (13:1-35), but only in parables (Mt 13:1-3a.10b.13a.34); for the disciples, he adds a clear explanation (13:10a.18.36), at home (13:36-52): the people – ‘they’, Jesus calls them with certain detachment: 13:11.13 – hear the word about the kingdom; the disciples – ‘you’ 13:11,18.19 – are are introduced to an understanding of the kingdom (13, It is significant that the disciples, amazed by the fact that Jesus speaks to the crowd only in parables (13:34), ask Jesus: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (13:10). Jesus' answer could not be more shocking: “Because the mysteries of the kingdom are revealed to you, but they are not revealed to them…; The reason I speak to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding” (13:11.13). And what he adds is even more disconcerting, even seems unjust: this behaviour – Jesus comments – fulfils the Scriptures (Is 6:9-10: “You will listen, and listen again but not understand, see and see again but not perceive. For the heart of this nation has grown course, their ears are dull of hearing, and they have shut their eyes, for fear they should see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and be converted and be healed by me”) Whoever does not see in Jesus the secrets of the kingdom of heaven becomes even blinder before the Kingdom of God. Access to the Kingdom or exclusion from it are decided by the acceptance or denial of Jesus and his teaching; faced with Jesus, neutrality or indifference are not possible, since it is God and His Kingdom which are involved. Where this is noted there is also an opportunity: becoming followers of Jesus leads to ‘understanding’ the secrets of the kingdom. But – and this becomes still less acceptable – “knowing the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” is given freely to Jesus' disciples. “to you it has been revealed…, but not to them” (13:11). When Jesus finishes speaking, the disciples say yes to his question: “have you understood all these things?” (13:51): they will know the things of the kingdom, even if told in parables, because being disciples of Jesus, it will be given to them to do so. Their living with the Master allows him to explain the parables to them, but they will understand them because they will be given the grace to understand the secrets of the Kingdom. The discourse is an urgent appeal to live with Jesus and become, through public listening and private explanation, his disciples: but success comes only through undeserved grace.  How does he speak: in an ‘obscure’ kind of way Introducing the discourse, Matthew says that Jesus “told them many things in parables” (13:3). The parable, the telling of an anecdote, allegory, a similitude developed as a story of events, was not a way of speaking invented by Jesus, but was preferred by him, to the point where it became a feature of his teaching. Indeed, according to what Matthew says, it is the way God chooses to explain the mysteries of the Kingdom (13:10-17.34-35, cf. Is 6.9-10; Ps. 78,2). Normally the parable, a story about nature or daily life, presents a fact “that strikes the listener as alive and original and leaves him in little doubt about the image's meaning, which is enough to provoke thought” and action. The parable takes daily life as a sign of God; the experience of shared and proven existence becomes a manifestation of God; just like the life that has been spoken of so is God's behaviour. However the parable does not mirror life as it is, even if it present's life's facts, but rather how it should be; it calls the listeners' attention but does not give information, rather does it call for conversion. The parables Jesus tells, more than being comparisons, speak about daily life to illustrate some generic teaching – they are not proverbs! – , they are stories, whose composition and terms recall Jesus' way of thinking, his strong and most intimate beliefs, his personal view of the world and, especially, his personal faith in God. In concrete, the theme of the parabolic discourse in Mt 13c onfronts a very sorrowful reality for believing Jews, firstly for Jesus himself, then, no less, for the first Christians coming from Judaism (Rm 9-11): not all of israel accepted Jesus, neither as preacher of the kingdom of heaven during his ministry, nor as Lord and Son of God, after his resurrection. The mystery still remains today. Matthew's Jesus seeks to given an explanation in parables to everyone, with further, clearer instruction to the disciples. 2. “… like a mustard seed” (13:31) One day, “the day of the parables” (13:1), Jesus, having left home (Mt 12:46-50), sat on the shores of the lake. Sitting there, ready to teach (5:1: on the mount), he was at the centre of the crowd's attention, to the point where Jesus had to get into a boat with his disciples (13:10). Jesus finished his part of the sermon to the people, with two brief parables (13:34): 31And he told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field. 32It is the smallest of all the seeds but when it has grown, it is the biggest shrub of all and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and shelter in its branches’. 31And he told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast, a woman took and mixed it in with three measures of flour till it was leavened all through’. 