“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 with unquenchable fire.” It is arresting to hear Luke call such statements “good news.” The words strike many as harsh because few who read them today long for the world around them to come to an end. The world’s economic and social realities serve the basic needs of many today, and losing those structures would cause great hardship.
‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ (Lk 3:16)
How do you use your gifts to serve God’s dreams?
If the world ended today, would you feel loss or relief?
This was not the case in Jesus’ day. The Roman overlords of first-century Palestine imposed the kind of economic and political structure that we would now call imperialism. The primary beneficiaries were distant officials in Rome or province capitals. Below them were local collaborators who benefited in small ways from the wealth they gathered or the submission they enforced. The rest of society labored to secure these benefits for them. Members of this remainder group came from a variety of backgrounds. Some had significant wealth or social standing but refused to collaborate. Others were quite poor and suffered constant insecurity. Either way, the structures of the world as they understood it did not serve their basic needs. Many dreamed of an apocalyptic day when God would sweep these realities away.
Social structures begin in the human imagination. People with access to wealth or power can project their imagination deep into the material world. Sometimes their imagination provides great gifts; sometimes they simply use it to exploit. John the Baptist’s call for transformation and repentance was a call for a world in which human imagination would work in concert with God’s. And God’s dream bore little resemblance to the world the Romans had created. God demanded that slaves be freed, debtors forgiven and foreigners welcomed.
Entering God’s imagination requires inner conversion and external signs that a transformation has occurred. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, this is easiest for the poor, who have everything to gain if the structures of empire give way to the imagination of God. It may come as a surprise to us that tax collectors and soldiers too sought John’s baptism and trusted him to recognize in their obedience to his direction (not taking more than what is legally theirs, not harassing or blackmailing people) a sign of their conversion. Roman rule may have looked invincible, but the readiness of these “local enforcers” to hear a different message reveals its shaky foundations. They also sought a different world.
The structures of the world may serve the needs of a much wider group of people today than they did in Jesus’ day, but they still impoverish and exploit many. Luke identifies the comfortable classes of his day as the ones most resistant to the Gospel. Christians today must discern carefully whether they have fallen prey to the same temptation to resist Jesus’ preaching for the sake of their own comfort. Even if the world serves their needs, the Gospel calls them to be at the side of those who would feel relief if the present world were swept away.
When Christ comes again, may he find his disciples comforting a victim of human trafficking, giving encouragement to a homeless addict, repairing the damage inflicted on an abused spouse or mentoring an abandoned child. By these signs he will recognize their transformation. These disciples will be the wheat he gathers into his barns.