I use to live in the great state of Kansas. Kansas is known as the “bread basket” of the world. I remember driving on the highway and you would always see these signs, “1 Kansas farmer feeds 128 people + you.” Now I wasn’t a wheat farmer in Kansas, I was a priest, but I did learn a few things about the wheat harvest. When the harvest time came everyone worked in the fields so I would go out and visit the folks in the field.
Things have changed a great deal since the time of Jesus but basically the operation is the same. First you cut the wheat, and when you cut it you take everything, the stalks, the grain, the waste. Then you thrash the wheat, you have to hit it to knock the grain off the stalk and then you winnow it. Winnowing it is simply throwing it up into the air and the wind takes the chaff, and the wheat, because it is heavier it falls to the ground. In Kansas this all done by combine in the field, the chaff is left in the field and the wheat is taken to the barn.
In preparing the people for Jesus John says that Jesus is like a wheat farmer, he is going to separate the wheat from the chaff: the wheat will be saved, but the chaff will just be gathered up and burned. I think of this gospel in the same way of Jesus the good shepherd, the shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats. Or like the vine grower earlier in this chapter who cuts away those that don’t give fruit. The image I have is separating the good from the bad. The good people from the bad people and then I get worried because I wonder am I good or am I bad?
I think that I am good, but then I think of people like Saint Theresa of Calcutta, Pope Francis or St. John Paul II and I think I am not that good, I must be the chaff. Then I think of people like, Adolf Hitler and Ho Chi Minh or most politicians and I think well maybe I am not that bad. The thing is I am not always sure. The truth is that some parts of me are like chaff, and some parts of me are like good grain. And maybe that is the answer. The analogy isn’t about separating good folks from bad folk, maybe it is about separating out the parts of me that aren’t good, taking away my chaff so that I will be even better. I don’t need to compare myself to Pope Francis or even to Adolf Hitler. I just need to admit that though I may be good I can be better. Jesus can take away some of my chaff. But how? I think we find the answer right in today’s gospel.
John came preach a gospel of repentance. And the people came out to him to be baptized. I have been baptized; all of us have been baptized. By living our baptismal calling we are allowing Jesus to drive the chaff from our hearts. We are allowing God to plant the good grain. Baptism is not a one shot deal for us Catholics. It is not something that our parents did for us when we were born. No, baptism is living the life of our faith; it is the constant call of conversion. The best way to live out our baptism is to live the sacramental life of the Church, to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation to receive communion.
Living these sacraments we allow Jesus to winnow out the chaff and leave the good wheat behind.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta had a way with words. She could say with just a few words something of deep meaning. She once said, “Saints are only sinners who keep trying.” That is something that I can do. I can admit that I am a sinner, I can admit that I have failed but I don’t give up, I continue on. I ask for forgiveness and begin again.
We are called to do the same. We are called to separate the chaff from our lives, but to separate the chaff means that we know that we are good, that the good grain is present in our life. We are good and becoming better. We keep trying. I think that is how we drive the chaff from our hearts and let the good wheat take root. We admit that we are sinners and we keep trying.