The Winnowing of John
How Rene´Girard helps me understand John the Baptist
When John the Baptist was calling people to repentance and baptizing them, he spoke of the coming Messiah as one who would winnow the wheat from the chaff, collect the wheat into his granary, and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:17) A fearsome prophecy to be sure!
But John also envisioned a Messiah that would fulfill something Isaiah had prophesied long before: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:4-6, quoting Isaiah 40:3-5)
The first 20 verses in Chapter 3 of the Gospel According to Luke record John the Baptist’s expectations of a soon-to-come messianic figure. I used to read all of John’s prophetic expectations as if they had come directly from God, through the mouth of John the Baptist. Verse 2 even reads, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” I no longer understand them all this way. Why? Because Jesus didn’t understand them that way. Hang with me. I’ll explain.
Rene´Girard was one of the leading thinkers of our time. Cynthia Haven of Stanford News called Girard, “a provocative sage who bypassed prevailing orthodoxies and “isims” to offer a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history and human destiny”. The Guardian recently compared his writing to “putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus”. Girard’s anthropological approach to the Bible is revolutionizing how we understand Scripture, ourselves, and God.
Perhaps Girard’s most striking and controversial proposal is that God is not violent - that there is no violence at all in God.
Now, if you’ve actually read the Bible, this might sound nonsensical. God is portrayed in many places in the Bible as being extremely violent. (The Flood of Noah and the Canaanite Genocide are just two examples.) Girard however detects an evolving understanding of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, culminating in the non-violent revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For a good introduction to Girard’s thought I recommend reading Compassion or Apocalypse? by James Warren or Desire Found Me by Andre Rabe. Rene´Girard’s observations have helped me to better understand John the Baptist, Jesus and myself.
John’s Dualistic Expectations
If you pay close attention to the expectations John the Baptist expresses of the coming Messiah, you’ll see two distinct trains of thought.
In verses 4-6 of Luke 3, quoting Isaiah, John expects a Messiah that will level something. He speaks of valleys being filled, mountains being brought low and crooked places being made straight. I call this “leveling language”. The Messiah will level access to the kingdom of God. We see Jesus doing this by preemptively forgiving sinners, giving sight to the blind, and healing lepers - (people who were thought to be under the curse of God according to Deuteronomy 28). Jesus even leveled access to the kingdom so much that he told the religious leaders that tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom before them! (Matthew 21:31) In verses 10-14, John sounds much like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, counseling people to be generous, advising tax collectors not to collect more than they were authorized and instructing soldiers to be content with their wages and not to extort money.
But John also expects a violent, wrathful and judgmental Messiah. In verse 9 John says, Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” In verses 7 and 8, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Even verse 16, which is often viewed in retrospect as referring to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with tongues of fire on the Day of Pentecost was actually John’s preface to verse 17, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” When John said of the Messiah, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”, he wasn’t thinking of the Day of Pentecost…he was thinking of a Messiah that would pour fiery judgment down on evildoers.
The contrast could not be greater. In one moment, John expresses a vision of a Messiah who will open access to the kingdom of God to everyone. In the next moment this same Messiah is wielding an ax and a winnowing fork denying access to the kingdom and throwing people into unquenchable fire.
Do you see how different these two expectations of the Messiah are? For years I didn’t. I just combined all these radically divergent ideas into one composite figure named Jesus Christ. If we saw these two opposing types of characteristics in anyone today, we would call that person troubled if not psychopathic, yet this is the Jesus many evangelists are trying to sell to the world. This is the kind of God we encourage people to worship.
What makes this whole passage even more bizarre is verse 18, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” So, which of John’s expectations should I consider the good news again??? I don’t think I can take much more of John’s “good news”.
John is clearly expecting two things from the Messiah:
1. He will gather the wheat (righteous) into his granary (kingdom)
2. He will burn up the chaff (evildoers) in unquenchable fire
Then and There Expectations
Often, when we read of “unquenchable fire” in the Bible we immediately shift into “eternity mode” and think about Hell. John doesn’t have a post-mortem Hell in mind here at all. He was, like most Jews of his day expecting the Messiah to deliver Israel from Roman oppression then and there. He was, like many Jews expecting a Messiah who would cleanse the Temple system of its corruption then and there, not in some post-mortem future. All of John’s expectations were rooted in his day and time. He was expecting the Messiah to lead a violent overthrow of the Romans similar to what King David had done in Israel’s glory days, and that battle would be a fiery judgment in the first century.
Full of the Spirit – John Recognizes Jesus
John the Baptist is said to have been full of the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb and John was the first person to recognize Jesus for who he was, saying “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. Jesus even said later of John, I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28) So John got a lot of things right, but Jesus said that even the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John, or, even the least in the kingdom of God will know God better than John did.
