His Winnowing Fork Is in His Hand
“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. 12 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.”—Matthew 3:11-12 (New Revised Standard Version)
John the Baptist and the Other Prophets
This passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew is an excerpt from the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A. In this passage, John the Baptist makes his appearance, admonishing the people to repent because the realm of God is at hand. These two verses are part of his words excoriating the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a “brood of vipers.” He goes on to say that someone is coming after him with a winnowing fork in his hand.
What is a winnowing fork and what does it mean to winnow? Winnowing is the process of separating wheat grains from their husks. A winnowing fork is used to throw the grains into the air and let the wind do the work of getting rid of the lighter husks while the heavier grains fall back to the ground for recovery. We see the Hebrew prophets repeatedly using winnowing as a metaphor, often in a negative context. God is going to cast people away like chaff (husks) or the enemies of Israel will be scattered like chaff. John the Baptist appears to be following the example of his predecessors when calling out the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Unfortunately, this metaphor is often used as a justification for exclusion, for defining who is “in” and who is “out.” Growing up I was taught that some people were going to be thrown into the fire and burned up like the discarded husks. Usually, this was anyone who wasn’t like us. However, I would like to think about winnowing in a more positive light.
Separating the Wheat from the Chaff
Deciding to follow Jesu is not a one-time ecstatic conversion experience. Rather, following Jesu is a conscious, deliberate decision that we make every day, every hour, every minute. Every day, we seek to become more like Jesu. Part of that ongoing process is the shedding of what keeps us bound to old patterns and old ways of living; we need to separate ourselves from the husks. St. Paul says that we should renew our minds (Romans 12:2). In the same letter, St. Paul speaks of laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light (Romans 13:12). In what sounds a lot like the wisdom of Appalachian matriarchs I grew up around, the Sufi poet Hafiz of Shiraz writes “The Beloved sometimes wants to do us a great favor: Hold us upside down and shake all the nonsense out.” This is a perfect description of winnowing. It’s not a once-and-done sort of thing, but something that happens daily (or more often). The winnowing away of what keeps us from God is a concept we hear about a lot during Lent, but remember that Advent also calls us to examine our lives and renew our relationships with the Divine. It’s often not easy or pain-free, but growth often requires some effort and maybe a little tough love.
Sometimes letting go of the husks in our lives can be painful. What are/have been the husks in your life? What keeps you from following Jesu? What do you need to shed in order to grow spiritually?