The Wheat and the Chaff

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent. Zep 3:14-18; Is 12:2-6; Phil:4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18

One of the most common objections to Christian teaching about the nature of God is the problem of evil in the world. If God is good, and God is all powerful, why, then, is there evil in the world that God has created? Why, in particular, do evil people appear to prosper, at least for a season, and the good suffer injustice and persecution? Indeed, the lives of those in today's Gospel underline the problem: both John the Baptist, who proclaimed the coming of Christ, and Jesus himself, whom John proclaimed, suffered persecution and execution. Why is the world like it is if God is good and God is all powerful?

Well John the Baptist himself suggests an answer to this question in today's Gospel. John gives a prophecy that the present state of the world is only temporary; he says, "Someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I am ... he will Baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out." Now in this prophecy, John is putting together two events: the First Coming of Christ, who brings a new Baptism, and the Second Coming of Christ, with judgment. This judgment is presented to us by means of a symbol drawn from agriculture, the time of harvest when the fruits of the earth are collected and the wheat and the chaff are separated. The wheat, the fruit of the earth, symbolises those who become fruitful in the love of God, in particular, those who have the Fruits of the Holy Spirit, symbolised by fire. The chaff, by contrast, is just a kind of husk, an empty shell, symbolising the emptiness or futility of evil. John states that the wheat and the chaff will be separated, a process associated with tribulation. So John tells us that Christ's first coming brings us the means to be fruitful in the love of God, and that Christ's second coming will be the time when those who are fruitful, the wheat, will be separated, finally and definitively, from those who are fruitless, the chaff. So a first answer to the question of why good and evil co-exist in the world today is that this is only a temporary state of affairs. The time of judgment, of the final separation of good and evil, has not yet come.

This answer, however, raises another question. Why exactly is there an intermediate time, when good and evil are mixed? Well, the Second Letter of Peter tells us, "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance" (2 Pet 3:9). In other words, God's patience is a great mercy that is given to us: we have been given time and means to become wheat, to cease to be chaff and to become fruitful. All of human history, for the last two thousand years, has been this time of mercy. Those who lived and died before us, now some eighty generations of Christians, had this opportunity to become fruitful, and we too have this opportunity in our own time.

So what, then, should we do? Two virtues are, I think, especially highlighted in today's Gospel. First, one of the remarkable aspects of John's ministry is that many people, including notorious sinners, were prepared to journey out into the wilderness to meet him and receive his baptism of repentance. The virtue that seems to be emphasised here is humility: the humility to recognise that we cannot perfect ourselves - we have to ask God for help. The modern sacramental equivalent of this humility is to acknowledge our sins in confession and ask God for help. The second virtue that is emphasised in today's Gospel is divine love, sometimes called supernatural love or 'charity', as shown by John's exhortations to those who have journeyed to see him. Perhaps surprisingly, John does not tell the tax collectors to cease to be tax collectors, or the soldiers to cease to be soldiers. What he does tell them is to transform the manner in which they do their work, "Exact no more than your rate ... No intimidation or extortion ... Be content with your pay!" Similarly, we should all, as Christians and whatever our employment, act according to the precepts of justice guided by love, not merely what the rules permit us to get away with. John also urges acts of charity, "If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same." The emphasis here is to change from a notion of morality based purely on rights over one's property, to a morality based on divine love. A kind of morality based on divine love looks on everything that we have been given as a gift, not a right, a gift that is for our own fruitfulness or to be given generously to help others to be fruitful. What is evil, however, has no humility or divine love; such virtues are only obtained through God's grace.

In conclusion, therefore, as we prepare for Christmas, may God give us humility, that we may constantly seek grace from him for our lives to be fruitful. Yet above all, may he share with us the fire of his divine love, that our own lives and our world will be transformed.

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