34In all this Jesus spoke to the corwd in parables, 35indeed he would never speak to them except in parable. This was to fulfil the prophecy I will speak to you in parables, and expound things hidden since the foundation of the world. The parable of the mustard seed , which takes up again the theme of sowing (13,3.24), is presented by Matthew attached to the one of the yeast; forming a kind of diptych, symmetrical in structure, and even with some some lexical commonalities; they need to be interpreted together, then. They tell of two different situations, true in themselves, corresponding to human tasks,the farmer, and a woman as housewife; both present the growth of something which, in principle, was hidden, as an image of the kingdom of heaven, i.e. the mustard seed and the little bit of yeast; the man and the woman are not images of the kingdom, but their actions are. The second parable, the yeast, is more condensed; it has no connection with any biblical text and it lacks the note of description which explains the contrast between the smallness of the beginnings and the greatness of the result, even if implicit in the opposition betweeen the tiny amount of yeast and the huge mass it must work on. The two chief characters, the man and the woman, are seen in their normal daily grind: sowing and baking bread. We need to note that the two activities, common and domestic as they are, support life and family. Choosing this comparison is not accidental. The mustard seed, sinapis nigra, is a shrub, not really a tree; it is planted in a garden (Lk 18:19), not in a field. It would be an exaggeration to call it a grain, since it could be about 1 mm. wide, though the smallest of seeds; the expression, nonetheless, has become proverbial (in Mt 17:20 it appears as an image of the power of faith that can move mountains); hyperbolic, also, in saying it becomes a plant, bigger than other legumes (13:22). The idea it wants to convey is smallness of size, irrelevance of the ssed with regard to the mature plant, that in a single season could reach up to 3 or 4 metres, where the birds could make a nest , though rather unusual as a detail; along with the effect of its full size, then, is that of its development which makes it possible to host the birds. In the parable it is not said (Lk 13:19) but supposed that there is an eschatological element, a long wait, for Israel, according to which Israel would end up being a great kingdom and home for the Gentiles (Ez 17:23.31; Dt 4:9.18). The [parable of the] yeast, a fermenting agent, does not overlook the contrast between the limited amount and the huge mass to be leavened; but it adds an important connotation: the hidden nature of the yeast which transforms the dough, makes it expand, rise and gain in volume: the yeast becomes effective, slowly but irresistably, only if it is hidden and mixed in. Three measures of flour (Gn 18:6) would correspond to more than 20 kilogrammes of flour, enough bread to suffice for more than 100 people, an amount which is excessive for a normal housewife. The choice of yeast as an image of the kingdom is somewhat bizarre, even if it is taken for granted that it has a vital force (Mt 16:6; 1 Cor 5:6-8; Gal 5:9). Usually yeast is seen as something necessary but impure and causing corruption: only unleavened bread could be used in the Temple, and during the week of the Pasch only unleavened bread was used (Mk 8:15). There is the idea of hiddenness here however: Jesus spoke to the crowds about the kingdom in parables (13:10), hiding its mysteries (13:13: “because listening they do not hear or understand”), and he likened it to a seed under the ground (13:31), yeast in the dough (13:33), buried treasure (13:44).. Concealed, the kingdom of God transforms the world: anyone waiting for something spectacular and noisy will be deluded: God, as usual (Jn 5:17), works as yeast fermenting things from within, ceaselessly. The two parables, similar enough to be seen together, regard then the true nature of the kingdom of heaven, the form to be achieved. They do not touch however on the specific problem of the different reactions to Jesus' preaching, already dealt with in the parable of the sower: rather do they offer information on how God the King comes: what usually happens with the mustard seed and yeast, happens with Him, this is how God becomes king. The smallness, the imperceptibility, the irrelevance of the beginnings could sow doubt and lack of trust in the actual strength and future effects. But the extraodinary result expected makes its denial more mysterious. The parables wish to comfort those who accept the Gospel and warn those who deny it. This is why the accent is on the contrast between the initial smallness and the magnificent finale. Growth is mentioned only incidentally (13:32). The mustard seed parable is inspired by Ez 17:23 where the prophet speaks of a pruned branch, Israel, which becomes a large cedar, and Dt 4:9.18, where in a dream Nabuchednezzar sees a huge tree, where the birds of the heavens, the people of the earth, take shelter (cf. Ps 104:12; Ez 31:6). In both cases, in the kingdom all nations can find protection and room, survival and a home. The perspective of the image looks not to those taking shelter under the tree, but to the huge capacity it has to accept everyone. In the parables a certainty of deep faith shows through: in the modest beginnings of Jesus, much more modest than that of other reformers in Israel, one can already recognise the magnificent finale. There is another element in the two parables: even if the clear conttrast is between the smallness of the beginnings and the greatness of the final result, it is understood that everything does not come about in a single moment; growth, fermentation requires long periods which we cannot see but there needs to be a prolonged invisible period till the seed/yeast becomes mature and big. The two parables then have a