His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. Matt 3:13
The gospel reading for the second Sunday of Advent concludes with this verse. It is part of John the Baptist’s prophecy about the one who would follow him, the Christ.
Many years ago on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic I watched a man separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. I didn’t get a picture of it, but it’s an image that has stuck with me.
At the edge of the small village of Canoa, DR, I noticed a large pile of some kind of small, light brown bean piled on the dirt, covered with a green tarp. The pile was just outside a two-room, mud-brick home, not far from where we were laying blocks to build a church.
One windy morning a man approached the pile with a home-made tool that looked like a hybrid between a shovel and a rake. He would toss shovelfuls of the beans in the air, letting the wind blow away the chaff.
Such a sight was probably common in Jesus’ day, though rare for us. The man sifted the beans all morning. Then he began scooping them with his hands into a gunny sack. I remember thinking about the words, “separating the wheat from the chaff,” as I watched him.
The text makes it pretty clear that John the Baptist knew he was not the winnower, the sifter. His words are strong and direct as he admonishes different groups to get their act right. “You brood of snakes,” he calls the religious leaders. “Who warned you to flee the wrath to come. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
John the Baptist calls people to repentance since the kingdom of God is coming near, but his role is not to separate. As he names the truth of others, there is indeed a judgment, but it is not the judgment that writes them off or casts them aside.
In practice, that’s not an easy distinction to make, and the church hasn’t always done a good job with that either. We’re often guilty of labeling, condemning, and casting into unquenchable fire, so to speak, those who don’t measure up. How much harder it is to speak the truth in love, but to leave the winnowing to God.
And if we were appropriately busy with bearing the fruits of repentance - demonstrating justice, mercy and love in our actions – we would have less time or concern for the separating. The beans I saw sifted had substance, had weight, and fell back to the earth to be gathered in. We, however, have the ability to choose, whether our lives are lived with substance, or whether the wind will carry us away.