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The Land and the Farmer

Matthew 13::1-9

13That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears* listen!’

I have lived in the city until I was 30 years old and I was never really interested in gardening or farming. I did not care about the soil, the land, the fruits of the land. Least of all, I did not give much thought about farmers. Looking back, about 20 years ago, I could not understand the farmers’ struggle for land. When I came to UTS, one of my teachers encouraged me to read “America is in the Heart” by Carlos Bulosan. I read both the original in English but loved the Tagalog version more. It was in this book that I understood the peasant struggle. Before, I could not understand why farmers wanted to get a piece of the land of the Cojuangcos, Aranetas, Zubiris, Escuderos and Ayalas. In the book, which was autobiographical, Bulosan gave me a peek at the life of generations of farmers who until now struggle for land. Before a farmer can even begin to till the land, they shed blood, sweat and tears. They cut and uproot big trees and clear up what used to be a forest; they lift and transport boulders and stones; they irrigate and soften what used to be solid and packed earth. After all these are done, they wake up and work while it is dark and the whole world still sleeps, they plant under the sun or rain, irrigate the fields day after day, and pray for a good harvest. The land belongs not to the farmer but to those who went before them, the parents and grandparents, and to those who will follow, their children and their grandchildren. Bulosan made me realize how much a farmer loved the land they tilled.

In Matthew 13, 1-9, the gospel reading for Sunday, it is evident that Jesus loved the land, too. In the text, he talks about the seed, the soil, and the sower or the farmer. The succeeding verses from 10 to 23 allegorizes the same parable to explain what Jesus meant. In the allegory, the bird becomes the evil one who snatches the seed that has been sown in the heart, the rocky soil becomes the person who receives the word of God at first but does not hold on to it, and the good soil who receives the seed and bears good fruit becomes the man who hears the word and understands it. The allegory makes sense. But for this morning I do not care about the soul or the word. I want to speak about the soil, the seed and the sower. Without spiritualizing the text and connecting it to the word of God or our souls, the parable seems to be a lesson in farming. Why would Jesus talk about the soil, the seeds and the sower to farmers?

Going back to Bulosan’s book, “America is in the Heart,” the story was not just about the farmer’s love for land. When the Americans came to the Philippines and introduced a system of education, farmers wanted to send their children to school. They borrowed money and used their land as collateral. When they could not pay in time because of a bad harvest, the land was taken from them. But farmers tilled some more and when they had money to pay for their debts, the landlord refused to take payment and would not return the land. The landlord found ways to expand their land by taking the land of the small farmers little by little. This cycle went on and on until a farmer finds that there is no more land to till. Why would Jesus talk about the soil, the seeds and the sower to farmers? Because when farmers are dispossessed of their lands, terrorized by the state or the empire and denied what they have lived for all their lives, they can lose hope. They must remember that their hope is in the land.

The UTS land in Cavite is about 94 hectares. It is so big there are over 1,000 mango trees if I am not mistaken. I still cannot imagine how vast that is since our house only stands on a 150 square meter lot. Each hectare has 10,000 square meters. Hacienda Luisita, the land owned by the family of President Benigno Aquino Jr., is over 6,500 hectares. That would be 65 million square meters. It is so big it covers 11 barangays in Tarlac Province. Hacienda Luisita is so big it is almost the size of Manila and Makati combined. How many farmers were dispossessed of their lands so that one family can own all 6,500 hectares? Philippine history is ripe with such stories of landedness and landlessness; of landlords and dispossessed farmers. When Emilio Aguinaldo surrendered the Philippines to the Americans, he was rewarded with 6,000 hectares of land in Nueva Ecija. When Andres Bonifacio dreamed of genuine agrarian reform where every Filipino family would have one hectare of land to till, he was executed by Aguinaldo’s men.

In Jesus’ parable, Jesus was affirming that farming is difficult. Some of the seeds are eaten by the birds. Some of the seeds are not sown deep enough and are scorched by the sun. Some of the seeds wither away or some just fall among the thorns. But some of them fall on good soil and bear fruit “some a hundredfold, some sixty and some thirty.” Jesus lived during the time of the Roman Empire. Life was so hard that in the preceding chapter as Jesus and the disciples were passing through the grainfields on a Sabbath, the disciples were themselves hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. They were criticized by the Pharisees for it was unlawful to pick grain during the Sabbath. But Jesus understood hunger. It was in the context of hunger and oppression that Jesus implored the farmers, probably dispossessed, to keep planting even in places where it was hard plant.

Today, what do we say to farmers being dispossessed of the lands generations before them have tilled? What do we say to the families and communities of the 27 people who died in the Mendiola Massacre during the presidency of Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino and the Hacienda Luisita Massacre commanded by P-Noy before he became president? What do we say to the farmers we will meet, see and hear in the upcoming SONA with the people? Jesus exhorted the farmers in his time to continue to sow not only because people were hungry but because people, farmers, to be exact, belong to the land. In Jesus time, in Carlos Bulosan’s time, in our time, farmers have offered their blood, sweat and tears for the land – because their lives, dignity, identity and community are all connected to the land.

In this seminary, we will be enticed to allegorize, mystify, and romanticize the word of God and the parables. But we must remember what William Herzog, a New Testament scholar said, “Parables are not earthly stories about heavenly things. They are earthy stories about heavy things.” Jesus’ parables are subversive speech. Many of them are about farmers and their struggle for land. Those who us who follow Jesus must speak of the same. Amen.

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