focal point: the obvious contrast between the insignificant beginning in the present and the exceptional great result in the future highlights the real confrontation between the proven scarcity of Jesus' mission and that of the early Christians and the certain lively expectation of the Kingdom of God to come. Jesus' parables have to amaze, even somehwat 'throw' their first listeners: a huge tree (Ez 17:2-10.2-24; 3:3-18; Dt 4:7-12.17-23), not a small garden shrub, would have been a more appropriate simile to describe the Kingdom of God, which it was imagined would bring about the definitive victory of God over Israel's enemies. The Kingdom of God is very different from the desires which nurture those awaiting it and from the images they build up; but more decisive still, it is already here, at its beginnings, but already present and active in its irrelevant and apparently ineffective apostolic labour of Jesus and the first preachers. It is not the seed, not the yeast which is a sign of the Kingdom then, but what happens to them: growth, fermentation, concealed but not containable, is the analogy of God's way of acting. While the beginning is the time for proclamation (Jesus, community), the result is the Kingdom of God. In the seed and the yeast there is the power which transforms invisibly but effectively: the kingdom of God is the fruit of the Gospel's proclamation, whether it is Jesus or his disciples who preach it; the end, resplendent and beyond all expectations, is already at the beginning. Jesus' words are a pressing invitation to see the present moment not only with anguish, but to glimpse already now the irresistible force of the divine presence: the comparison does not only explain the opposition between what is, a miniscule and hidden seed, and what will happen, something great and useful, the tree and the bread; it asserts rather, that what there will one day be, is already alive and life giving, even though hidden and small. The manifestation of God's kingship is insignificant, if it is considered in its beginnings either with Jesus, or in the Christian community. But the sower – Jesus, the Church – lives with the hope of being projected towards the promises of God which are witnessed to in the Scriptures. The evangelist already glimpses the foretaste of the achievement of the missionary openness to the pagans (8:11; 28:19): in two phases, spoken by Jesus and in the Matthean preaching, the parable is a profession of hope; trust in a resplendent finale strengthens the patience we need to have now. beginning with Jesus the field hides the seed, and the dough is leavened by the yeast, even if we do not see it as yet; God, even if we do not see him, is at work; his kingdom has begun. 3. … the seed sown by Don Bosco “have you understood all these things?” (13:51) Jesus asked his disciples at the end of the discourse. And they, a little too easily, said yes. It is my hope that this might also be your response, but I would not dare ask you. The parable of the mustard seed hands on Jesus' teaching on the kingdom and his experience as a preacher, his belief in the presence of God in the humble beginnings of the preaching about the kingdom, the preacher's trust in the extraordinary power of the Gospel. Jesus speaks to everyone, but – let's not forget it– it is hidden to many and revealed only to a few: “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven have been revealed to you,but not to them” (13:11) What should we, the Salesian Family, draw from the parable chosen by the Rector Major to identify us as Don Bosco's family? What has been given to us to recognise in the mustard seed simile? No parable says everything that could be said, and not even what should be expected or what we would want to hear. The parable of the mustard seed, like that of the yeast, does not speak of family in general at all, much less so of the Salesian Family in particular, but of the kingdom of God, its tranquil but surprising power, its invisible but constant effectiveness. The kingdom comes about through hidden energy and with unequal results, to be experienced in gratitude by whoever succeeds in hearing and understanding God's plan or as a warning for whoever has not been granted an understanding. Comparing the marvellous growth of the mustard seed with the surprising growth of the Salesian Family allows us, I believe, to see the Salesian Family as:  the 'Salesian' realisation of the Kingdom of God Living a personal faith and a common vocation is for us the charismatic way – the 'Salesian' way, I would say – of becoming the “kingdom of God”. As Salesians we are called to build the kingdom of God amongst the young on earth: our mission is Jesus' mission, not to serve our own interests but to make God's plan a reality. “Don Bosco dreamt of a many-sided mission to the young and to the poor and welded the efforts of as many of those who shared his educative and saving plan into a vast movement. The prodigious fertility of the Salesian Family, a significant phenomenon of the perennial vitality of the Church, is witness to this” (Common Identity Card 2). “Awareness of a spiritual kinship and common apostolic responsibility has brought about fraternal relationships and exchanges amongst the groups and a uniqel presence in the Church especially amongst needy youth” (CC 2): the many groups which make up the Salesian family today “form a single vital organism” and “intensify, especially, the efficacy of their witness to the Gospel, [and] render its proclamation more convincing; they extend the penetration of the spirit of the Beatitudes in the world, and augment educative love for the most needy” (Common Identity Card 3). The Salesian, religious or otherwise, makes the kingdom of God present if and when he or she gives birth or growth to the Salesian Family; indeed, I would say as a Salesian, there is no other way to bring the kingdom of God into reality amongst the young.  