I DON’T know who it was who composed the song “Magtanim ay ‘di biro.” The English version translates it quite accurately: “Planting Rice is Never Fun.” The song talks candidly about the hard work that it takes for farmers to produce the rice that we eat at table.
I have a feeling that this song was written in reaction to the tendency among urban painters to romanticize the rural life of Filipino farmers on canvas. He may have wanted to burst the bubble of romanticism behind the realistic paintings produced by the likes of Amorsolo portraying idyllic and rustic scenes of farmers in the countryside, of men in colorful outfits basking under a yellowish sun riding on carabaos, barrio lasses in their patadyong dancing the tinikling, young girls in their printed dresses winnowing their palay with their bilaos.
I imagine the composer looking at these expensive paintings and saying, “But it’s not like that at all! You make it look so easy and so ideal and so peaceful.” What is reality like for our countryside farmers? For many of them it is misery. You see it in their burnt faces, their calloused feet, their worn–out bodies. You talk to them and you’ll understand why their children would rather go abroad to Saudi Arabia, why their parents would rather sell their carabaos to send their children to school so they could find jobs in the big cities.
You listen to their stories – how our own government agencies try to modernize their farming methods and introduce new varieties that require herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides and all sorts of expensive chemical products. They borrow money from usurers for each planting, and when they harvest, they have to pay their debts so they could borrow again and there is hardly anything left for their children to eat. You have the whole irony of people who work themselves to death to produce food while they go hungry themselves.
Soon, they get so disillusioned, they find no way out of poverty, they join insurgency movements and then they are hunted down like terrorists. Meanwhile, in the cities, you have children who are totally clueless how the food that they eat is produced. They think beef is canned from the start, and that it is produced by machines. They have no idea anymore what a live chicken looks like, or that the fish have to be caught by fishermen before it turns into fish fillets on their tables. They don’t know how long it takes for an eggplant to bear fruit or that the fruit salad that they eat came from various fruit trees, that they had to be raised and ripened and picked and transported and processed before they were put in cans already diced and cubed and mixed together in syrup.
In our Gospel today, we’re told that Jesus uses parables to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. Apparently, they noticed that Jesus made an extra effort to explain things to his followers or to get his disciples to understand his parables, and they wondered why he didn’t do the same thing for others. And, if I may paraphrase what he meant in his answer, what he is saying is, “There is no point in sowing the seeds if you have not, first of all prepared the ground for the planting.” Some people do not realize that the most important part of the farmer’s task is not the planting but the soil preparation. Otherwise, you just waste the seeds.
And somehow, Jesus succeeds in applying this metaphor on various types of hearers of the Word. Not all of them are ready for it. There are those who are not disposed for the Good News, he says. They look and they do not see; they hear but they do not listen. Their hearts and minds are dull. You don’t expect the seeds that fall on a soil that is hard like a footpath, or full of rocks and weeds, to be able to grow and bear fruit. Farming is not as simple as you might think it is. Planting rice is not all just fun. It involves a lot of hard work, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Sometimes, just when it is ready for harvest, your crop can still be destroyed or wiped out by a typhoon.
It goes the same way with proclaiming God’s Word. Often there is a tendency to romanticize things, to over-spiritualize. There are people who think that preparing a homily for us priests is just a matter of sitting in a chapel, getting instant divine inspiration through prayer and contemplation. God will not speak to us inside a chapel if we do not also allow him to speak to us through the daily news and developments in society, the daily encounters with real flesh and blood people, people who are lonely, hungry, abused, traumatized, struggling with addictions, people who go through crises in relationships, people in search of life’s meaning and purpose, etc.
There are those who expect us to entertain them when we give homilies. There are those who take offense at our efforts to apply the Gospel on social realities, on advocacies for human dignity and sound ecology. They threaten to walk out when we call attention to societal injustice and human rights violations. “Absolutely no politics! Stick to religious and spiritual discourse!”some would openly admonish us.
There are also those who think the Gospel can be proclaimed only by the experts, those who regard evangelizing as a matter of spinning words, of skills in public speaking, of saying things that are pleasing to the audiences, or of putting together harmless thoughts and ideas, like things about a fantastic heaven for disembodied souls being serenaded by winged angels playing harps while floating on clouds.
There are those who don’t understand why this Word which comforts the afflicted should sometimes afflict the comfortable. They expect it to console and give hope, but they do not want it to also disturb, convict and judge like a two-edged sword.
Sometimes, God’s Word comes, not to pacify, but to bring down fire. It does not always unite; it can also divide as at the tower of Babel; sometimes it destroys before it can rebuild. It is not meant to just massage people’s egos. It can be subversive. It can call into question certain attitudes, certain things we take for granted.
Proclaiming the Word of God is no different sometimes from what the farmer does on the soil to make it disposed for the planting. You cannot cultivate it if the soil is hard, dry and barren. You irrigate it to soften it, and then when you plow it, you turn the soil upside down to be able to clear it of stones and weeds. You mix it with manure and decomposed rubbish to fertilize it, to make it welcoming to the seeds.
Sometimes I wonder what the early missionaries who came to these islands had to go through to be able to evangelize. Of course, there were those among them who were tempted to make short cuts, to do things the easy way, those who just relied on the patronage of the conquistadores, those who thought it justified to subjugate first and then “Christianize” the natives whom they called “pagans”, as if evangelizing was a matter of giving them Christian names, building stone Churches for them. There were those who equated evangelizing with proselytizing, those who entered easily into political compromises with tribal leaders to gain “mass conversions” and perform “mass baptisms.”
But there were martyrs among them too, those who took pains to immerse themselves first, learn the language and the culture, those who took time to make friends and build community, those who defended their human rights and refused to allow religion to be used as a tool for oppression. There were those who came not to bring God to “pagans” but to find God among them, those who took time to prepare the ground, to make sure that the seeds of God’s word would fall on hearts and minds that have been formed in good will, justice and mercy, care and compassion for the last, the least and the lost.
Next year we’re supposed to be celebrating the 500th year of Christianity. Not everything that happened in the past 500 years is worth celebrating. We have to learn to do our own plowing and weeding, and sifting. Not all the fruits of the past centuries are worth harvesting. It is often when we think that everything depended on our efforts that we end up with fruitless toil.
Perhaps we must constantly remind ourselves that we are just laborers in the vineyard. Ultimately, our master farmer is God himself. The song that we sing at lauds in the Liturgy of the Hours says it well:
“We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. All good things around us are sent from heaven above. So, thank the Lord O thank the Lord for all his love.”
(Homily for 12 July 2020, 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 13:1-23)