Wheat & Chaff

2nd Sunday of Advent (Year A)

A babe lying in a manger. Shepherds guarding their flock by night. Eggnog and candy canes. These are the images we typically associate with the time of year leading up to Christmas. But what images do we find in our gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent? A brood of vipers. A coming wrath. An unquenchable fire. What happened to the candy canes?

John describes Jesus in this gospel passage (Mt 3:1-12) as having a winnowing fan is in his hand. Winnowing is a technique used in agriculture to separate grain from chaff. A farmer at harvest time wants to collect and save the grain, which is useful to make bread. But there is also a lot of other plant material; things like husks and straw. All of this is useless; all it is good for is burning.

John says that Jesus will “gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff” (the useless stuff) “he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This is scary stuff for those who are not prepared. This is why John calls for us to “prepare the way of the Lord!”

We want to be wheat and not chaff. If we are acting more like chaff, we need to repent, or change our minds (from the Greek metanoia). This is obviously a metaphor, so what does it mean in real life?

Chaff is defined by what it is not. There is no part of the plant called “chaff.” The farmer wants the grain. Chaff is the useless bits. So let’s be blunt about it. You are chaff when you are useless to God.

That sounds harsh! What would make you useless to God? There is a saying that “God don’t make junk,” so why would He make you useless? The answer is that He didn’t! God made you for a reason. He made you with a purpose in mind. Your primary purpose is to know and love God, and your secondary purpose is to love your neighbor. How each of us specifically lives out this purpose is called our vocation

God made us to love so we become useless if we refuse to love. Each sin we commit is a failure to love God and/or neighbor (usually both) to some degree. Each sin we commit is a decision to act against God’s purpose for us. Sin is useless, and it makes us useless. It makes us chaff.

St. John’s call to repentance is a wake up call to stop being useless! Search your soul! Seek out and identify whatever sins lie in your heart and change your mind about them while there is still time.

Before the Master of the Harvest comes in justice at the end of time, He comes in mercy at the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4). Before He comes to winnow the wheat from the chaff, He comes to lay His head in a bed of hay. I’m speaking, of course, of the first advent of Christ in Bethlehem that we celebrate at Christmas. The name Bethlehem literally translates as “House of Bread.”

It is interesting that John the Baptist uses the metaphor of chaff and wheat, because Jesus describes Himself as wheat. Referring to His own death and resurrection, He said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). Wheat is used to make bread, and Jesus referred to Himself as “the bread of life” (Jn 6:35). So for us to become wheat means becoming like Jesus. 

Jesus is our model of love. If you want to be wheat, strive to be like Jesus! Cooperate with His will. His will is for us to “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). This is what you were made for. God did not make you to be useless chaff but to be wheat, like Jesus is wheat by giving your life for the good of others.