what is happening for the evangelisation of the young The parable of the mustard seed is a picture of how the kingdom of God grows once the Gospel has been sown. The RM has seen how it also represents the growth of the SF. But the kingdom, and the Salesian Family, will grow only if, like the mustard seed, it is first sown. Once sown, the seed grows without pause, sometimes imperceptibly but always effectively. The merit does not go to the sower, be it Jesus himself, his Church, the Salesian Family, but to the seed – the Gospel – which leads to an explosion of life, an irresistible reproductive force. the progress of the seed, the vitality of its hidden energy, is always without explanation but evident: it seems to be a tiny seed, but all the birds of the air find room in its branches. “All of Don Bosco's work was the result of simple catechism and evangelisation and catechesis, which indicate its breadth and depth, and are a fundamental dimension for the Salesian Family”. If the Salesian Family takes on the “commitment of the contemporary Church, new evangelisation” (CM 28), it will have done no less than return to its origins and remain faithful to the “prophetic richness of Don Bosco” (CM 4). To succeed, however, it must, like Jesus, like Don Bosco, rely on the overwhelming strength of the Gospel more than on its own resources and abilities, hope in God's promise more than the expectations of the young. A characteristic element of the evangelising passion of Don Bosco was in fact – as Fr Chávez reminds us in his closing address to GC 26 – “ the belief in the leavening value and transforming function of the Gospel” . If to evangelise today is “the chief urgency of our mission”, the Salesian Family will be an evangelising family only if, while recognising and suffering from the apparent ineffectiveness of its work, it believes in the irresistible and always conquering force of the Gospel.  an evangelisation which is maintained, patient, but sure of itself and its results The message of the parable of the mustard seed is, precisely, to highlight the contrast between an initially small and unseen reality and its surprising final success. But the one who said it experiences humiliating defeat for the lack of success of his ministry; against the evidence, speaks of his ‘faith’ in the vital power of the seed. Jesus the evangeliser did not succeed in converting all those who heard him, and instead succeeded in making some enemeies amongst them; aware of his personal failure, he was nonetheless certain of God's effectiveness in making his kingdom work like the mustard seed [and the yeast]. This belief of Jesus was consonant with his apostolic experience, an experience which cannot really be thought successful; and for this, it shows a profound attitude of faith: faith in what and how he acted nurtured his firm hope. Faced with the few conversions he gained, it is a hymn of faith in the expansion and transforming power of the kingdom of God. The Salesian Family can feel that it is correctly identified with the mustard seed: “more than a hundred years after his death" Fr Vecchi wrote " the Salesian phenomenon has not ceased to cause astonishment for its geographic extension and the growth in the number of its groups, which with their own individual characteristics, look to Don Bosco as the Father of a great spiritual family” (Common Identity Card Preface). But to have grown ‘miraculously’ is not enough, if the growth does not continue: to bring about the biblical image, and Don Bosco's dream, we have to become not another great plant, but “the greatest of… trees, where the birds of the air come and build their nests in its branches’”. While there are young people to be taken in to ‘nest’, the Salesian family cannot cease nor take rest; while there are young people to save, it can think of nothing else but to grow and give life, give its own life.  Understanding ‘these things’ is a gift from God Jesus concluded his discourse of the parables of the kingdom by asking his disciples if they had understood; they said yes (13:31). Earlier, the disciples had asked Jesus why he spoke to the people only in parables (13:10). The reasons Jesus gave disturbed the disciples much more than his condensed way of speaking to the crowd had: “because the mysteries of the kingdom have not been revealed to them” (13:11). “The Salesian Family has experienced a true Springtime”, to the point where it represents an already surprising realisation of the kingdom of heaven amongst the young. “Today it is evident to everyone how much the Salesian Family has increased and multiplied the work achieved and everything we have dreamt about; the field of activity for the benefit of young people and adults has extended beyond limits. We are grateful to the Lord for this and are aware of our huge responsibility”. Born of God's grace, the Salesian Family will be the grace of God for the young if it lives by recognising – and especially because it does recognise - that God is present through its existence, offering his salvation “like a mustard seed” (13:31). To live as a Family our common Salesian vocation is the proof that we have understood the mysteries of the kingdom and that we are the recipients of God's gift.

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