Aggadah, the non-halachic portion of rabbinic writings, often enshrines wisdom which is worn smooth with the passage of time, like stones in an ever-flowing stream. Between now and Shavuot we are reading one passage of Pirkei Avot each week. We started last week with Chapter One. We continue this week with Chapter Two. The passage we chose contains a pair of such smooth stones, stones which will be useful to slay a Goliath or two in your life.
The first stone is Pirkei Avot 2:20, translated as saying, “The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent.” Anyone familiar with the Newer Testament will find this stone reminds one of other smooth stones found in the stream of the B’rith Chadasha—the Newer Testament. Consider these:
John 9:4 – We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.
Romans 13:12 – We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.
John 4:34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. 36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
The common denominator in all these passages is the urgency of doing the work to which God has called us. Pirkei Avot reminds us that an additional factor is the laziness of the workers, and who can deny having noted how our level of responsiveness falls short of the urgency with which our God views the matters he commits into our hands? Yes the master is urgent, and the wage is abundant, but how are we doing? How are we doing as a movement in accomplishing the task to which God calls us?
In my view there is great confusion in Messianic Jewish circles as to what we are supposed to be up to. I believe God wanted the movement to be a sign, a demonstration and a catalyst of God’s consummating purposes for Israel. And those purposes include what I term The Son of David Agenda, from Ezekiel 37:21-28 – Jewish return to the Land, Jewish unity, Jewish repentance-renewal, Jews living in allegiance to Yeshua our Messianic King, Jews returning to Torah obedience, the Jews as a people experiencing the fullness of the Divine Presence, and God being vindicated in the sight of the nations as Israel’s God, and the Jews vindicated as His people.
Are these the purposes which drive our movement? I think not. But “The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent.” This should give us something with which to wrestle.
Rabbi Tarfon then gives advice that has helped me often in life, and should help you as well, when he says, in verse 22, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.” His point is this: Just because you are not sure you can bring things to completion, don’t exempt yourself from doing what you can. This is good advice in every area of life. Yeshua told a devastating parable that highlights the wisdom of this quotation from Rabbi Tarfon. Here is Yeshua’s parable, from Matthew 25:
14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.[c] You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
What’s the point? The last servant made an excuse for not doing what he could! Yeshua and Rabbi Tarfon are sharing the same wisdom here: Some people make excuses, others make arrangements. What kind of person am I? What kind of person are you? In view of the fact that “The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent,” are we making excuses or are we making arrangements? Are we doing what we can? That is all that God requires—but he does require it. We are not free to desist from the task.
Are you making excuses, or are you making arrangements? God knows. Do you?