One thing that Jesus taught on quite a bit was the harvest of people for God. This subject was not uniquely Jesus’, nor was the metaphor of a harvest. Many rabbis of the time used this language to teach their disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven. The harvest in rabbinic literature is about gathering men and women to be followers of God’s rule now, in this life, so that they may inherit eternal life in the World to Come. So the metaphor of the harvest was used by rabbis to discuss eternal life. You see this in Jesus’ teachings, for instance, in Matthew 13:24-30 where the harvest of wheat are those who will be saved.
To shed some light on this subject from Second Temple Judaism, let’s explore a quote from a famous rabbi that I didn’t have time to cover in my summer class, Rabbi Tarfon, as he teaches about the harvest of people, and how our time is short. But, like a Jewish rabbi, he’s bluntly honest about the situation at hand. Let’s dig in.
What we know about Tarfon’s is not much. We do know that he lived in the late first and early second centuries AD. He was of priestly descent, but by the time he became a teacher, the temple had been destroyed and the Sadduccees were no longer a political power. Rabbi Tarfon was a respected colleague of Rabbi Akiva, and was one of the last known mainstream rabbis to adhere to the School of Shammai. According to Dr. Brad Young, Tarfon was “known for his ability to answer difficult questions relating to Jewish faith and practice using his extensive knowledge of the scriptures.” (Young, Meet the Rabbis, 189) One of the things that Tarfon stressed more than anything else was action. In fact, he is recorded to have had a famous debate with Akiva over this very subject where Akiva stressed study and Tarfon stressed action.
The Day is Short
I was reading through Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) in the Mishnah when I came across this quote by Rabbi Tarfon which highlights his emphasis on taking action instead of studying all day:
“(1) The day is short, (2) the work formidable, (3) the workers lazy, (4) the wages high, (5) the employer impatient. ”
–Rabbi Tarfon, Mishnah Avot 2:15
It’s quite possible that Tarfon is also taking a jab at his rabbinic peer Akiva who stressed study over action by saying “the workers are lazy”. Regardless of that, it is in this quote that you can see Tarfon’s passionate desire to teach God’s word to people. He casts God in the role of the employer, and even goes so far as to say that He’s impatient. Now, is God really impatient? Of course not, and Rabbi Tarfon knew that. So what is he saying? He’s saying that God eagerly desires for you to take His word to those who do not know it and so your human mind can wrap itself around the teaching he compares it to an impatient employer.
Jesus said something very similar to Tafron in the Gospels:
“As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.” (John 9:4)
“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:37-38)
Jesus affirms Tarfon’s statement, that the day is short and there is plenty to do, but not enough workers to do it. Jesus, however gives us the remedy for the problem: prayer. When was the last time you prayed for more harvesters?
Jesus may point out that prayer is the answer, but Tarfon also gives us something interesting. He highlights that even though time is short, the task at hand is near impossible, and the rewards are great, those who have been commissioned to do the work are lazy. It seems like Tarfon is talking to us today, because many Christians, those who have been commissioned to do the work, are just plain lazy (many times I also suffer from this spiritual ailment). And many times it seems like the task is too hard and that we aren’t even making a dent. Ever feel that way? You know you’re doing good, but it feels like there’s no way to reverse the problem (poverty, crime, addiction, etc). It just feels hopeless, and so, we quit harvesting. Thankfully, Tarfon addressed this too when he said:
“It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it.”
–Rabbi Tarfon, Mishnah Avot 2:16A
Don’t worry about finishing the work (the overall goal) – that’s not your job. The work of the harvest (bringing people to God so that they may inherit eternal life) has been started and your task is to carry it on. Yes, it’s hard – impossible even. But remember what Jesus said when he was talking to his disciples about inheriting eternal life:
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)
God started it and God will finish it, but until then, it’s your job to work hard. The wages are high for those who do the work of the Master. Don’t be lazy and remember to work hard, for time is short and night is coming.
Peace to you,