Pirke Avot 2:20

Rabbi Tarfon says:

The day is short,

the task is abundant,

the laborers are lazy,

the reward is great, and

the Master of the house is insistent.

Rabbi Tarfon lived about 100 years after Jesus.  The underlying concerns in the statement above circulated in lots of forms among the earliest rabbis, including Jesus.  In the Gospel of Luke (10:2): “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few…” What are the underlying concerns in this part of our shared wisdom tradition?

  • Our time is short.
  • There is a lot to be done and few folks are doing it.
  • The reward is great, because it matters to the LORD.

Let’s look at these a bit more closely.

Our time is short.   This does not reflect, in my thinking, any assumption of apocalyptic “end of the world” thinking.  I think the underlying thought is that our lives, whether they are forty or fifty or sixty or seventy or eighty years long, are still quite short.

A major theme of the Wisdom Book of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) is that death is real and is our destiny.  Truly grasping that we will die – today, tomorrow or in thirty years – is a major element of a mature consciousness.   Most Jews and all Christians believe that death is not our final destiny – but that should not lead us to discount the significance of death for our lives in this world.

Knowing that our deaths are on the horizon we ought to get up each morning grateful for another day, another chance to love someone, another opportunity to learn and grow, to take pleasure in a beautiful day or a cold glass of water.

Knowing that our deaths are on the horizon, we ought to get up each day determined to be what we were created to be – rather than to live a life pursuing ephemeral things like more money, more stuff, more power.

There is a lot to be done and few folks are doing it.  Christians often read this sort of statement as calling for conversion of unbelievers, and I think there is an element of that.  But perhaps the heart of it is more oriented to the individual rather than the world.  The task of being faithful to our creator, of being faithful to our relationship with the creator as expressed in the Torah for Jews or in Jesus Christ for Christians, of being “human” as God created us to be – this is our life’s work.  We never arrive, in this life, at the destination.  We are never done and can never rest on our laurels.

Few folks seem to fully grasp this.  While our world has many learned and truly good people – many take the easier route.  Perhaps it is laziness and perhaps it is simply that they do not know any better. What is true for both Jews and Christians is that the strongest and clearest way to help others is to live our own lives with integrity, honesty, and all the other values that Torah and/or Jesus Christ have to teach us.  It’s not what we say that ultimately matters, but what we do.

The reward is great, because it matters to the LORD. The reward – is it something that we receive in this life (the joys of an authentic life, even though it can be tough and heart-breaking)?  Or is it something that we receive after this life (living on in the memory of others, making an impact on the world, eternal life)?  Or both?

We know that it matters to the LORD – that is why from the beginning the LORD created us, has loved us, made a covenant with us, has forgiven us, and will continue to love us into the future.