Repentance and Expectations
Ok. John is calling people to repentance, which means, “Change the way you think”, NOT “Be sorry for what you’ve done”. Repent is translated from the Greek word, “metanoia” and has nothing to do with feeling sorry. It means to have a change of mind – to think differently.
As John is preaching and calling people to change the way they think, some ask John if he is the Messiah. Let me say that again, people ask John, a deeply conflicted wild-man prophet, wearing sackcloth and subsisting on a diet of bugs if he is the Messiah. Holy locust breath Batman! These people were thinking, like John, that the Messiah would be simultaneously gracious, angry, welcoming, vindictive, forgiving and wrathful. They were anxiously expecting this kind of Messiah. Sadly, this is the Messiah I was raised to expect too. This is the kind of God most of the evangelical and charismatic church has been promoting for centuries, but it’s not the kind of Messiah Jesus turned out to be.
Jesus comes to John the Baptist and is baptized by him. Jesus then goes into the wilderness for 40 days where he is tested. He returns, calls his disciples and begins his ministry. Meanwhile, John continues to baptize and call people to repentance. John though, is critical of Herod, the ruler of the Galilee region. Herod had taken his brother’s wife to be his own and John was calling him out for this and some other evil things he was doing. This landed John in prison. While John is sitting in prison, Jesus is turning water into wine, teaching in the synagogue, preaching the Sermon on the Mount and is busy healing and delivering people. In Luke 7 we see Jesus healing a Roman Centurion’s servant, raising a widow’s son from the dead, and continuing to heal and deliver many people from sickness and oppression. Some of John the Baptist’s disciples see Jesus doing this and they report back to John what Jesus is doing.
When John hears what Jesus is actually doing, he’s perplexed. He sends his disciples back to Jesus to ask him a question; “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:19) This is the same John, filled with the Holy Spirit who correctly identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” but now he is having second thoughts. Why, because Jesus is only fulfilling half of his messianic expectations. Jesus is only gathering the wheat! He’s not burning up the chaff! And even some of the people Jesus is gathering (like the Roman Centurion) are the enemy in John’s eyes. People like this should be getting the ax! Jesus was even forgiving and healing people that the Torah said were cursed by God (the blind, lepers, cripples). Jesus was simply not fulfilling both sides of the two-faced Messiah John was expecting.
When John’s disciples ask Jesus, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another, Jesus answers with this:
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:22-23)
The Winnowing of John
In his answer to John, Jesus is doing some winnowing, but its not the kind of winnowing John was expecting. Jesus is winnowing John’s two-faced expectations of the Messiah. He is winnowing out John’s judgmental, wrathful, vindictive messiah and throwing that into the fire. At the same time, Jesus is reinforcing the other side of the Messiah John was expecting, the one who would level access to his kingdom by giving sight to the blind, making the lame walk, cleansing lepers, opening deaf ears, raising the dead and preaching good news to the poor.
Are You Offended?
Jesus completes his answer to John by saying, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Why would Jesus finish with this? I think its because Jesus knew that John would likely be offended with a Messiah that wasn’t judgmental, wrathful and vindictive. John would likely be offended with a Messiah that wasn’t going to wreak holy havoc on the Romans. Jesus knew then that people don’t like it when you take away their angry, wrathful god. Sadly, people today can get just as offended. Sure, we love the Jesus who forgives US, but we really want him to take the ax to THEM. We love the Jesus who rushes to heal us but we cheer on the Jesus who winnows out them. But Jesus doesn’t have two faces.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 1 John 1:5
Jesus doesn’t have a dark side. Depending on your perspective this can be really good news, or, if like John you’re looking for a God to destroy your enemies, it can be offensive. In Girard’s language, it can cause you to be scandalized.
The church in America today is at an intersection. One side of this intersection can be likened to John’s conflicted expectations of Jesus. If the church continues to worship and promote a two-faced Jesus – a Jesus who we use to make us feel good about ourselves and feel justified in destroying our enemies, the church will continue its slide into irrelevance. That is a Jesus we’ve constructed in our own image.
Alternatively, the church can allow Jesus to winnow the misconceptions of God from our minds, hearts and hands until the church becomes again, the Body of Christ to the world. Jesus may offend some of our deeply held beliefs in the process, but if being a Christian means to be like Christ, isn’t it our only faithful option?
Jesus, I repent of thinking wrongly about you. I ask that you winnow any incorrect ideas I have about you from my mind and destroy them in unquenchable fire. Help me to face any offense that may arise in me and give me the strength I need to follow you. Help me to attain to the “least in the kingdom of God” by rejecting any vindictive, judgmental portrayals I have of you. Amen