This is harvest season where I live in the northern hemisphere. As a matter of fact, most crops are already in, even though we had warmer weather and later frost than in recent memory. Our garden (except for the Brussels sprouts) has been put to bed; we won’t be gathering anything again until the asparagus starts around the first of April.
John the Baptist uses harvest as an agricultural metaphor for our spirituality.
John is the odd uncle you tolerate (maybe even genuinely enjoy) at your family holiday dinner, but you don’t want him around all the time. The camel hair outfit can even be cute in an eccentric sort of way, and you don’t mind serving him a jar of honey, but frying up those locusts just about makes you gag. (No wonder the honey is required.)
John’s ascetic lifestyle demonstrates that we don’t need showiness to express the message of God. Like a Hebrew prophet, John distills that message in ways that are graphic, and about as unpalatable as locust fricassee.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. … ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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.’ [from Matthew 3]
“Prepare the way of the Lord” is a familiar passage for John’s crowd, and they eat it up, coming by droves to be baptized. But when the Pharisees and Sadducees show up he calls them poisonous snakes—not exactly a very welcoming approach. Then he blasts them with more complicated imagery.
Wheat and chaff.
Dictionary.com defines chaff as “the husks of grains and grasses that are separated during threshing.” The chaff is inedible, indigestible. (More than locusts??) It is only removed by the threshing process after the wheat is harvested, and then it’s destroyed in the fire while the wheat is carefully stored to nourish the people until the next harvest.
Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do the right thing. Always.
But “always” isn’t really a possibility, is it? It’s hard to tell if the words are aimed at the Pharisees and Sadducees, or to the crowd—probably both. Sadducees and Pharisees were often dissed in the gospels for an external, showy spirituality while neglecting the heart, and also for ignoring justice and poverty concerns.
We, too, make mistakes, some of them terrible ones with grave consequences. That’s where the repentance is important. Yes, JtB, we hear you. Faith isn’t just about coming out to the wilderness to be entertained by preaching and then washed in the river. It’s a lifetime of bearing fruit. It’s a continuing movement toward God, ever imperfectly.
We bring forth “wheat” by working for justice, loving God and neighbor, exhibiting faithfulness. The “chaff” is all the other stuff that doesn’t belong—the stuff that doesn’t lead to life.
The fruit of all our actions takes the form of both wheat and chaff—things that are life-giving and things that ought to be discarded. The hard beauty of it is that God sorts it all out in the end.
© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier